My Darling Clementine. – Review – book reviews

Ted Kreiter

The British Empire’s finest hours come to life in this collection of correspondence between Winston Churchill and his wife, Clementine.

Winston and Clementine: The Personal Letters of the Churchills Edited by their daughter Mary Soames 702 pages, Houghton Mifflin Company, $35.00

She called him “my sweet Pug.” He called her “my little Clemmie Kat.” Together they shared one of the most remarkable marriages of the 20th century. Even more extraordinary was their correspondence–letters, love notes, and telegrams continuing from before their marriage in 1908 until shortly before his death in 1965. That correspondence is now an open book, thanks to Mary Soames, their daughter, who has compiled her famous parents’ letters in a delightful book, Winston and Clementine: The Personal Letters of the Churchills.

“What a comfort & pleasure it was to … meet a girl with so much intellectual quality & such strong reserves of noble sentiment,” Winston wrote in his first letter to Clementine Hozier on April 16, 1908. He was 33 and she 23. Clementine and her mother had just spent the weekend at the Churchill residence, Salisbury Hall. “I hope we shall meet again and come to know each other better and like each other more: and I see no reason why this should not be so,” Winston added.

Winston’s letter made no reference to their first meeting at a ball four years before. On that unfortunate occasion, Winston had asked to be introduced to the beautiful young woman across the room, but at the last minute he had suddenly frozen and could think of nothing to say. The embarrassed Clementine had to signal a friend to come to her rescue.

Later, they had met again by chance at a dinner party, and this time Winston was prepared. They were married just six months later. Their correspondence, which had already begun to accrue, would extend over half a century, encompassing personal affairs as well as the broad scope of history from Edwardian politics through World Wars I and Il, and showing a tender side of Winston Churchill so different from his gruff, cigar-chewing image.

In their partnership, Clementine showed her mettle early on. When in 1909 at Bristol Station a suffragette attacked Winston with a dog whip and tried to force him into the path of an oncoming train, she leapt over a pile of luggage and yanked her husband back.

Actually, Clementine supported women’s suffrage, and Winston (who never spoke against it) respected her views. In a letter from Dundee he wrote,

“My darling–

“… I hope you will not be angry with me for having answered the suffragettes sternly. I shall never try to crush your convictions. I must claim an equal liberty for myself I have told them that I cannot help them while the present tactics are continued…. “

The railway escapade wasn’t Winston’s only harrowing experience that year. In October he had written to “Clemmie” from the Queens Hotel in Dundee.

“My Darling, This hotel is a great trial to me. Yesterday morning I had half eaten a kipper when a huge maggot crept out & flashed his teeth at me! To-day I could find nothing nourishing for lunch but pancakes. Such are the trials wh great & good men endure in the service of their country!”

Early in their correspondence, the couple began using pet names and adorning their letters with small sketches of dogs and cats. When their first child, Diana, was born in July of 1909, the new baby entered the correspondence as “the P.K.,” an abbreviation for “puppy kitten.”

28 October [1909] The Crest Hotel, Crowborough

My Darling,

… We went, Hodgy Podgy, P.K. & all to have tea with Lady Conan Doyle [wife of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle]. The PK. had exquisite company manners & looked too lovely making the little Conan Doyle child look such a fat lump.

Your loving Clemmie Kat

For his part, Winston appeared to be far ahead of his time in his concern for his child’s health.

11 July 1911 [Home Office]

My dearest one–

I bought some toys for the P.K. last night–but she is so little that it is difficult to know what will amuse her. Be careful not to let her suck the paint off the Noah’s Ark animals. I hovered long on the verge of buying plain white wood animals–but decided at last to risk the coloured ones. They are so much more interesting. The Shopman expressed himself hopefully about the nourishing qualities of the paint & of the numbers sold–and presumably sucked without misadventure. But do not trust to this….

With fondest love, Always your devoted W.

Among the great happenings of the day to be registered in their letters was the tragic sinking of the ship Titanic on April 14, 1912.

Clementine, who had been in Paris viewing that spring’s solar eclipse, wrote Winston on the 17th, “The horror of the Titanic overshadows everything.”

