“Engrossing…the first formal biography of a woman who has heretofore been relegated to the sidelines.”–The New York Times
From the author of the New York Times bestseller A Woman of No Importance, a long overdue tribute to the extraordinary woman who was Winston Churchill’s closest confidante, fiercest critic and shrewdest advisor that captures the intimate dynamic of one of history’s most fateful marriages.
Late in life, Winston Churchill claimed that victory in the Second World War would have been “impossible” without the woman who stood by his side for fifty-seven turbulent years. Why, then, do we know so little about her? In this landmark biography, a finalist for the Plutarch prize, Sonia Purnell finally gives Clementine Churchill her due.
Born into impecunious aristocracy, the young Clementine Hozier was the target of cruel snobbery. Many wondered why Winston married her, when the prime minister’s daughter was desperate for his attention. Yet their marriage proved to be an exceptional partnership. "You know,"Winston confided to FDR, "I tell Clemmie everything."
Through the ups and downs of his tumultuous career, in the tense days when he stood against Chamberlain and the many months when he helped inspire his fellow countrymen and women to keep strong and carry on, Clementine made her husband’s career her mission, at the expense of her family, her health and, fatefully, of her children. Any real consideration of Winston Churchill is incomplete without an understanding of their relationship. Clementine is both the first real biography of this remarkable woman and a fascinating look inside their private world.
"Sonia Purnell has at long last given Clementine Churchill the biography she deserves. Sensitive yet clear-eyed, Clementine tells the fascinating story of a complex woman struggling to maintain her own identity while serving as the conscience and principal adviser to one of the most important figures in history. I was enthralled all the way through." –Lynne Olson, bestselling author of Citizens of London
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Level of Events
Fear defined Clementine Hozier’s earliest memory. Having been deposited by her nurse at the foot of her parents’ bed, she saw her “lovely and gay” mother, Lady Blanche, stretch out her arms toward her. Clementine yearned for her mother’s embrace yet she froze on the spot at the sight of her father slumbering at her mother’s side. “I was frightened of him,” she explained much later.1 By then the damage had been done. Clementine was never to gain a secure place in her mother’s affections nor would she conquer her trepidation of the forbidding Colonel Henry Hozier, who, she came to believe, was not her father anyway. For all the fortitude she would show in adulthood, her instinctive insecurity never left her.
The Hoziers were living on Grosvenor Street, in central London, a far cry from the romantically haunted Cortachy Castle, in the Scottish Highlands, where Lady Blanche had grown up. Clementine’s mother was the eldest daughter of the tenth Earl of Airlie, whose ancient Scottish lineage was enlivened by castle burnings and Jacobite uprisings. Her seraphic face belied her own rebellious spirit, and her parents, their family fortunes much reduced by the earl’s gambling losses, had been keen to marry her off. They were thus relieved when in 1878, at the age of twenty-five, she became engaged to Colonel Hozier, even though he was fourteen years her senior and only come-lately gentry of limited means.
Lady Blanche’s mother, also called Blanche, was a Stanley of Alderley, a tribe of assertive and erudite English matriarchs who combined radical Liberal views with upper-class condescension. They thought new clothes, fires in the bedroom and—above all—jam the epitome of excessive indulgence. Champions of female education, the Stanley women had cofounded Girton College in Cambridge in 1869. No less formidably clever than these eminent forebears, the elder Blanche had later mixed with the likes of the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, the Tory prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, his bitter Liberal rival William Gladstone, and John Ruskin, the art critic, designer and social thinker. She had made her ineffectual husband switch the family political allegiance from Conservative to Liberal and was equally forceful with her tearful granddaughter Clementine, who was not her favorite. It was evidently unfitting for a girl of Stanley blood to show her emotions.
Hozier’s family made its money in brewing, gaining entrance to society thanks to the profits of industry rather than the privilege of birth. Although his elder brother became the first Lord Newlands and Henry himself received a knighthood in 1903 for his innovative work at Lloyd’s of London after a distinguished career in the army, the Hoziers remained essentially nouveau: middle-class stock who earned their own living.
