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The Churchills’ letters spanned more than half a century and revealed their thoughts on love, war and politics.

By Martha Goodman

Winston Churchill’s name immediately brings to mind an imposing public figure, the British prime minister during World War II of whom Douglas MacArthur said, “A flight of 10,000 miles through hostile and foreign skies may be the duty of young pilots, but for a statesman burdened with the world’s cares, it is an act of inspiring gallantry and valor.” But in Winston and Clementine: The Personal Letters of the Churchills (Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston and New York, 1999, $35), Mary Soames, the only surviving child of Winston and Clementine Churchill and the editor of this new work about her parents, shows us the private man, whose interests included things as diverse as oil painting and racing horses.

Winston fell in love with a woman who was equally enthusiastic about politics. Clementine was a prominent figure in all his political campaigns, and, although he did not always agree with her, Winston highly valued her opinion. Soon after they met, they began a dialogue in letters that lasted more than half a century. Soames has chronologically presented some 1,700 letters, notes, telegrams and memoranda–no small task, since some of these documents are undated. The letters were occasionally written while the two were under the same roof. Clementine could argue better in writing than in person, and a verbal discussion was apt to end badly. Once she became so incensed during a disagreement that she shied a dish of spinach at Winston.

Through their voluminous correspondence, readers can trace the course of their political involvement as well as their relationship with each other. Prior to World War I, for example, Winston writes that he is “interested, geared-up, and happy,” freely admitting that the war preparations held a kind of hideous fascination for him. At the same time, however, he saw war for the true hell that it is. Later, after the disastrous Dardanelles operation–the attack on Constantinople masterminded by Winston, for which he was blamed and dismissed by the government–his letters reveal his frustration. In correspondence written from France, where the former first lord of the Admiralty was then serving as an army officer in the trenches, he at first seems despondent but also enormously relieved of the “worry and vexation” he had faced in Parliament. Clementine expresses her fear that, if Winston is killed, people will say he sought death out of grief. Later still, he gives vent to his resentment at having been treated unjustly and vows to clear his reputation.

The two write candidly about people inside and outside the British government as well as other public figures. Summing up American General George Marshall, for example, Winston writes, “There is no doubt he has a massive brain and a high and honourable character.”

Additional information included by Soames provides another window on the family. She speaks frankly of family love affairs and personal failures, including the divorces among her siblings, the drinking problems of both Sarah and Randolph, the death of Diana following an overdose of sleeping pills, and the romantic attachment of her mother to a fellow passenger on one of her long cruises. She tells of the “dark year,” 1921, when the family faced numerous crises and the Churchills lost their young daughter, Marigold. In addition, Soames has included the charming Chartwell Bulletins, in which Churchill writes of farm life and repair work on Chartwell Manor.

Toward the end of World War II, Clementine traveled to Russia on a goodwill tour for the Red Cross. As V-E Day approached, however, Winston warned his wife to return home quickly because “beneath these victories lie poisonous politics and deadly international rivalries.”

At times readers will be acutely aware that this is, after all, a British book. For example, when Winston becomes miffed after the United States tries to collect war debts owed by Europe, he mentions his “known hostility to America.” On occasion, Clementine refers to the Americans as “swine.” During World War II, she worries that a “Pacific slant may be given to this next phase of the war,” and she asks for reassurance that “Europe must be liberated first.” In a letter about Leros, in the Dodecanese Islands, she writes, “I often think of your saying that the only thing worse than having allies is not having allies.”

Disagreements over strategy in the Mediterranean during World War II marked a low point in British-American relations. In a letter about Operation Anvil, the invasion of southern France, Churchill writes, “Eisenhower’s operations have been a diversion for this landing [in Italy], and not the other way round, as the American Chiefs imagined.” Before going to the Second Quebec Conference, he writes that this trip will be his most necessary visit yet, because various differences must be resolved. He expounds at length, deploring the fact that “Alexander’s splendid army is being pulled apart by American strategists.”

This book was obviously a labor of love for Soames, who is to be commended for her explicit annotations, minute biographies of supporting characters, the splendid way in which she fills the gaps between letters, and the wealth of information she delivers. This intimate look at the Churchill family is not to be missed.