Clementine gave Winston confidence, conviction and counsel. Not only was she involved in some of the most crucial decisions of the war, she also exerted an influence over her husband and his governments that might be judged scandalous today. Her ability to manage this exceptional man, and to charm Britain’s allies, earned her the deep respect of world leaders, ministers, generals and critics alike. While her tireless work to alleviate suffering on the Home Front and abroad made her a champion to many in the population at large.
From the personal and political upheavals of the Great War, through the Churchills’ ‘wilderness years’ in the 1930s, to Clementine’s desperate efforts to sustain Winston during the struggle against Hitler, Clementine Churchill: A Life in Pictures continues to uncover the memory of one of the most remarkable women of modern times.
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Fear defined Clementine Hozier's earliest memory. After being deposited by her nurse at the foot of her parents' bed, she saw her mother, Lady Blanche, stretching out her arms towards her. Yet Clementine was frozen to the spot by the sight of her father, Henry, slumbering at her mother's side. 'I was frightened of him,' she explained much later. But by then the damage was done. For all the fortitude Clementine would show in adulthood, the insecurity that had endured from her infancy never left her.
Clementine's mother was the eldest daughter of the tenth Earl of Airlie, whose ancient Scots lineage was enlivened by castle burnings and Jacobite uprisings. Lady Blanche's own mother was a Stanley of Alderley Park in Cheshire, a tribe of assertive and erudite English matriarchs who combined radical Liberal views with upper-class condescension. Champions of female education, the Stanley women had co-founded Girton College in Cambridge in 1869. In contrast, Henry's family had made their money in brewing, gaining entrance to society through the profits of industry rather than the privilege of birth. Lady Blanche's father considered Henry Montague Hozier a 'bounder', while she was herself soon to discover that, after a career giving orders in the Army, he now expected the same unquestioning obedience at home.
Five years after her wedding day, on 15 April 1883, Lady Blanche gave birth to her first child, Kitty. Clementine (rhyming with mean) was born two years later, on April Fools' Day. The twins – Nellie and William (Bill) – arrived in 1888. Of the four children, it is now thought likely that none were Hozier's and that there was probably more than one biological father. The first Lord Redesdale, Bertie Mitford (grandfather to the famous Mitford sisters, also incidentally Clementine's second cousins), was considered the most likely sire from Lady Blanche's many lovers. But there were at least two other contenders. London's more respectable drawing rooms were scandalised by such public uncertainty over the children's parentage, with the result that Lady Blanche was regularly snubbed. While she continued to indulge in a life of frantic sexual intrigue, her children were cared for by a succession of grumpy maids and governesses.
In autumn 1891, Hozier sued for divorce and the two elder girls became hostages in a bitter battle over custody and financial support. Clementine was just six when she and Kitty were wrested from their mother to live with Henry and his sister, the spinster Aunt Mary, who believed children benefitted greatly from being whipped. Hozier soon found the girls an inconvenience, quickly packaging them off to a governess, and then to a 'horrible, severe' boarding school in Edinburgh.
Eventually, he allowed Lady Blanche to extract her unhappy daughters and reunite them with their four-year-old twin siblings, Bill and Nellie. Over the following eight years, Lady Blanche and her brood led a peripatetic existence, moving to one set of furnished lodgings after another. In an effort to earn her keep, she wrote culinary articles for the newspapers, but she sometimes found herself too bored or distracted to put food on the table. If her children were sometimes in want of sustenance and maternal attention, they rarely went short of learning, however. Their mother employed full-time Francophone or German governesses and other teachers were brought in as required.
In about 1898, when Clementine was thirteen, Lady Blanche decamped from London for Seaford in Sussex, east of the Channel port of Newhaven. By now Clementine and Kitty were quite different: the former plain and awkward; the latter pretty and flirty, albeit impudent and ruthless. Kitty was her mother's blatant and persistent favourite, but the timid Clementine never showed any jealousy towards her. Each sister found comfort in the other in a somewhat bewildering world.
By the summer of 1899, Hozier had defaulted on the meagre allowance which he had agreed on following the divorce; Lady Blanche was deeply in debt. In July, seemingly out of the blue, the children were told they were moving to France, their mother having long suspected that Hozier might try to snatch back Kitty and Clementine. Although already an adept Francophone, it took Clementine time to adjust to her new life in Dieppe, not least because she constantly felt an outsider among her French peers and struggled to make friends. Yet she led an outdoor life which resulted in her starting to emerge as the striking young woman she was to become.
Lady Blanche relished Dieppe's bohemian ambiance, which attracted foreign writers and artists such as Oscar Wilde, Max Beerbohm and Walter Sickert (who was to become her lover). She also enjoyed the casino. She lost money she did not have and, to Clementine's shame, was reduced to wearing cheap gingham dresses and having to ask for credit in the local shops. Almost as galling were the public rows that her mother engaged in with Madame Villain, Sickert's other mistress and the queen of the Dieppe fish market. Clementine was learning all too young to deal with public humiliation, and her fear of gambling, due to her mother's fascination with it, would never leave her.