Winston replied from England the following day:

“The Titanic disaster is the prevailing theme here. The story is a good one. The strict observance of the great traditions of the sea towards women & children reflects nothing but honour upon our civilisation. Even I hope it may mollify some of the young unmarried lady teachers who are so bitter in their sex antagonism, and think men so base & vile. They are rather snuffy about Bruce Ismay–Chairman of the line–who, it is thought–on the facts available–shd have gone down with the ship & her crew. I cannot help feeling proud of our race & its traditions as proved by this event. Boatloads of women & children tossing on the sea–safe & sound–& the rest–Silence. Honour to their memory.”

He referred to the disaster again on the 20th:

“The whole episode fascinates me. It shows that in spite of all the inequalities and artificialities of our modern life, at the bottom–tested to its foundations, our civilization is humane, Christian, & absolutely democratic. How differently Imperial Rome or Ancient Greece wd have settled the problem.

“The swells, and potentates would have gone off with their concubines & pet slaves & soldier guards, & then the sailors wd have had their chance headed by the captain, as for the rest–whoever cd bribe the crew the most wd have had the preference & the rest cd go to hell–But such ethics can neither build Titanics with science nor lose them with honour.”

Such was the couple’s devotion to each other that they could keep no secrets, nor could Winston stray for long from his role as perfect husband and gentleman. In the months before the outbreak of World War I, much to Clementine’s and many of his friends’ distress, he started taking flying lessons, a risky pursuit and not part of his duty as First Lord of the Admiralty. The then-pregnant Clementine wrote him, “Every time I see a telegram now, I think it is to announce that you have been killed flying.”

Winston clearly enjoyed the danger and was having the time of his life, but he announced an abrupt decision to Clementine in a letter on June 6, 1914:

“My darling one,

“I will not fly any more until at any rate you have recovered from your kitten: & by then or perhaps later the risks may have been greatly reduced.

“… I was on the verge of taking my pilot’s certificate. It only needed a couple of calm mornings; & I am confident of my ability to achieve it vy respectably–… But I must admit that the numerous fatalities of this year wd justify you in complaining if I continued to share the risks–as I am proud to do–of these good fellows. So I give it up decidedly for many months & perhaps for ever. This is a gift–so stupidly am I made–wh costs me more than anything wh cd be bought with money. So I am vy glad to lay it at your feet, because I know it will rejoice & relieve your heart.”

Between the wars, Clementine and Winston’s travels brought them into contact with movers and shakers of the time. On a trip to Rome in 1926, Clementine met Mussolini and was immediately enthralled. “When he came in everyone … got up as if he were a King…. He fills you with a sort of pleasurable awe–… I am sure he is a very great person.”

After receiving several glowing letters about Il Duce, Winston, in London, wrote back, “What a picture you draw of Mussolini! I feel sure you are right in regarding him as a prodigy. But as old [Augustine] Birrell says `It is better to read about a world figure, than to live under his rule.'”

Later, Winston, on a speaking tour of North America in 1929, sent Clementine his impressions of two famous Americans: news scion William Randolph Hearst and movie comedian Charlie Chaplin.

“Hearst was most interesting to meet, & I got to like him–a grave simple child–with no doubt a nasty temper–playing with the most costly toys. A vast income always overspent: Ceaseless building & collecting not vy discriminatingly works of art: two magnificent establishments, two charming wives; complete indifference to public opinion, a strong liberal & democratic outlook, a 15 million daily circulation, oriental hospitalities, extreme personal courtesy (to us at any rate) & the appearance of a Quaker elder–or perhaps better Mormon elder…. We made gt friends with Charlie Chaplin. You cd not help liking him. The boys were fascinated by him. He is a marvellous comedian–bolshy in politics–delightful in conversation. He acted his new film [probably City Lights (1931)] for us in a wonderful way. It is to be his gt attempt to prove that the silent drama or pantomime is superior to the new talkies. Certainly if pathos & wit still count for anything, it ought to win an easy victory.”

Over the years, Clementine could be fearlessly frank when she thought it necessary for Winston’s good. As Prime Minister in the early days of World War II, Winston drove himself and his staff unmercifully in a desperate attempt to keep the French in the fighting. On June 27, 1940, Clementine sent this letter to 10 Downing Street, adding in a post script, “I wrote this at Chequers last Sunday, tore it up, but here it is now.”