In the eyes of many in the City, Henry was a “flamboyant” personality, but the Lloyd’s archives suggest a darker nature. He had graduated top of his class from Army Staff College and was decorated with the Iron Cross by Emperor Wilhelm I when serving as assistant military attaché to the Prussian forces during the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, and this and his service in Abyssinia and China appear to have gone to his head. His colleagues at Lloyd’s thought he was a “born autocrat” with an “excessive love of power” and an absence of humor. He also apparently suffered from an “excessive” fondness for spending the corporation’s money. An internal investigation in 1902 revealed that his business methods, while productive, were of “doubtful ethics.” Some of his soi-disant successes were, in truth, exaggerated or unfounded, and after he challenged one persistent critic to a duel in 1906, his reputation inside the upper echelons of Lloyd’s never quite recovered.2 Clementine was probably unaware of these stains on his character, admitting in a booklet she wrote for her own children, entitled “My Early Life,” that she knew very little about her father’s existence outside the home.
The earl considered his son-in-law a “bounder,” and Lady Blanche soon discovered to her horror that her husband’s previous career giving orders in the army had led him to expect the same unquestioning obedience at home. Far from liberating her from parental control, marriage to the splenetic and vengeful Henry proved even more restrictive. Before her wedding, Lady Blanche had assumed that she would become a notable political hostess in her own right. After leaving the military in 1874 Hozier had briefly dabbled in public life—standing unsuccessfully in 1885 as the Liberal Unionist candidate for Woolwich and helping to pioneer the idea of an intelligence service—but he had not the remotest interest in hosting his wife’s freewheeling aristo friends. Nor did he want children. Lady Blanche decided that she would take the matter into her own hands if he refused to oblige her. It was not helpful that Hozier was frequently away on business and unfaithful himself. Sexy, bored and lonely, Lady Blanche saw no reason not to shop around for a worthy mate of her own.
Five years after her wedding day, on April 15, 1883, she gave birth to her first child, Kitty. Two years later, on April Fools’ Day, Clementine (rhyming with mean, not mine) was born in haste on the drawing room floor. The twins—Nellie and William (Bill)—came three years later. It is now thought that none of the four children was Hozier’s and that there may in fact have been more than one biological father. Although it was not unusual for upper-class couples in the late nineteenth century to take lovers, the custom was to wait until an heir had been born before playing the field. Discretion was also expected. Lady Blanche ignored all the rules to such an extent that there were rumors of altercations between rivals. Indeed, she is reputed to have juggled up to ten lovers at once—a feat of athletic organization that she was pleased to advertise quite widely.
Clementine had no knowledge of all this as a child, and the family has only in recent years publicly acknowledged the question marks over her paternity. Doubts were, however, well aired by others during her lifetime. Lady Blanche’s own, albeit inconsistent, confessions to friends suggest that Clementine was in fact a Mitford. Her handsome and generous brother-in-law, the first Baron Redesdale, Bertie Mitford, was certainly a favored amour. Photographs of Clementine and Bertie—particularly in profile—suggest remarkable similarities, not least their fine aquiline noses. Perhaps it was as a tribute to her sister’s forbearance in sharing her husband in this way that Lady Blanche named her second daughter after her. Bertie’s legitimate son David went on to father the six renowned Mitford sisters: the novelist Nancy, the Nazi supporters Unity and Diana (whose brother Tom shared their fascist sympathies), the Communist Decca and Debo, later Duchess of Devonshire, and Pamela, who largely escaped public scrutiny.
