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Clementine and Winston

 

                                                                                                             

 
As part of my ongoing series on Famous Couples, I take a backward glance at the marriage of Winston and Clementine Churchill.
 
 
 
The Gathering Storm is the title of the famous memoir of World War II by Winston Churchill. It is also the title of a 2002 made-for-television movie about Churchill’s life immediately preceding the war. I watched it not long ago and was amazed. These were Churchill’s “wilderness years” at Chartwell, his estate in Kent where he wrote and kept abreast of world developments without holding major office. Starring Albert Finney and Vanessa Redgrave, the movie focused on his private life and marriage to Clementine Hozier. It was not a flattering portrait. The full anterior shot of a naked Churchill urinating was characteristic of a movie that tried to reduce the stature of the man without denying that he was eloquent, powerful, took lots of baths and smoked cigars. Here was an annoying husband. If Churchill was the whimpering man-boy portrayed in the movie, he was a fraud and his wife’s fortitude was the salvation of the Western World during the war years ahead.   

Could it be true?  I know the depths to which we stoop. Our heroes cannot stand. But, I was not familiar with the Churchill marriage and decided to do some research.  Studying any one aspect of Churchill’s life is like dipping a soup ladle into the ocean. The library shelves sag under the weight of the biographies.  I wouldn’t mind more about the crisis in the Dardanelles or his unfading thoughts on ”the unconquerable, the inexhaustible adaptiveness and ingenuity of the British mind; the iron, unyielding, unwearying tenacity of the British character.” But, I was on a narrow mission. I wanted to know about Clementine and Winston. Were they happy or were they not? Fortunately, there were only 4,000 pages or so on this important subject.

Central to the movie was the suggestion that Clementine had an affair with an art dealer while on a cruise in 1935. In all those 4,000 pages, I could find no evidence of anything more than a passing flirtation. Nor did I find the whimpering fool Churchill. Instead, I discovered a tender and unwavering partnership that spanned 57 years and the major world crises of the 20th Century. Their marriage included great sorrows, the death of a young child, the suicide of an adult daughter, petty annoyances, disagreements, mutual loneliness and incompatibilities. But, if there is a pantheon for married couples, Clementine and Winston deserve to be admitted. It is a story that leaves at least one valuable lesson for those seeking marital harmony and is a reminder that all great marriages are worthy of study. Why do we spend so much time looking at the bad ones?

The Churchills were married in London in 1908. Clementine was beautiful, reserved, intelligent and sensitive. Her family history included scandal; it is unlikely her father was really her father. Her parents were virtually estranged when she was born, and her mother, daughter of the 10th Earl of Airlie, was promiscuous. Some speculate that her uncle was her real father. This was not publicly acknowledged, and altogether her family history is steady compared to the ensuing decline. The years ahead would see the twilight of the British nobility.

When they were married, Clementine was 23, and Winston, 33. The Churchills spent much of their married years apart. Their correspondence is one of the most voluminous and remarkable bodies of written communication between any renowned husband and wife. They left behind some 1,700 letters, notes, memos and telegrams. The letters have been edited and collected into a single 700-page volume by their daughter and fifth child, Mary Soames. The correspondence begins before their marriage. On the weekend they were engaged at Blenheim Palace, the Churchill estate, there was a flurry of notes sent back and forth between their bedrooms.

Winston wrote:

My dearest – I hope you have slept like a stone. I did not get to bed till 1 o’clock …. Tell me how you feel and whether you mean to get up for breakfast. The purpose of this letter is also to send you heaps of love and four kisses.

from your always devoted

          Winston

Clementine responded:

I never slept so well & I had the most heavenly dreams.

I am coming down presently – Mother is quite worn out as we have been talking for the last 2 hours -

Je t’aime passionement – I feel less shy in French.

There are virtually no letters in this huge volume that do not include words of endearment or encouragement. She called him Pug or Pig; he called her Kat. Little more than a year after their first anniversary, when they already had had their first child, there was some small ambiguous disagreement between them, presumably caused by Clementine’s jealousy. In regard to this, Winston wrote:

We do not live in a world of small intrigues, but of serious and important affairs. I could not conceive myself forming any other attachment than that to which I have fastened the happiness of my life here below. And it offends my best nature that you should – against your true instinct – indulge small emotions and wounding doubts. You ought to trust me for I do not love and will never love any woman in the world but you, and my chief desire is to link myself to you week by week by bonds which shall ever become more intimate and profound.

Beloved I kiss your memory – Your sweetness and beauty have cast a glory upon my life. You will find me always Your

loving and devoted husband

W                                                                                                                                                      

During their years,  Churchill was not only prime minister, minister of defense, and lord of the admiralty, he also fought on the French front; served as home secretary, minister of munitions, president of the board of trade and member of parliament, and wrote eight books and many pieces of journalism. He painted and traveled often to the South of France, a place she generally found tedious. Any man of such prodigious activity and accomplishment had to be immensely selfish. Whatever his faults as a mate, Churchill appeared to have amply compensated for them by one thing: continual appreciation of his wife. Again and again, he told her how much she meant to him. The many hundreds of days without his company, the rigors of political life, and the stresses of war were surely easier to bear because of this. 

From Clementine on New Year’s Day, 1935:

Oh my Darling:

I’m thinking so much of you & how you have enriched my life. I have loved you very much but I wish I had been a more amusing wife to you. How nice it would be if we were both young again.

To which Winston replied three weeks later:

In your letter from Madras you wrote some words vy [sic] dear to me, about my having enriched yr life. I cannot tell you what pleasure this gave me, because I always feel so overwhelmingly in yr debt, if there can be accounts in love. It was sweet of you to write this to me & I hope and pray I shall be able to make you happy & secure during my remaining years, and cherish you my darling one as you deserve, & leave you in comfort when my race is run. What it has been to me to live all these years in yr heart and companionship no phrases can convey. Time passes swiftly, but is it not joyous to see how great and growing is the treasure we have gathered together, amid the storms and stresses of so many eventful and to millions tragic & terrible years?

This is the enduring lesson of the Churchills: Express your love. Infractions, large and small, are reparable. They are overcome if you love and if you express it. Back and forth, across continental Europe and sometimes across the world, their letters and telegrams flew. They contain frequent discussion about Churchill’s political affairs and decisions; Clementine does not refrain from offering her opinions and is an acute observer of people. One can’t help but conclude in reading these letters and hurried notes something that was never brought across in the made-for-television movie. History was amply served not just by Churchill but by the bond between these two.

 

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