“My Darling,

“I hope you will forgive me if I tell you something that I feel you ought to know. One of the men in your entourage (a devoted friend) has been to me & told me that there is a danger of your being generally disliked by your colleagues & subordinates because of your rough sarcastic & overbearing manner…. My Darling Winston–I must confess that I have noticed a deterioration in your manner; & you are not so kind as you used to be…. I cannot bear that those who serve the Country & yourself should not love you as well as admire and respect you–Besides you won’t get the best results by irascibility & rudeness. They will breed either dislike or a slave mentality–(Rebellion in War time being out of the question!). Please forgive your loving devoted & watchful Clemmie.”

The World War II letters are filled with intriguing details of Winston’s dangerous secret missions to America to confer with Roosevelt, including tactics to avoid lurking U-boats by sailing diagonally across the waves, and ruses employed with Clementine’s help to mislead the Germans as to his whereabouts.

In the waning days of WWII, Clementine, who had raised much money for Russian relief during the war, embarked on a tour of Russia that included a meeting with Stalin in Moscow. Telegram correspondence between Clementine and Winston during her trip reflects his fears of what was to come.

2 May 1945 London

… The ambassador will show you my telegrams with Stalin. Our personal relations are very good at present but there are many difficulties as you will see. You should express to Stalin personally my cordial feelings and my resolve and confidence that a complete understanding between the English-speaking world and Russia will be achieved and maintained for many years, as this is the only hope of the world. Tender Love, Winston

5 May 1945 [Foreign Office]

… It is astonishing one is not in a more buoyant frame of mind in public matters. During the last three days we have heard of the death of Mussolini and Hitler; Alexander has taken a million prisoners of war; Montgomery took 500,000 additional yesterday and far more than a million to-day…. We are all occupied here with preparations for Victory-Europe Day. Meanwhile I need scarcely tell you that beneath these triumphs lie poisonous politics and deadly international rivalries. Therefore I should come home after rendering the fullest compliments to your hospitable hosts. Do not delay beyond the 7th or 8th except for weather….

When Clementine met Stalin and presented him with Winston’s gift of a gold fountain pen, the Soviet premier accepted it with a smile, but then told her in words more ominous in hindsight, “I only write with pencil.”

More meaningful than the historical insights offered in these letters perhaps are the personal tidbits, the human aspects of a private life lived in tandem with the great events of the century: Images that will remain foremost in a reader’s mind are those such as Winston’s description of himself at age 84 while staying with friends near Monte Carlo: “I am passing the morning in bed–reading a book about ancient Greece wh is rather good…. I wonder what you will be doing & when you will set off for Chartwell. Would you give some food to the fish? They are vy appreciative. And the black swans. I never visited them this time. It was too wet for the car [to go across the fields]….”

Or the references to Toby, Winston’s beloved pet parakeet that traveled with him on trips to the French Mediterranean:

“… Now it has come I take up my pen to answer, aided by Toby who is sitting on the sheet of notepaper insisting on lapping the ink from my pen in order to send you a personal message…. He is a wonderful little bird.”

In 1959, Clementine and Winston teamed up to wage his final election battle for Parliament. He was 84 and she was 74. The last letter from Clementine to Winston, dated April 18, 1964, was a memorandum about a resolution he was to receive thanking him for his 50 years of nearly uninterrupted service in Parliament. Winston died on January 24, 1965, in his 91st year. When Clementine died in December of 1977, her ashes were laid in Winston’s grave at Bladon churchyard near Blenheim Palace.

Of all the letters Mary Soames has included in her book, one perhaps sums up best the enduring relationship of these two remarkable people. In July of 1915, Lord Kitchner asked Winston to visit the Dardanelles to assess the wartime situation in that dangerous area. Fearing he would come under fire, Winston wrote Clementine a letter to be opened in the event of his death. It ended with this remarkable note:

“Do not grieve for me too much. I am a spirit confident of my rights. Death is only an incident, & not the most important wh happens to us in this state of being. On the whole, especially since I met you my darling one I have been happy, & you have taught me how noble a woman’s heart can be. If there is anywhere else I shall be on the look out for you. Meanwhile look forward, feel free, rejoice in Life, cherish the children, guard my memory. God bless you.

“Good bye. “W.”

Winston’s Shorthand

To save time and space, Winston Churchill used the following abbreviations in his letters:

cd = could

gt = great

shd = should

vy = very

wd = would

wh = which

COPYRIGHT 1999 Saturday Evening Post Society

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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