Besides Mitford, the other prime candidate is Bay Middleton, an avid theatergoer of great charm and private melancholy. He later broke his neck steeplechasing but was a frequent visitor to Lady Blanche during the years when she conceived her two eldest daughters. She dropped hints to notable gossips that he was the one, although some have since suggested that this was a fig leaf for her sister’s sake. Such was the complexity of Lady Blanche’s sex life that we shall probably never know the truth. Clementine’s daughter Mary Soames found it “difficult to take a dogmatic view,” saying, “Je n’y ai pas tenue la chandelle.”3
The excitable younger Mitfords relished their great-aunt’s racy reputation, but the rest of Lady Blanche’s family thought her “mad.” London’s more respectable drawing rooms were similarly scandalized by the public uncertainty over the Hozier children’s paternity, with the result that Lady Blanche was regularly snubbed. Meanwhile, her children were cared for by a succession of grumpy maids and governesses who vented their frustration by swishing their wards’ bare legs with a cane. The one kindly soul in those early years was sixteen-year-old Mademoiselle Elise Aeschimann, a Swiss governess who arrived when Clementine was three. She thought the infant girl starved of attention and took to carrying her around everywhere, despite Lady Blanche’s admonitions not to spoil her. Mademoiselle Aeschimann started Clementine and Kitty on their lessons, especially French, and though she stayed only two years her warmheartedness made a lasting impression. Clementine later went to visit her in Switzerland and even helped her financially when she fell on hard times in old age.
Clementine remained an anxious child, however, and was tormented by a perfectionist streak. According to her daughter Mary she had a “most sensitive conscience, and suffered untold miseries if the immaculate white of her lace-edged pinafore was marred by spot or stain.”4 She took endless pains to form the neatest handwriting, a trait that led the adult Clementine to describe her younger self as a “detestable little prig.”5 Her principal emotional crutch was a large black pet poodle called Carlo, which devotedly listened to her troubles until it was tragically killed under the wheels of a train. Clementine had been ordered to leave the dog behind at the family’s new home, a country house outside Alyth in Scotland, but Carlo had pursued her to the station and tried to jump on board. “I do not remember getting over this,” she told her children many years later.6 Such emotional neediness—and a continuing fear of adults—earned her much maternal scorn. Kitty, by contrast, was puckish, pretty, shared her mother’s extroverted flamboyance and won Lady Blanche’s effusive love. Unsurprisingly, she became accustomed to getting her way—even once threatening to burn down the house to stop a governess from reporting her latest misdeed. Lady Blanche’s devoted preference for her firstborn was brazen and consistent.
In autumn 1891, Hozier sued for divorce and the two elder girls became “helpless hostages” in a bitter battle over custody and financial support. Clementine was just six when she and Kitty were wrested from their mother and sent to live with their father and his sister, the spinster Aunt Mary, who believed children benefited greatly from being whipped. Hozier found the girls an inconvenience, so he parceled them off to a governess in the Hertfordshire town of Berkhamsted. Rosa Stevenson advanced her charges little academically but both girls observed her fastidious housekeeping, including the two hours spent every day polishing the oil lamps: “They burnt as bright and clear as stars,” Clementine remembered fondly.7 She also recalled the delicious sausages, “although the slices were too thin and too few.”
Sadly, Aunt Mary considered Mrs. Stevenson too soft and uprooted the girls again, this time dispatching them to a “horrible, severe”8 boarding school in Edinburgh. The odor of yesterday’s haddock and the crumbs on the floor offended Clementine, and like her sister she felt desperately homesick.
Hozier finally relented and allowed Lady Blanche to extract her unhappy daughters and whisk them back to her rented house in Bayswater, a district then known among the smart set as the West London “wildlands.” Waiting for them there were the four-year-old twins Bill and Nellie, who, after a year apart from their elder siblings, no longer recognized them. Hozier came for tea on a couple of occasions but his awkward visits were not a success and soon stopped altogether. Once the divorce was finalized, almost all of his financial support dried up. Lady Blanche may have had her children back, but she was now dependent on her own cash-strapped family for handouts.
