Winston Churchill is one of the most closely examined (and lionized) of all politicians, and it is accordingly difficult to think of new angles from which to view him and his legacy.  But now here are two original and complementary studies coming at once, one profiling his wife, Clementine, the other examining the impressive public figure through his unimpressive private finances.  Both books are not quite the first words on their subjects, but both are also likely to prove the last, establishing themselves in the extensive Churchillian historiography as the go-to texts for future inquirers.

It is strange that a major biography of Clementine—a charismatic, clever, and strong-minded person who, as Sonia Purnell demonstrates, exerted a salutary and at times world-altering influence over her husband—should not have been written sooner.  Churchill’s physician once observed that his eminent patient’s conviction began “in his own bedroom,” and the siren-suited symbol of “standing alone” occasionally referred to Clementine, only half-jokingly, as “She-whose-commands-must-be-obeyed.”  Clementine, the author avers, “relentlessly privileged the national interest above her own health, safety and family,” alternating pillow talk, blazing rows, walkouts, and creative economizing with elegant hospitality, informal diplomacy, proficient public relations, and highly effective charitable works, for which she would be honored by three British monarchs, and even by the Soviet government.  Yet her sway, like that of other powerful women, has gone largely unnoticed, semiburied amid a welter of family anecdotes, staff reminiscences, and political marginalia.  Clementine also disliked being interviewed.  It took an exceptionally indefatigable seeker after truth (among Purnell’s previous books is Pedal Power: How Boris Johnson Failed London’s Cyclists) to put together a coherent and convincing narrative from so many scattered sources.

Like Winston, Clementine was the grandchild of an earl (the earl of Airlie), but she was always a poor relation.  Her parents once moved to avoid creditors and were reduced at times to making their own clothes.  While Winston grew up amid the splendors of Blenheim, his wife-to-be was the “product of a broken home, a suburban grammar school, a lascivious mother and a formative year spent in and around the fish market at Dieppe.”  That “fish market” reference may remind British readers, disconcertingly, of London’s Billingsgate and its proverbially scatological fishwives, but Clementine’s Dieppe was actually an English artistic colony presided over by luminaries like Aubrey Beardsley and Walter Sickert.  (She would always be more interested in art than her husband, and later encouraged his painting hobby.)  Her nominal father, Sir Henry Montague Hozier, probably not her biological father, was autocratic, dour, and suspected of finagling, while her mother was often more interested in paramours (sometimes several at a time) than in providing for her offspring.  Clementine nevertheless emerged as a highly poised and well-educated young woman and she was greatly admired when she arrived on the London scene, notwithstanding her dubious parentage and relative poverty.

Winston clearly liked her athletic looks and quick wit, while she was drawn to his power, as hinted at in a letter she wrote to him in 1919: “You took me from the straitened little by-path I was treading and took me with you into the life & colour & jostle of the high-way.”  She and Winston seem also to have been brought together by shared secret knowledge, both having experienced childhood bullying, youthful unpopularity, and neglectful parents.  Yet their marriage almost didn’t happen.  Winston took an inordinate time to pop the question.  A piquant anecdote about the showery day he did ask has the two sheltering in a Grecian folly at Blenheim, Clementine telling herself she would give her suitor as much time to ask as it would take a spider to cross the floor.  Had that auspicious arachnid scuttled a little more quickly, the two might never have combined, and the course of British history might have been quite different.

Despite spending most of their 56 years of marriage living quite separate existences even while sharing the same roof (or maybe because they did), these two very different personalities remained bound to each other.  (He called her “Cat,” and she called him “Pug,” in a stream of baby-talking correspondence.)  Whatever was happening in the world, and however many enemies he made, Churchill could be certain that “Clemmie” would fight his corner with energy and intelligence.  She became privy to everything that concerned him (excepting his purchase of the Kentish estate of Chartwell, a money pit)—his health, his financial problems, his electoral prospects; his relations with Asquith, Lloyd George, and the Conservatives; the campaign to embroil America in the Old World’s war; the blow-by-blow action of the Battle of Britain; the details of D-Day—and took on countless lesser burdens to allow him to concentrate on what really, really mattered.

Come whatever did, there were always excellent meals on the table, cigars in the box, brandy and champagne to quaff, clothes laid out, servants to serve, maids and schools for the children, time to write the articles and books that so often staved off bankruptcy.  Clementine was almost always available to advise, attend meetings, canvass, network, and pick up the pieces incurred in any mess.  Even his justly celebrated wartime speeches were run past her before delivery, and he would turn to her after broadcasts to ask, “Was that all right?”  Clementine may even once have saved his life when she grabbed him as he teetered on a platform edge at Bristol station as a train approached; she also bolstered him during his blackest period. Sacked from the admiralty after the Dardanelles debacle, he became vastly dependent on her, sometimes climbing into her unmade bed to feel close to her when she was away, or telling her he became “frightened” whenever she was absent.  His upbringing in heavily staffed great houses had made him largely incapable of catering for himself, and encouraged a general insouciance about money: “Clem entine struggled to see a way out[;] Winston simply assumed there would be one.”  (David Lough begins his book by quoting his subject as saying, “The only thing that worries me in life is money.”)

