Clementine Churchill

First Lady – The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill

By Sonia Purnell

Aurum Press 2015

ISBN: 978 1 76131 306 0

RRP – $45

Reviewed by Anne Henderson


Margo at WarMargot at War – Love and Betrayal in Downing Street, 1912-1916

By Anne De Courcy

Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2014

ISBN: 978 0 297 869 832

RRP – £20 (hb)

Reviewed by Anne Henderson



History has a lot to thank twentieth century feminism for. Big men history is no longer enough. Battles won, leaders idolised and public office recorded will not do. Gaps in the human tide must also be filled. A convincing view of greatness must not only include bold public achievements but also the private lives behind such accounts. Greatness has been humbled and the education of women has forced such transparency. Emotional impacts, relationships, the psyche, home as well as the office – all are part of the story.

Letters between husbands and wives, lovers, romantic triangles reflected on in private correspondence and in interviews with family and contemporaries, hidden rivalries, illnesses, psychological weaknesses and, more especially, the publicly hidden but intensely influential role of consorts and partners now fill memoirs and biographies and the history of power. Historical memory is no longer complete without the full human picture.

It is unsurprising then that two recent books on the wives of two British wartime prime ministers have thrown new light on their spouses. That the word “war” features in both titles should also not surprise – both women, while very different in character, held their own forts against many challenges.

Sonia Purnell’s First Lady – The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill and Anne De Courcy’s Margot at War – Love and Betrayal in Downing Street, 1912-1916 take their readers through some spicy and revealing British history while detailing not only riveting times but also a patchwork of upper class British life when the British establishment indeed ruled Britannia.

However, while British establishment women had a front row seat, the ruling was very much done by their menfolk. And it was not unusual for those men of the ruling class to cast aspersions at the frailty of women generally while leaning very heavily on their wives and other women for emotional and even material support.

The masculine opinion of where women belonged in the scale of intellectual activity could be summed up by comments such as those from the young Jock Colville, when Winston Churchill’s private secretary in 1941: “[It is] a waste of time and exasperating to talk to most women on serious subjects. Sex, the Arts and the Abstract seem to me the only topics to discuss [with them].” Churchill himself dismissed the female gender in his novel Savrola, describing his character Lucile as, “Woman-like she asked three questions at once”.

By 1913, Margot Asquith, with her wealthy background and in spite of mounting debts, was supporting not only her husband’s extravagance but that of his older children by his first marriage. And this while, to his wife’s despair and discomfort, Asquith made his name notorious for his lovesick pursuit of his daughter’s friend Venetia Stanley. Women were very clearly in the support contingent, with loyalty and the ability to play hostess among the important traits required. Meanwhile, few females of the upper classes were permitted the advantage of tertiary education.

To be a formally educated woman was to be tagged a blue stocking. In spite of Clementine Hosier (later Churchill) being a success at Berkhamsted High, especially in French, and ensured of an academic place, her mother Lady Blanche put paid to such “university nonsense” by arranging for a wealthy relative to chaperone Clementine’s launch into London society and – in time – a good marriage. Ironically, it would be Clementine’s need to earn a living (teaching French), and her ability to discourse about many topics of interest, which attracted the young Winston Churchill to her.

On an evening when a tired, home from work Clementine was forced to make up the numbers for dinner by her London chaperone, Lady St Helier, her dinner companion turned out to be a very late arriving Winston Churchill who “paid her such marked and exclusive attention the whole evening that everyone was talking about it”. The attraction, apart from her beauty, was that “never before had he met a fashionable young woman at a society dinner who earned her own living … she already knew far more about life than the ladies of cosseting privilege he normally met, and she was educated, sharing his love of France and its culture”.

Both authors have immersed their upper class subjects, at the seat of power, in the world of their eras. A world of servants and few holidays for any other than the rich. A world where national pride came with poor working class conditions. A world where those who dominated government, as De Courcy puts it, were just “2000 families – many of them related, some linked by marriage, others by long-standing friendships”. A world where the centre of global influence was a country where primogeniture meant the vast estates of these families represented some 90 per cent of all the land in Britain. For all that, Asquith, whose father had been a wool merchant, made his way up through study at Oxford and opportunity in politics.

In so many ways, Clementine Churchill and Margot Asquith could not have been more different, but it is this world of upper class privilege that connects them. Neither woman could be said to lack forbearance or temerity and yet their life-saving loyalty to their respective husbands saw them bow to the prevailing mores.

Clementine Churchill did her best to influence her husband to look more favourably on women’s emancipation. She failed, and thereafter took up a more successful guidance of her husband’s career. Margot Asquith, for all her headstrong opinions, was a fierce opponent of the suffragettes as her husband faced their physical attacks as well as abuse.