• • •
Over the following eight years, Lady Blanche and her brood led a peripatetic existence, moving from one set of furnished lodgings to another. In part this was out of financial necessity, to keep one step ahead of her creditors, but the constant roaming also suited her capricious nature. She ensured every new home was elegant and fresh, with snowy white dimity furniture covers (always two sets so they could be kept spotlessly clean) and fine muslin curtains on the windows. Clementine was enraptured by her mother’s ability to spin comfort out of the least promising circumstances, writing in “My Early Life”: “She had very simple but distinguished taste and you could never mistake a house or room in which she had lived for anyone else’s in the world.” Lady Blanche’s exalted standards even inspired a new verb: to “hozier” became synonymous among her daughters’ friends with to “tidy away.” Unfortunately the cost of such stylish homemaking pushed the family ever further into debt.
In an effort to earn her keep, Lady Blanche, who was an excellent cook, wrote culinary articles for the newspapers, but she sometimes found herself too bored or distracted to put food on the table for her own offspring. She was frequently absent (presumably with one of her many lovers) but if her children sometimes wanted for maternal attention they rarely went short of instruction. Their mother employed full-time French- or German-speaking governesses and other teachers were brought in as required. The only, rigidly observed, omission from their education was arithmetic, which Lady Blanche deemed “unseemly” for girls.
Around 1898, when Clementine was thirteen, Lady Blanche decamped from London for rooms near the railway station at Seaford, just east of the English Channel port of Newhaven. There she lived with her dogs Fifinne and Gubbins on the first floor at 9 Pelham Place, a modest gray terrace house, while Clementine, Kitty, Nellie, Bill and their “feather-headed” governess stayed at number 11. Lady Blanche refused to muzzle her dogs, in contravention of strict new antirabies laws, and was once summoned to the magistrates’ court in Lewes. Although she emerged from the trial with the desired “not guilty” verdict, perhaps due to the fact that one member of the bench was a personal friend, Clementine was troubled by her mother’s being “not very law-abiding.”9
This rackety existence could not have been in starker contrast to the four weeks the children spent every summer with their grandmother in the historic splendor of Airlie Castle. Here Lady Blanche’s mother, the Dowager Countess of Airlie, kept an unblinking vigil against any hint of a lack of gratitude—a subject upon which she had written an essay—insisting on the need to instill this virtue in young children as “otherwise they grow up louts.”10 She believed in fasting to “awaken the gifts of the Spirit” and loathed unladylike pursuits. Lady Blanche allowed Kitty and Clementine to play croquet (a practice that would later prove extremely useful) but only behind the gardener’s cottage, out of Grannie’s sight. She may have had a fiery temperament but her natural rebelliousness provoked her to give her daughters what were then unusual freedoms. Not only did she hire bicycles for them back in Seaford (with their being too expensive to buy), she allowed them to play bicycle polo on the rough grass opposite their lodgings too. Another beloved, unfeminine pastime was cricket, at which Clementine would in time become a decent player. She was also taught locally to play a creditable game of golf.
By now Clementine and Kitty were quite different: the former plain and awkward; the latter pretty and flirty—albeit impudent and ruthless as well. Clementine stood in her boisterous sister’s shadow but never showed any jealousy. In fact she found Kitty a comfort in a bewildering world. The star relied on a devoted supporting act, and while this role was far from easy it was nonetheless one in which Clementine came to excel. Like Lady Blanche, she was “dazzled” by her sister. Kitty, meanwhile, shared her younger sibling’s “unspoken contempt” for their mother’s “violent, ungovernable partiality.” “You mustn’t mind it,” she would counsel Clementine. “She can’t help it.”11
Table of Contents
1 The Level of Events 9
2 More Than Meets the Eye 39
3 The Pain and the Pride 71
4 I Believe in Your Star 91
5 Married Love 115
6 Loss Unimaginable 130
7 A Country Basket 153
8 Temptation and Redemption 187
9 A World of Accident and Storm 221
10 Operation Seduction USA 262
11 From FDR to Stalin 299
12 A Private Line 347