This is the story of a political marriage. In some ways it will be familiar to the contemporary reader, though it began and ended a long time ago.
Both husband and wife in this marriage were interested in politics. The husband was elected again and again over decades to high office. For decades his wife fought at his side, entertained at his table, offered her judgment to him and his colleagues and his enemies. She took his place in his absence, and sometimes in his presence. She became an international figure. She had power, and she used it. Always she had a mind of her own.
Sometimes this couple would quarrel. Once a serving dish was thrown. There was a period, not too long, when one of the partners was out of sympathy with the other, or anyway in sympathywith another.
They knew trouble. They lost a daughter and many friends to death, and some friends to betrayal. They fought political wars at home in which their own party tried to deprive them of office. They fought shooting wars abroad — including the worst ever. More than once, they seemed down and out. Their livelihood as much as their career was threatened. After decades of struggle they reached the summit of power and they knew the adoration of a nation and a world. By then they had grown old together.
Readers of this story will find that wives did not enter politics yesterday, and private lives were influential in politics before last week. But in other respects this story is unlike anything we have known in this time. Here are two people who won every honor that human affairs can offer, and they won them together. Meanwhile they operated upon those natural and traditional lines that involve that deepest of partnerships. Their division of labor augmented the strength of them both beyond what either could do, apart or together, if they both had done the same parts of the job. True, this is the story of a political partnership. More than that, it is a marriage.
The editor of this book is the youngest child of Winston and Clementine, Mary, now Lady Soames. She brings to the work care, intimacy, and insight. She has adopted some of the best devices of Sir Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s official biographer, to make the book available to the reader unfamiliar with the times and the people. Her notes are useful. She lets the letters themselves convey the story.
One sees right away the amazing pace at which these people lived. Winston Churchill was a soldier whose bravery and judgment in battle were beyond doubt. He wrote every line of every speech he ever gave, save perhaps one, and they are not surpassed in eloquence or impact or amplitude. He wrote serious books, nearly forty of them. He served in the British House of Commons, and mostly in the Cabinet. Meanwhile he made his living writing and speaking in publications and before audiences all over the world. Their house teemed all day and much of the night with secretaries, researchers, and colleagues. He wrote once that statesmen should exist in a condition of “stress of soul.” Ever he took that advice for himself.
And necessarily, then, he imposed it upon his wife.
Winston Churchill and Clementine Hozier were married in September 1908, and they remained so until parted by death in 1965. Martha Washington, wishing to keep her relations with our Founding Father private, burned most all of the letters that passed between them. The Churchills’ letters are preserved intact in their remarkable abundance. Partly because they were so busy, and partly because they took many vacations apart, occasions to write were frequent. In their day the post traveled rapidly — Fed Ex was not necessary; e-mail was unavailable; the telephone came along, but its frequent use developed later. And so they wrote, and well they wrote.
Nuggets are found in every shaft of this mine. Sir Winston is candid with his wife as with no other, especially in times of triumph or stress. When the first war begins, he unveils his character: “Everything trends towards catastrophe & collapse. I am interested, geared up and happy. Is it not horrible to be built like that? And yet I would do my best for peace, & nothing would induce me wrongfully to strike the blow.” Another time, in a very different mood, he writes: “you have seen me very weak & foolish & mentally infirm this week….” And then the man of unbreakable will proceeds: “I cannot tell you how much I love & honor you and how sweet & steadfast you have been through all my hesitations & perplexity.”
Clementine often bears the burden of saying to her husband what others cannot. When the first war begins, she cautions him about the feelings of a dismissed Admiral: “there only remains the deep wound in an old man’s heart. If you put the wrong sort of poultice on it, it will fester.” When the second begins, she writes: “…there is a danger of your being generally disliked by your colleagues & subordinates because of your rough sarcastic & overbearing manner…. Therefore with terrific power you must combine urbanity, kindness and if possible Olympic calm.”
The letters of Winston are often more abstract and reflective than those of his wife. Sometimes they are effectively first drafts of things he will later publish. His life is saved once in the trenches by an annoying general who makes him walk two miles under fire just for a little chat; when he returns his dugout and all in it are destroyed. He reflects: “it is all chance or destiny and our wayward footsteps are best planted without too much calculation. One must yield oneself simply & mentally to the mood of the game: and trust in God which is another way of saying the same thing….”
At the same time, one sees in the husband a sharp need for his wife. It is he who is “lonely among crowds.” It is he who has no one but her “to break the loneliness of this bustling existence.”
History has more to say of Winston than of Clementine. He saved his country and more in a desperate crisis, and he leaves behind him a written account of prudential wisdom that is not surpassed. Both his words and his deeds exhibit a longing for honor. He fought for it. He met its demands with utter resolve and lifelong resilience. But of course there was more to his life than that. Honor itself is limited by the high purposes that define it, including the promises and affections that make a family. So he could write to her, at one of the lowest points in his life: “the nearer I get to honor, the nearer I am to you.”
Churchill ends My Early Life, his explicitly autobiographical work, with the passage: “Events were soon to absorb my thoughts and energies at least until September 1908, when I married and lived happily ever afterwards.” And so together they did. And do.