One winter's night late in 1899, Lady Blanche's anxiety about her ex-husband's intentions regarding the girls were confirmed. Having tracked them down to Dieppe, Hozier sent invitations to each girl to dine with him individually. Kitty's dinner passed without incident; however, when it came to Clementine's turn, Hozier delivered the dreaded news that she was to come to live with him – or rather with Aunt Mary. Faced with this unthinkable prospect, Clementine's shyness disappeared. With previously undetected determination and courage, she announced calmly that her mother would refuse to allow her to leave Dieppe, made a dash for the door, resisting Hozier's attempts to bar her way, and ran full pelt for home. The captain of the Dieppe–Newhaven steamer later confirmed to Lady Blanche Hozier's intention to kidnap Clementine and take her back to England that same afternoon.
Scarcely had one crisis passed, however, when another came to test Clementine. A few weeks later, in February 1900, her sister, Kitty, contracted typhoid. Clementine and Nellie were sent away to relatives in Scotland. Fearing the effect on Kitty if she knew her sisters were leaving, Lady Blanche told them to say 'goodnight' rather than 'goodbye'. The last the girls saw of Kitty, as they closed the door, was as a silent and emaciated figure confined to bed. Despite all her mother's efforts, Kitty died a month before her seventeenth birthday.
Less than a year after leaving England, the family was uprooted yet again, back to suburban Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire. Despite the tragedy of losing Kitty, Clementine liked her latest home. She was about to embark on what were probably the happiest and certainly the most settled years of her early life. Her time at the local grammar school, Berkhamsted High School for Girls, was to change her outlook completely.
In this steady and studious atmosphere, Clementine thrived. She was promoted to a higher year group for French, and prizes came quickly. In 1901, she won a silver medal for French presented by the French ambassador. Lady Blanche, at last recognising her daughter's potential, treated her to a trip to Paris, along with a former governess. Encouraged by her headmistress, Clementine was secretly nursing dreams of academia, even if university for women was still a comparative novelty. She was further spurred on in her studies by her great-aunt, Maude Stanley, the blue-stocking sister of her maternal grandmother; Maude also introduced her to the exciting world of politics.
In the tussle over Clementine's future, however, Lady Blanche held the trump card. To stop this university nonsense once and for all she approached another relative, the wealthy Lady St Helier, and enlisted her help in launching Clementine into the world to which Lady Blanche deemed she properly belonged. Lady St Helier invited Clementine to stay with her at her distinguished London mansion in Portland Place, near Regent's Park. She took her to lavish balls and glittering dinners, where Clementine was fêted for her beauty. Sure enough, her head was turned. By the time Clementine passed her Higher School Certificate, in the summer of 1903, there was no more talk of academia; the grammar school girl was feeling ever more at home in grand society.
Soon she began to gain suitors, chief among them Sidney Cornwallis Peel, the eligible younger son of a viscount (and grandson of former Prime Minister Sir Robert). He took her to the theatre and sent her white violets every day and proposed. Lady St Helier thought her job was done. But Clementine was a romantic: realising that she was not in love with Sidney, she broke off their engagement, although they later became secretly betrothed. In April 1906, she found her nerve again and parted from him for good. Afterwards she seems to have panicked: she needed to escape from her mercurial mother who thought nothing of reprimanding her by boxing her ears. A later engagement to Lionel Earle, a wealthy civil servant with intellectual tastes, was also terminated when, on a fortnight's holiday in the Netherlands, she saw him for the pompous bore he really was.
Now that Nellie had also finished school, Lady Blanche moved to London to take a firmer hand in her daughters' social careers. Clementine had no choice but to earn her keep, supplementing her small allowance by giving French lessons. A year later, she began working for her cousin, Lena Whyte, in her dressmaking business. Needlework bored her, but she learned to make clothes and even hats, for herself as well as for clients. Clementine had inherited her mother's genius for making the simplest outfits elegant, although she was all too aware of the inadequacies of her wardrobe compared to the lavish gowns of her society peers. Nevertheless, she had an advantage – contemporary accounts pour praise on her stunning good looks.
A year after finishing school, during the summer season of 1904, Clementine attended a ball given by Lord and Lady Crewe. Among the guests in this Liberal household was a rising young politician named Winston Churchill. A controversial figure, he was barred from most Conservative homes having defected from the party earlier in the year to join the Liberals. Considered a renegade and class traitor by the Tories, he was viewed as pushy and puffed up, even by admirers. His notorious adventures during the Second Boer War, including a daring escape from a prisoner of war camp, lent him an air of raffish danger. A prolific author as well as a soldier and MP, Winston was already a celebrity.
