A new biography of Winston Churchill’s wife has just been released, timed to coincide with the seventieth anniversary of VE day, and Clementine’s story is a good one. She was far from the ‘little wife’ you might imagine: their rows were legendary and Winston was usually the first to surrender.
Clementine was born in 1885 and her childhood was unhappy. Her paternity was uncertain, her mother was a serial adulterer and gambler who repeatedly uprooted the children, her beloved sister died of typhoid when she was fourteen, and her mother couldn’t afford the university education recommended by her teachers. She briefly had to earn her living sewing and teaching French.
When she was nineteen, she first met Winston, ten years her senior. At that time, the gauche man didn’t impress her, but by the time they encountered each other again four years later, Clementine had been engaged several times, always to older men. Their mutual attraction was instant, Winston proposed a month later and they were married later that year. Although she was the granddaughter of an earl, she had to deal with plenty of snobbery from Winston’s aristocratic family when they became engaged, partly because she made her own clothes.
Clementine had five children but maintained a keen interest in politics and refused to sit back and play the passive role expected of a political wife. Sadly, this had traumatic consequences for her children; her own difficult childhood made her a distant mother. During World War I, Clementine organised canteens for munitions workers. Politically, she supported the Liberal party and hated the ‘brash, vulgar Tories’. At this stage Winston, was also a Liberal and she became his social conscience, supporting him in his work to establish the welfare state. When he changed parties, she didn’t follow him. They also fell out over women’s suffrage; Clementine was a keen supporter.
It’s no surprise that their marriage was turbulent. Winston wasn’t the easiest man to live with, egotistical, selfish and with an extravagance that strained their finances. Between the wars, Clementine briefly considered divorce and fell in love with another man. She argued with Winston during the Edward VIII abdication crisis when she recognised that Winston’s views were out of step with those of the public. But their marriage was strong, and her influence on her husband considerable. She re-wrote his speeches, toned down angry letters and helped him recover from political mistakes. During the Second Word War, as well as being the most trusted advisor to a man whom Clement Atlee described as ‘Fifty percent genius, fifty percent fool’, she was active on the home front, gaining the respect of the allies and the government and became a life peer. It has even been suggested that her hospitality helped to negotiate America’s entry into the war.
Clementine’s loyalty to Winston, however, could never be questioned. In 1951, she opposed Winston taking another term of office. He ignored her, though her advice turned out to have been astute. When the House of Commons commissioned at portrait to commemorate Winston’s eightieth birthday, he hated it, saying that it depicted him as a ‘down-and-out drunk who has been picked out of the gutter in the Strand’. Later she secretly destroyed it, ensuring it would never be put on public display. After Winston’s death in 1965, she took up her place in the House of Lords, though increasing deafness limited her political activity.
She died aged 92 in 1977, having outlived three of her children. But her achievement in making Churchill the greatest world leader in history should not be underestimated. Churchill’s chief of staff, General Ismay, said that without Clementine the “history of Winston Churchill and of the world would have been a very different story”.