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The bulldog’s daughter
by Barton Swaim
A review of A Daughter's Tale: The Memoir of Winston Churchill's Youngest Child by Mary Soames
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Winston Churchill’s life defies attempts to fit it between hardcovers. His son Randolph tried it first, completed two volumes, but only got his father to the outbreak of the First World War. That was completed brilliantly by Martin Gilbert, but it took another six volumes to get him all the way to 1965. Roy Jenkins’s one-volume life is excellent in its way, but it treated cursorily or left out a great deal, and the book still ran to an unwieldy thousand pages. William Manchester published the first two of his planned three-volume life, The Last Lion, but the third volume was only published in 2012 by another author, Paul Reid, Manchester having given up and died.
Better, perhaps, to approach the great man’s life through partial perspectives. There is The Fringes of Power (1985), John Colville’s marvelous diary written during his time as an aid at 10 Downing Street from 1939 to 1955, or Violet Bonham Carter’s Winston Churchill As I Knew Him (1965), a substantial work of history as well as the source of many of the best Churchill anecdotes. Now there is A Daughter’s Tale, the reminiscence of Churchill’s youngest daughter and only surviving child, Mary Soames. The book is just as engrossing, though shorter and not so penetrating, as these others. Soames turned ninety in September, but her writing shows no signs of murkiness; it is clear, sharp, occasionally opinionated, and understatedly witty.
Lady Soames (as she has been since 1972) takes us from her childhood at Chartwell, populated mainly by farm animals and, on weekends, the country’s most famous politicians, through the war years during which she worked in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, or ATS, in an anti-aircraft unit, and finally to her marriage to Christopher Soames in 1947. The book is far more than a collection of entertaining tidbits about aristocrats and politicians, though it has its share of those (Jack, Winston’s brother, playing tunes by tapping his teeth with his fingernails; Mary and her sister calling Lord Mountbatten “Glamour pants”). A Daughter’s Tale is a serious memoir, even apart from its portrayal of the author’s father, and Soames shows a keen awareness of the darker parts of human nature. She recalls, for example, her teenaged cousin Esmond Romilly, an atheist (he would later become a communist and the husband of Jessica Mitford), wagering that he could make her deny Jesus Christ “in sixty seconds flat.” Mary, then around twelve, said he couldn’t, so “Esmond got up and drew a washbasin full of cold water, frogmarched me to it, and held my head down. After two dousings I of course denied my Saviour.”
The American edition of the book has dropped Clementine’s name from the subtitle, but she features in it nearly as prominently as her husband. Soames is her mother’s biographer, and here, too, Clementine appears as a complex personality, prone to “emotional, electric storms” but loving toward her children, unshakably loyal to her husband but intolerant of his more fanciful ideas. We learn of her “flaying” the Conservative Chief Whip David Margesson over luncheon at No. 10 after Margesson uttered some statement Clementine thought suggestive of appeasement. Soames remembers her mother shouting “Oh you old son of a bitch!” at Winston during one of their flare-ups; and she tells the story (also in Colville’s diary) of Clementine storming out of a service at St. Martin-in-the-Fields in 1940 when the officiating clergyman urged a pacific attitude toward the country’s enemies.
Many of the events Soames records have been recorded before, but in A Daughter’s Tale we have a new eyewitness account of them: she quotes heavily from her diaries and from her letters to her parents and others, and her memory seems remarkably unaffected by the seven intervening decades. She was with her father when, for example, he arrived at Bristol University in April of 1941 to award honorary degrees. The surrounding neighborhoods had been bombed the night before; men kept arriving late to the ceremony, “grime on their faces half washed off, their ceremonial robes on over their firefighting clothes”; and yet people whose houses lay in ruins cheered for the Prime Minister and slapped him on the back as he passed.
Mary was her father’s aide-de-camp when he visited New York in the early fall of 1943. She records a luncheon with President Roosevelt at which Helen Rogers Reid, the publisher of the New York Herald Tribune, expressed disapproval of Britain’s India policy, a subject on which Churchill had notoriously hidebound opinions. Instead of defending British policy, the Prime Minister asked whether she meant “the brown Indians of India, who have multiplied alarmingly under the benevolent British rule? Or are we speaking of the red Indians in America, who I understand are almost extinct?” She was with him, too, during the 1945 general election, when the United Kingdom ousted its leader as soon as he’d finished saving it. Soames records her father’s dejected resignation. “I’ve thrown the reins on the horse’s neck,” he remarked to an adviser, Michael Parish. “But you won the race,” Parish replied. “And in consequence I’ve been warned off the turf.”
The book reminds us how difficult it was, physically, for Churchill to win the race. Other biographies have recorded his bouts of pneumonia (one in 1943, another in 1944) but not with the eye of a daughter; again and again she quotes her worries over his (to her) obvious physical exhaustion. On the brighter side, I don’t remember any other book on Churchill revealing so touchingly his penchant for ridiculous attire: “[C]lothed in a padded silk Chinese dressing-gown decorated with blue and gold dragons”; “Papa was wearing his mauve and black quilted dressing gown over his siren suit and a soft black hat”; “We had a tent pitched half way down the beach from which Papa emerged in shapeless drawers—smoking & with his ten gallon hat on.”
A Daughter’s Tale is a terrific memoir and there are thirty-two pages of photographs, many of them published for the first time. The absence of an index is the one fault I can find in this otherwise superb book.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 March 2013, on page 63
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