Both women took particular care about their fashionable clothes – yet their obsessiveness had quite different origins. For Margot, whose face had a plain and severe outline after a riding accident, it was the uncertainty of her looks, aided by overhearing uncomplimentary comments on her lack of beauty at sixteen, made by her mother, that saw Margot begin to make “style and chic” her forte. For Clementine, it was a dysfunctional early family life among a variety of unloving adult guardians and a single mother who, in spite of being the daughter of an earl, managed her children’s lives just short of penury. Clementine thus experienced more of the real world than other children of her class but she would forever be anxious over her position in society, her talents and her appearance.

Sonia Purnell has set out to fill a void – the lack of any widely understood picture of Clementine Churchill and her contribution as the life-time partner of one of the modern world’s best known heroic leaders. Purnell’s portrait is superb and it shows how Clementine Churchill was more intrinsic to her husband’s success than anything else. It is not wrong to say, after reading Purnell’s account, worked from the many letters, diaries and accounts by contemporaries, that without Clementine as his devoted and politically astute spouse, Winston Churchill would have faded from history some time after World War I, to be known thereafter as an impetuous and failed MP who wrote interesting history.

As Purnell writes early in the biography, using Churchill’s son Randolph as a source, unlike other powerful men Winston Churchill was “not tremendously fired up by sex” – “ambition was the motive force and he was powerless to resist it”. However, he felt he needed a wife. Seeking one, he was turned down by various young beauties until he persuaded Clementine Hosier. The two were a special match – both were the children of exceptionally promiscuous and neglectful parents and neither had won parental love. This would affect their approach to conjugal loyalty, although neither would prove to be a hands-on parent of any note.

But they did fall in love – a love that endured untold moments of stress and Churchill tantrums, even surviving Clementine’s desire for a divorce in 1935 soon after her romantic four months sea voyage escape from her difficult husband sailing to the East Indies on Guinness heir Lord Moyne’s Rosaura. Clementine would always play second fiddle to her husband’s ambitions and possessiveness of her time and devotion. Their marriage survived, however, because of a bond that was never severed. In the first three decades of their married life, Purnell writes, “Winston and Clementine were united by a common project: making him Prime Minister”.

The Churchill trajectory to Number 10 took many twists and turns, and survived some spectacular descents and blunders, alongside an impulsive temperament in the man himself who often showed a lack of judgement. His good friend Violet Asquith observed that while he had the ambition and drive for politics, Winston lacked the antennae. He would find that gap filled in Clementine – even if he ignored her good advice to his own detriment on occasions. From the trenches, he would write to Clementine rather than his favourite “pals”, his mother and Violet Asquith. Soon he would recognise his wife as his “vy wise & sagacious military pussy cat”.

As First Lord of the Admiralty, as World War I started to unfold, Churchill became infatuated with the “volatile” Admiral Lord Fisher (“my dear” Jacky Fisher to Winston) who was brought in from retirement to become First Sea Lord. Fisher was egotistical, explosive and constantly threatening to resign but never actually going. But whatever his failings or criticism others made of Fisher, Churchill made excuses for him as if devoted to the older man. Fisher even tried to undermine Clementine telling her that Churchill was in Paris with a lover. Clementine detested the man.

As the Dardanelles campaign was being planned, Fisher made erratic changes and when the early advances proved disastrous he blocked Churchill’s attempts to send further naval reinforcements. The Dardanelles campaign quickly spelled the end for Churchill, and his reputation has ever since been shackled with his responsibility for its failure. Clementine, however, stood loyally by him and offered her best advice – that her husband should join up and spend time at the front. He did.

Yet, within a couple of months, with Clementine working fiercely to smooth relations for her husband in London, arranging meetings with the Asquiths and so on, Winston decided he would come home. He was given ten days leave in March 1916, a time during which Clementine hoped he would continue the charm offensive she had put in motion. From the front, Churchill sent her lists of instructions for his arrival, tasks and meetings to organise that exhausted her. For all that, once home, Winston blew his chances by going into the Commons to give a speech that made a clear case against the Navy’s inactivity and ended with a bombshell as he argued that Admiral Jack Fisher should be returned as First Sea Lord, the very man who had caused Churchill’s downfall.

After his leave, when he and Clementine had hardly a moment to be together, Winston returned to the front in continuing disgrace. Clementine advised him to stay there until he could be welcomed home, smoothing his hurt ego with arguments that his Commons speech had gone down badly because people did not “understand” it.

And so the Churchills would continue. Clementine smoothing and covering for a self-indulgent and ambitious son of the aristocracy; Churchill adoring her but forcing her on along the road of his obsessions. Like a spoilt child, more often than not.

Clementine’s presence in her husband’s life often became fraught, but at any serious suggestion that she would throw in the towel or resign her confidant’s role, he would write begging her forgiveness and making it clear he could not go on without her. More and more, she was asked to check his speeches, hear out important moments of strategy. During the Second World War, Eleanor Roosevelt was not advised of the D Day landings until the eve of the event, but Clementine was kept fully informed as they were planned. She counselled her husband throughout.

