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Review: New books on Winston and Clementine Churchill

Winston Churchill with his wife, Clementine, shortly after

Winston Churchill with his wife, Clementine, shortly after VE Day, 1945. Credit: Press Association Images

No publishing season is complete without the obligatory complement of books on Winston Churchill. The famed statesman is as popular as ever with biographers and historians.

There is a vast bibliography on the main outline of his life and role in the Second World War, but the books reviewed here, one a biography of Clementine, Churchill’s wife and confidante, the other a study of his personal finances, show there are still fresh and interesting ways to illuminate the life of one of the 20th century’s outstanding figures.

Sonia Purnell’s fine biography, “Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill” (Viking, $30) brings out of the shadows this formidable woman who was much more than strictly a spouse. “The case can be made that no other president or prime minister’s wife has played such a pivotal role in her husband’s government,” Purnell writes.

Her journey to the heights of power was unlikely. Clementine Hozier came from cash-strapped gentry, the product of a broken home with a mother constantly on the move. (Her father worked for Lloyds Bank, but stinted on payments after the divorce.) The union with Churchill was also unlikely — he could have married into money, but chose Clementine, who, unlike other potential mates, was earning her own living as a French teacher.

It was a match of fiery temperaments. Churchill was notorious for his bluster; as for Clementine, the “slightest setback, such as cold soup or a late delivery, could send her into fury.” But through emotional turmoil, political setbacks (there were many) and personal tragedy (the traumatic loss of a child in 1921), Clementine and Winston forged a decades-long partnership.

Purnell makes excellent use of their voluminous correspondence, which reveals a vulnerable side of Churchill’s gruff bulldog image. In one letter, he rhapsodizes “[My] greatest good fortune in a life of brilliant experience has been to find you, & to lead my life with you. . . . I feel that the nearer I get to honour, the nearer I am to you.”

In the testing hour of war, Purnell argues, Clementine’s gifts for reading the mood of the country helped Churchill immeasurably. As he maneuvered to defeat the Axis Powers, Clementine put on a charm offensive for visiting American officials. (The author’s account of the war is especially juicy on the gossip front.) She vigorously answered letters and kept Churchill in touch with the plight of regular Britons. She penned minutes for her husband on transport issues and coal supplies, among other topics.

Clementine’s unofficial yet powerful role irked her husband’s advisers, yet she was a mainstay. “Frequently seen smiling alongside her husband, Clementine became the human face of Winston’s government and was looked to as someone who could get things done,” Purnell writes.

Yet behind the smiles were dark moments and doubts. In the ’30s, during Churchill’s long spell in the political wilderness, Clementine contemplated divorce. A major source of tension was money. Churchill made a lot of it — and spent even more, on houses, cigars, wine and tailoring. He also lost a packet on the stock market.

In “No More Champagne: Churchill and His Money” (Picador, $32) author and banker David Lough opens up the ledgers and scrutinizes the balance sheet. The real protagonists of this story are pound notes, and there are just not enough of them to go around. Churchill’s money problems were congenital: his mother, an American heiress, had similarly expensive habits. “We both know what is good — and we like to have it,” he wrote her as a young man.

A cascade of figures and bills — too many of them — wash across these pages. Churchill’s overdraft ballooned to £8,000 — the equivalent of about $544,000 today. Between 1908 and 1914, he annually spent £1,160 — about $145,000 — on booze alone. His famous country house, Chartwell, turned out to be a money pit. What kept Churchill afloat was his career as a freelance writer. Churchill worked furiously on both sides of the Atlantic, scoring book deals and magazine commissions galore.

Churchill’s financial habits, especially his gambling, tormented Clementine, who fretted endlessly about money. Churchill kept trying to cut back — “No more champagne is to be bought,” he instructed her in 1926 — but his profligate habits always caught up with him. Lough covers all this with a mind numbing level of detail. Alas, this is a book only a banker — or a Churchill fiend — could really love.

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