Humid Fidelity

Peter Bradshaw

  • Speaking for Themselves: The Personal Letters of Winston and Clementine Churchill edited by Mary Soames
    Black Swan, 702 pp, £15.00, August 1999, ISBN 0 552 99750 1

My favourite moment in Martin Gilbert’s Life of Churchill is when the Prime Minister is touring the ruins of Hitler’s Chancellery in 1945:

In the square in front of the building a crowd of Germans had gathered. Except for one old man who ‘shook his head disapprovingly’, Churchill later recalled, ‘they all began to cheer. My hate had died with their surrender and I was much moved by their demonstrations, and also by their haggard looks and threadbare clothes.’

Winston had been cheered by pinched civilians in the streets of London on VE Day; he had been cheered by traumatised Tommies at the Western Front in 1918; now here he was being cheered by starving Germans in the midst of Berlin’s shattered masonry. Could any Hollywood producer, possibly recreate the emotion of this bizarre, extraordinary moment, including that single, frowning, head-shaking old man, a devastating vérité touch? Two years later, Churchill, now out of power, is livid at the subjugation of Czechoslovakia and other nations to Soviet tyranny. Ambassador Lew Douglas reports to Washington that Churchill ‘believes that now is the time, promptly, to tell the Soviets that if they do not retire from Berlin and abandon Eastern Germany, we will raze their cities’ – after which, presumably, he would make a personal appearance in each place and be cheered to the echo.

A warm tone of ovation sounds throughout Mary Soames’s stately, proprietorial edition of her parents’ correspondence – the authoritative ties of blood are stressed emphatically on the cover. It is a remarkable manuscript archive, used extensively by Gilbert, but only now available to us in unmediated, if abridged form, tracing their relationship from the shy missives they exchanged as courting young lovers under the same roof at Blenheim Palace in the summer of 1908 to the typed or quavering handwritten notes of 1963 at Number 28, Hyde Park Gate.

Maintaining their nicknames ‘pig’ (originally ‘pug’) and ‘kat’ throughout, with the occasional little squiggly sketch of a pig (or dog) or a cat next to a signature, the Churchills develop their strange and moving epistolary intimacy, against the backdrop of modern British and European history. In her introduction, Soames suggests that the ‘most striking characteristic of this correspondence is its spontaneity and naturalness: these letters were written for each other’s eyes alone, with no thought of a curious posterity looking over their shoulders.’ Not a single thought? Well, perhaps not, though this growing cache of letters must have been kept with enormous care and it is likely that such a prolific writer and journalist as Churchill had somewhere at the back of his mind the idea that they, like Cecily’s diaries in The Importance of Being Earnest, must eventually be published.

Soames uses the sheer amplitude of the correspondence to attest to the closeness of her parents’ relationship. They would write to each other every day, when Winston was abroad, or at the Front, or on Cabinet business or taking in the restorative air of the Riviera – and also when Clementine was abroad, or with her troubled family, or on a bien pensant excursion to investigate the living conditions in the Solomon Islands, or taking in the restorative air of the Riviera. Even when together, they would type memoranda to each other, in beautifully clear sentences.

But does this correspondence not paradoxically indicate a profound division between them? Maybe it is not surprising that at the most important moments in Winston’s life – in 1940, in 1945 – they were apart, but they were apart on so very many other occasions, too. One reason that they blandly give each other for this happy and companionable estrangement is Clemmie’s health, a subject which most often arises in businesslike discussions about where she should go to regain it (self-pity is utterly alien to her, though not entirely to Winston). The reader gets an impression of Clementine’s tendency to indisposition, owing largely to her confinements. But then here is a letter she wrote to Winston in 1913.

I had such a lovely hunt this morning – We went out very early cubbing – nothing happened for a long time. Several cubs were killed just outside the coverts – about 11 o’clock Venetia [Stanley] – I were just going home when the hounds got away after a big cub (I believe it was an old fox!) – we had a glorious run for about half an hour.

She is always going away to recover from a series of ailments, including tonsillitis, bronchitis, lumbago and blood poisoning, and her letters from Winston are full of tender solicitude, and requests not to strain herself with her sporting interests, which (apart from riding to hounds) included skiing, golf and tennis mixed doubles.

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