To outsiders and family, there were times where Clementine appeared highly strung and frail or needing extra care. In Churchill’s “wilderness years” during most of the 1930s, she would take to her bed at the worst of times – what Purnell describes as the result of “nervous exhaustion”. The Chartwell “regulars” expected their hostess to be on call but her husband’s demands left Clementine in poor health. She also suffered depression, which was not diagnosed until the 1950s. One painter guest at Chartwell – William Nicholson – had the cheek to send illustrated notes to her bedroom addressed to “Mrs Churchill in bed”.

Winston was impulsive and the one in charge – he would scoff at moments of indebtedness, work on new ways to earn some money or be pulled up by the kindness of friends. She, meanwhile, worried that he would blunder into another disaster and that they would run out of money. Their daughter-in-law, Pamela Digby, estimated that while Clementine devoted her life to Winston, she may have spent up to eighty per cent of their marriage without him. And, as they moved house and juggled the bad times, it was Clementine who had to manage the shifts, the children, the uncomfortable arrangements; Winston would absent himself to better digs where he could work and entertain.

Clementine came into her own during her husband’s years as PM, overseeing weekends for select international visitors, especially the Americans in 1941 as Churchill desperately tried to bring them onto the war, and charming heads of state. The Churchills also supported their daughter-in-law Pamela in her notorious work in London as party hostess to significant visitors, where the bedroom became as important as the drawing or dining room and she was tasked to pry information and report back to Number 10. Clementine toured the country and boosted the spirits of local groups from factory workers to volunteers. In the First World War she had run a network of canteens. Her iconic turban headwear at the time was a strategy to cheer people up – looking smart and appearing in good spirits was her way of saying Britain could yet win.

Chartwell, the country manor house Churchill bought on a whim only to tell his wife later, cost them a fortune over time. After her husband died, Clementine did not sleep another night there. It was soon handed over to the National Trust and, under her instructions, was returned to its layout and appearance in the 1930s.

Long separations certainly saved the Churchill marriage, but it was more than that. Their letters – and there are many as a result of the separations – show that while Winston knew he could not endure any loss of Clementine, his wife also realised he had given her a life of excitement and stimulation she could not have found elsewhere. She loved the challenges as he did. They just wore her out. As he did.

Margot Asquith likewise loved the life her husband had offered her. A wealthy heiress, and unmarried, Margot at twenty-five writes De Courcy, “was friends with most of the cleverest men in the country”. But when it came to marriage, it had to be a man of substance – or as her friend Lord Curzon advised, she should marry for the long haul not for youth and good looks. So Margot passed on the news to the love of her life at the time, Evan Charteris, that she would be marrying the widowed Home Secretary, Herbert Asquith. Asquith himself was aware Margot did not feel for him as he did for her but after their marriage they became a devoted couple.

In compressing her portrait of Margot Asquith to the three years around a time of domestic and international upheaval, De Courcy intimately and sharply captures expertly both a tragic and enlightened portrait of her subject. Margot Asquith loved entertaining, revelled in society gatherings from the bohemian to the elite and was often regarded as empty headed for her apparent shallowness. Yet her quirky sharpness of mind comes through from a snippet written by Chips Channon who stayed with the Asquiths and recorded them at leisure:

Mrs Asquith, distraite, smoked and read the papers during luncheon, and occasionally said something startling like, apropos of spiritualism, “I always knew the living talked rot but it is nothing to the nonsense the dead talk.” She also said she could not help being sorry for ghosts – “Their appearances are so against them.”

As her marriage to Asquith and its difficulties reveal, Margot Asquith had judgement, tenacity and style. While the Asquiths were for years a devoted couple, the possessive nature of Asquith’s only daughter by his first marriage, Violet, gave Margot years of strain. So much so that, as she grew to an adult, Violet made it almost impossible for Margot to have any private time with her husband. Asquith also indulged Violet and, as he began his pursuit of Violet’s best friend Venetia Stanley, his time with Violet away from Margot added to her burdens.

The four years covered by De Courcy take her reader through Asquith’s fall from the leadership of the Liberal Party and loss of prime ministership – during all of which Margot Asquith gave loyal support. That his fall owed as much to his distraction and dalliance with Venetia Stanley – confiding in her about government decisions and the war, exchanging letters, many written in Cabinet meetings, and so on – as to his weakening hold on his colleagues was all the more a bitter irony for Margot.

But Margot held the line. In time, she married off Violet, and watched on as Venetia gave up Asquith (there is no evidence the relationship was ever consummated) and married the second son of the 1st Baron Swaythling – Edwin Montagu – for whom she converted to Judaism. The Asquith marriage prevailed.

In these portraits of prominent women partnered with historic figures of British history, there has been a rounding out of the historical record. Neither man, Asquith or Churchill, is fully understood without knowing the part played by their strongest supporters, their wives. Both women, in different ways, not only make their partners’ stories complete. Their stories also offer profound insights into how Westminster functioned and how its subjects have been governed.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War