Upon arriving at the ball, accompanied by his American mother, Jennie, Winston was arrested by the sight of a fawn-like girl alone in a doorway. He stood motionless, staring at her. When Lady Randolph Churchill presented her son to Clementine, the great wordsmith was struck dumb, not even managing the customary invitation to dance. Clementine assumed she had been introduced out of pity, and in any case did not care for what she had heard about this notorious publicity seeker. It was an encounter that left no lasting impression on either of them.
Four years later, Winston, now in his mid-thirties, was being a labelled by the press a confirmed bachelor. One evening in March 1908, Clementine returned home after work to find a message from Lady St Helier, asking her to make up the numbers at a dinner the same evening. The guests were already starting on the chicken course by the time Winston arrived; he was attending with some reluctance. The wealthy American Ruth Lee wrote in her diary that, having taken a vacant place to the hostess's left, Winston proceeded to ignore her. Instead he 'became suddenly and entirely absorbed in Miss Clementine Hozier and paid her such marked and exclusive attention the whole evening that everyone was talking about it'. Winston's fascination was piqued by one of the very necessities that, in Clementine's eyes, made her an outsider: never before had he met a fashionable young woman at a society dinner who earned her own living. She was, in addition, ethereally lovely – and, influenced by her aunts and her own schooling, she was gripped by the cut and thrust of politics. For Clementine, Winston's gauche behaviour at the ball, four years before, seemed to have given way to a maturity and worldliness that thrilled her.
Thereafter, he wasted little time. Within a couple of weeks, Winston had invited Clementine and Lady Blanche to Salisbury Hall, his mother's house near St Albans, Hertfordshire. In Winston's first letter to Clementine, on 16 April, he wrote about how much he enjoyed their discussions: 'What a comfort & pleasure it was to me to meet a girl with so much intellectual quality & such strong reserves of noble sentiment.'
At that time, it was customary for members of Parliament elevated to the Cabinet to stand for re-election. So while Clementine was on a trip to Germany, the newly promoted Winston began campaigning in his largely working-class seat in north-west Manchester. In one letter to her, he referred in glowing terms to the help given to him by the famously alluring Lady Dorothy Howard, perhaps hoping to prompt a reaction from Clementine. On 23 April, she duly replied: 'I feel so envious of Dorothy Howard – It must be very exciting to feel one has the power of influencing people ... I feel as much excited as if I were a candidate.'
This expression of political interest – with its hint of jealous concern – must have greatly pleased Winston. On 27 April, he wrote: 'How I should have liked you to have been there. You would have enjoyed it I think.' He exhibited, moreover, a new mood of measured self-revelation, saying: 'Write to me again. I am a solitary creature in the midst of crowds. Be kind to me.'
Here at last the rumbustious adventurer of popular folklore felt safe enough to admit that he was lonely. For Clementine, who had since Kitty's death felt no one needed her, this was a clear signal that she might have found a new role to play. After Winston lost the Manchester election on 23 April, Clementine could not help but admire the way he picked himself up from defeat to win another election in Dundee in the following month. Unusually self-sufficient, she did not tell even close friends about her growing feelings for him, but she was convinced that she was in love.
Clementine saw Winston again several times in June and July of that year, but never alone. Some weeks later, she received an invitation from Winston's cousin, Sunny, the Duke of Marlborough, to visit Blenheim Palace. She was reluctant, but Winston insisted, promising that his mother and Sunny would look after her. After some hesitation, on 10 August, Clementine left the Isle of Wight, where she had been staying, and took the train to Oxfordshire. Walking up the front steps of the grand family seat into the gloom of its great hall, she found Winston, his mother, Jennie, the Duke, Winston's great friend F.E. Smith and his wife, Margaret, plus a private secretary from the Board of Trade, all waiting to greet her. It was clear this was to be no low-key visit.
Over dinner, Winston promised to show Clementine the following morning the famous rose gardens overlooking the lake. Punctual as ever, she descended to breakfast at the appointed hour only to be left waiting. Fearing that she would flounce out, Sunny hastily invited her for a drive around the estate, while sending word up to Winston, who was still in bed. The walk was hastily rearranged for the afternoon.
Winston escorted Clementine on a long tour of the gardens, but nothing of much import had been said by the time they began to make their way back up to the house. Finally, a summer shower drove the couple to take shelter in a little Greek temple folly. Clementine spotted a spider scuttling across the floor, and quietly decided that if Winston had not declared himself before it reached a crack in the flagstones she would leave. Happily, just in time, Winston asked if she would marry him. Without any further unnecessary hesitation, she agreed.
The next day, Clementine left Blenheim with a letter from Winston asking for Lady Blanche's permission to marry her daughter. He could not bear to wait for the answer, though, and at the last moment jumped on the London-bound train beside her.
Lady Blanche considered Winston just right for her unusual offspring. He did not have the fortune or title she would have liked, but he was brilliant and ambitious and could earn his own living – and at least he was marrying for romance rather than money. Having received Lady Blanche's approval, Winston would not brook a long engagement. A date was fixed for the wedding in a month's time.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Clementine Churchill"
Copyright © 2019 Sonia Purnell.
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