WINSTON AND CLEMENTINE: THE PERSONAL LETTERS OF THE CHURCHILLS Edited by Mary Soames Houghton Mifflin 702 pp., $35
As the youngest child of Winston and Clementine Churchill, Mary Soames enjoyed a close relationship with both parents. From the time she was 7, they included her in "grown-up lunches," which she describes as "a rich diet of interest and fun, but also educative." As an adult she sometimes traveled with her father as his aide-de-camp, and on other occasions she vacationed with her mother.
But it was not until Lady Soames edited her parents' voluminous personal correspondence for a book that she gained a deeper understanding of the quiet forces that helped to shape their relationship during an extraordinary 57-year marriage. The letters, she says, gave her a clearer perception of three subjects that absorbed them: politics, money, and children.
"I came to see how early my mother had been involved in politics," Lady Soames says during a lunchtime conversation about her book, "Winston and Clementine: The Personal Letters of the Churchills."
Calling her mother's interest in her father's career "a very important factor in the success of the marriage," she says, "If she had been indifferent to politics, or bored, it would have been different. Politics is a very demanding mistress."
The letters also offered insight into the couple's financial situation. As a child and an adolescent, she says, she had not realized "how pushed for money they were when they were first married. For his time and class, he wasn't a rich man. My mother had no fortune. My father kept us by his pen." For decades her parents lived "from article to article and book to book."
References to the couple's five offspring also proved to be revealing. Lady Soames says, "I found it very touching, and sometimes sort of saddening, to read all the mentions about the children. Sometimes they wrote about us with pride and pleasure, sometimes with anxiety or even disappointment."
When the Churchills married, Lady Soames explains, a telephone would have been available in the houses where they stayed, but always in a very public place - hardly conducive to sharing private thoughts and feelings.
"It's very lucky for us that their marriage came at that point, before telephones became an instrument of chat," she says. "They always really preferred writing to ringing."
Even when the Churchills were in the same house, they often slipped letters under closed doors, a form of delivery Lady Soames calls "house post."
The 800 "letters of love" she has included in this collection, culled from 1,700, offer perspectives on diplomacy - a window on history during the first half of the 20th century. They also provide musings on domesticity and a portrait of a close and sustaining marriage.
Here the revered statesman who led the British people through the darkest hours of World War II is also the husband reliant on the perceptive advice of his wife, whom he nicknamed Cat. She called him Pig, and both decorated their letters with whimsical animals.
The letters also show Churchill as a devoted father. "My darling Clemmie," he wrote on March 26, 1926, when he and the children were staying at Chartwell, the family's country estate, and Clementine was visiting the British ambassador and his wife in Rome. "All is well here. Mary [three] breakfasted & Sarah [eleven] dined with me. Diana [sixteen] talked quite intelligently about politics & seemed to have a lot of information derived from the newspapers. They are all vy sweet & it is a joy to have them down here."
Yet the Churchills' marriage was not always an easy union. As Lady Soames explains, her parents were different in terms of their taste for people, the hours they kept, and their preferred leisure activities. Both were "quite fiery," she says, noting that she witnessed disagreements and rows. Mrs. Churchill once even threw a dish of spinach at her husband. It missed him but damaged the wall.
Reflecting on why her parents' marriage endured as it did, she says, "They were in love with each other. One knows that doesn't necessarily make sticking-fast glue, sadly. But they had a tremendous commitment to the marriage. And they both had the capacity to say, 'Sorry.' That is such an important ingredient."
Her father liked to quote the biblical injunction from Ephesians, "Let not the sun go down upon your wrath." She adds, "They minded terribly if anything was ruffled or rough between them, and sought to put it right instantly. My goodness, they were in a hurry to make up."
Lady Soames notes that because her mother did not have personal ambitions for herself, she was able to fuse her ambitions with those of her husband. "She was an old-fashioned thing known as a helpmeet. She was so fulfilled."
In one note, Clementine wrote, "My Darling I do love you so much & I constantly think of you & of all you do and are.... I send you my Heart's Love...."
Although Clementine was 10 years younger than Winston, she lacked his stamina and often retreated to a health spa or vacation spot. As her daughter recalls, "Even when she was cast down in spirit, and sometimes feeling rather poorly, there's hardly ever a letter when she doesn't have an updated newspaper and quite spirited comments."
On Sept. 12, 1948, in honor of their 40th anniversary, Winston wrote, "My Beloved, I send this token, but how little can it express my gratitude to you for making my life and any work I have done possible, and for giving me so much happiness in a world of accident & storm. Your ever loving and devoted husband W."
That world of "accident & storm" included deep personal sorrows. Their fourth child, Marigold, nicknamed Duckadilly, died three months before her third birthday. "My mother never talked about it," Lady Soames says quietly. "I think it was a terrible, terrible grief in her life." The Churchills' oldest daughter, Diana, committed suicide in 1963. Another daughter, Sarah, struggled with alcoholism.
Yet whatever sadness shadowed the family, a spirit of indomitability prevailed. During the years in the 1930s when Churchill was out of office, Lady Soames says, "He was dying to get back into government. But even then there was no time when I didn't see my father happily occupied - painting, bricklaying, writing. It made life at Chartwell the greatest fun."
Lady Soames, a regal woman with a warm smile, describes her parents as "both people with very high standards and aims. My mother could be quite severe. But I'm very grateful for it now."
Speaking of her parents, she says, "It was great fun being with them. They were very steadfast in their relationship and kept the ship steady. It was a remarkable relationship. It inspired us."