First Lady: the Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill, review: 'fascinating account of an under appreciated woman'

Geoffrey Lyons reviews Sonia Purnell’s enthralling new biography of one of Britain’s most misunderstood figures

Clementine whispering "congratulations" to Winston as the Conservatives clinch victory - Photo credit: PA

By Geoffrey Lyons

08 Jul 2016

By Sonia Purnell, Aurum Press, RRP £9.99

“Here lies a woman who always was tired / For she lived in a world where too much was required.” So went a couplet that Clementine Churchill would recite to express how exacting it was to be married to one of Britain’s most famous leaders. According to Sonia Purnell’s riveting new one-volume biography of this much neglected figure –“overlooked and unexplained” in the author’s words – these doleful recitations were made well before Winston arrived at Number 10, so the real work was only just beginning. 

Adversity, however, was a factor since Clementine’s childhood, a period Purnell brings to life in heart-rending detail. We learn, for example, that one day as she left her family’s country home in Alyth, Scotland, her poodle Carlo, who was her “principal emotional crutch,” followed her to the station where he was struck dead by a train. Clementine never quite recovered from the incident, which wasn’t helped by the near absence of maternal support in her life. According to Purnell, tenderness from Lady Blanche was rarely forthcoming, to the extent that the more Clementine needed the more she was snubbed. This coldness apparently originated from Clementine’s failure to accept one of her mother’s hugs as an infant – a point from which she “never was to gain a secure place in her mother’s affections.” Purnell later draws a convincing connection between this early neglect and Clementine’s self-effacing devotion to Winston. 

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And yet, Clementine’s relationship with her husband was characterised by much more than devotion. It’s clear from their correspondence – a key part of Purnell’s source material – that she was not just emotionally supportive and occasionally instrumental in advancing his prospects, but rather indispensable in paving his pathway to the premiership. In 1915-16, for example, Clementine was Winston’s proxy, having taken complete control over his affairs while he fought on the Western Front. Winston had joined the fighting in an attempt to save his reputation after the Dardanelles disaster – a botched naval operation for which he was scapegoated and sacked as First Lord of the Admiralty –while Clementine schmoozed on his behalf with people at the very pinnacle of British politics. It wasn’t the last time Clementine would act as Winston’s surrogate, filling in, for example, as MP for Epping by making constituency visits during the Second World War. 

Purnell chronicles these and countless other episodes with sparkling prose that captivates even when the events themselves are relatively banal. But her greatest gift is pace, as she skillfully carries momentum from Clementine’s earliest memory (being dropped off by the nurse at the foot of her parents’ bed) to her laying a wreath on Winston’s tombstone, with few lulls in the narrative. And Purnell never loses her focus, keeping the spotlight on “Clemmie,” as she was known to those closest to her, rather than slipping into yet another biography of the man who eclipses her in Britain’s collective memory. 

Only on one score does Purnell undermine her portrait of this political wife. Too few pages are devoted to Clementine’s life after Winston’s death in 1965, when the book abruptly comes to a close. Clementine lived a further 12 years, yet only a seven-page epilogue fills this space. Apparently after that cold morning on January 24, when the Churchill family “sank to their knees,” Clementine committed herself to guarding Winston’s reputation – a reputation Purnell has so deftly revealed to be largely of Clementine’s own making. But while it would have been nice to see more on that, this is a small blemish on a book well worth reading, about a woman who is terribly under appreciated.  

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