There were constant family problems to contend with, too.  The Churchills’ daughter Marigold died just short of her third birthday, Diana battled with barbiturates and breakdowns (she killed herself in 1962), Sarah became an alcoholic, and their only son, Randolph, was a boorish and feckless ingrate.  Also, Clementine’s relations with Winston’s mother, Jennie, were rivalrous, and Clementine (doubtless a reaction to her own mother’s behavior) disapproved of Jennie’s bed-hopping.  Finally there were  Winston’s manifold shortcomings—his depressions, extravagance (F.E. Smith once remarked that Churchill “was easily satisfied with the best”), garrulity, impatience, lack of political sense, quick temper, and self-absorption that verged sometimes on sociopathy.  As an example of this last trait, after his name appeared on an IRA hit list, he barricaded himself away in an attic chamber behind a steel door and brought a gun to bed every night, while the heavily pregnant Clem entine slept in her usual unsecured room downstairs.  Clementine is thought to have considered divorce several times between the wars, but there were practical drawbacks, while the spouses kept gravitating back to each other from what seems to have been psychological necessity, a shared desire for what Purnell calls “comfort and protection.”

Clem entine  herself was capable of obnoxiousness, often falling into a fury by something as minor as cold soup or a flower arrangement.  The children could never relax with her, feeling obliged to be constantly entertaining in her cold presence, while staff sometimes found her terrifying.  But maybe the most startling thing we learn about her here is how, despite her disapproval of extramarital sex, she nonetheless facilitated it in the interests of the war effort.  She allowed her daughter-in-law Pamela to cuckold Randolph with Averell Harriman and other useful Americans—at best pretending the affair wasn’t happening, but at times almost encouraging it.  Clementine also indulged Sarah’s equally useful extramarital liaison with Gil Winant, an American ambassador.  She knew Pamela and Sarah were unhappy in their marriages, and sex has always been used as a weapon in matters of state.  Nonetheless, such revelations leave an aftertaste, this defender of the global high ground behaving just a bit like a Borgia.  It does not seem quite to fit with the moral exemplar Pamela remembered as “Presbyterian . . . a very good woman [who put] morals . . . above any emotion.”  She could also be a terrific snob.  Winston’s private secretary Jock Colville noted, “It amused me mildly that Mrs. C, who does nothing but profess democratic and radical sentiments, should put off inviting any of the officers to dine until the guard consisted of the Coldstream.”

After 1945, both Winston and Clementine were as used up as the country he had so recently commanded, and old problems came flooding back to add to the accumulating ailments of age.  Among these, financial worries returned, as England added impecuniousness to ingratitude, and Churchill became an embarrassing Colonel Blimp (David Lough recalls his history teacher telling him in 1964 that Winston was “a romantic old windbag”), his attitudes antediluvian, his postwar administrations exercises in futility, his bank balance still fluctuating.  After he died in 1965, she remained loyal to his shade for the almost 13 years left to her while she preserved his myth, keeping up appearances by sales of effects, taking up a pointless life peerage, striking up confiding conversations with relative strangers and the epically indiscreet Noël Coward—a symbol of an aimless kingdom, living in ever less splendid isolation, trading on the past, with nothing to hope for, a deeply poignant winding down of an extraordinary life.

It is testament to the persistence of the Churchill legend that a major publisher should have thought devoting a few hundred pages to a detailed discussion of Winston’s finances would be a commercial proposition.  Everyone knew already that Churchill was a spendthrift, and how many of even the most cultish Churchillians feel a need to read the dismal details of his bank balances, debts, loans, mortgages, and sundry outgoings?  A great many, it seems, to judge from the fact that No More Champagne was listed by the Times, Wall Street Journal, Daily Mail, and Guardian among their recommended books for 2015.  And No More Champagne is very well crafted, indeed masterly in its handling of its material, as one would expect from a former private banker in possession of a first-class history degree from Oxford.  But is that material intrinsically interesting?

The unexpected answer is yes.  In a period when we like to whinge about wealth, and demand “transparency” from even the most pathetic of our politicians, it is entertaining to be reminded of Churchill’s conspicuous consumption, gambling, impulse purchases, late bill-paying, speculation, and tax avoidance.  His finances have a flamboyant, freewheeling flavor, in keeping with a British tradition of buccaneering capitalism but very much at odds with today’s prissier standards.  Furthermore, because Churchill’s money problems were akin to those experienced at the time by many other aristocratic families, his personal economic history is also a national narrative, that of landed interests being increasingly superseded by new money derived from the railway, mining, and newspaper industries.  Victorians and Edwardians waxed rich, the Great War wreaked economic havoc to add to its aching human loss, the 20’s to the 40’s were financially touch-and-go, the 50’s pinched, and much of that time Churchill’s personal surpluses and deficits paralleled those of his beloved, doomed empire.

His political views were partly formed by financial pressures that brought him into regular contact with, and helped him to understand, the new class of entrepreneurs, some of whom would prove invaluable at times when he might otherwise have gone under.  His ease with these people, and his experience of economic precariousness, also help account for his fractious relations with the Conservative Party: complacent, protectionist, and still largely wedded to the landed order.  “A common thread of exceptional risk-taking unites Churchill’s financial dealings and his political career,” Lough notes.

There were countervailing pressures, too.  His need to take on writing commissions and lecture tours simultaneously raised his profile and gave him less time for front-line politics.  Lough suggests that one of the reasons why Churchill later returned to the Conservatives was that he had by then inherited his great-grandmother’s Irish estate.  Churchill’s many adorers need to be reminded that their man found time in the war years to better his position, the major debts of 1939 having been transformed into four million pounds of profit by 1945.

Through endless telling details, Lough helps to portray the statesman in full—colorful but constrained, idealistic but enmeshed, a man always caught partway between destiny and his bank manager.  As well as being unexpected, No More Champagne is an understated triumph of the biographer’s art—an acutely English appreciation of a great Englishman present at the alteration of everything, a prisoner of circumstances as much as a shaper of things to come.


[Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill, by Sonia Purnell (New York: Viking) 448 pp., $28.00]

[No More Champagne: Churchill and His Money, by David Lough (New York: Picador) 544 pp., $32.00]