The cherubic Winston Churchill is perhaps the greatest conversationalist the world's ever known. He practically butts elbows with William Shakespeare in the pantheon of the departed masters of English wit. With the release of Mary Soames's new memoir - "A Daughter's Tale" - it's now clear that his gift of gab (in detail, if not in drollness) has passed down untainted to his children. Soames, now in her late eighties, has released a heartfelt memoir recollecting her years growing up under the wings of a larger-than-life father.
She was in the unique position of witnessing the rumblings of WWII from the chambers of the Churchill residence, and lucky enough to be present for historic conferences like the Potsdam gathering after the European victory over Nazi Germany in 1945. As an aide-de-camp to the most influential man of the twentieth century, her intimate stories transport you to a time that is at once historic and profoundly personal. If Mary's tale isn't proof enough, Churchill truly did understand the importance of the nuclear family, exemplified in one of his many lovable quotes: "There is no doubt that it is around the family and the home that all the greatest virtues, the most dominating virtues of human society, are created, strengthened and maintained."
September 1922 saw another event of even greater importance to the Churchills’ family life than the birth of the “Benjamin”—myself. In the very week I was born, Winston made an offer for Chartwell Manor, near Westerham in Kent. Three years earlier, Winston and Clementine had sold a charming old house and property, Lullenden, near East Grinstead in Sussex, which they had bought in the latter part of the First World War, chiefly to get their (and Winston’s brother Jack’s) children out of London and away from the zeppelin raids. It had been a real haven for everybody, but the small farm proved a real money loser, and in 1919 they had most regretfully sold it. Since then the whole family had greatly missed their country life. Long school holidays were spent in rented houses, but these were no substitute for one’s own home, and Winston and Clementine were soon on the lookout for another “country basket” (as Clementine called it). One major problem stood between them and their dream house: money—or rather, the lack of it. However, in January 1921 a totally unforeseen event dramatically changed their financial situation: the death, already noted, of Lord Herbert Vane-Tempest. He was childless, and through the tortuous processes of entail his considerable fortune, in the form of the Garron Towers estate in Ireland, passed to Winston. Now the remote hope of a “country basket” became a bright possibility, and Winston and Clementine kept their eyes and ears open.
Presently Winston saw Chartwell. About twenty-five miles from London, it was a dilapidated and unprepossessing Victorian house built round a much older core, standing on a hilltop commanding the most sensational view to the south over the Weald of Kent. Below the house the hillside falls away to a lake, fed by a spring—the Chartwell—and alongside the whole valley ran a wide belt of beech woods sheltering the property from the north and east. Winston fell—at once and forever—in love with this beautiful place. He, of course, hastened to show it to Clementine, whose first reaction was enthusiastic—“I can think of nothing but that heavenly tree-crowned Hill,” she had written to him in July 1921. But on subsequent visits she became aware of several major defects in its condition, and soon realized that the cost of making the house habitable would be significantly higher than the original estimates. Furthermore—perhaps most serious of all the drawbacks—she feared the house and property would be too much for them to run and maintain. Time would prove her right in both these judgements. However, to all her arguments Winston was deaf—although for a time he went “quiet” on the plan to buy this place which had so beguiled him. Then, during the second half of September, while Clementine was fully occupied with their new baby, Winston presented her with a fait accompli—his offer for Chartwell had been accepted. Clementine, contrary to Winston’s earnest hope, never came to share his love of Chartwell—and never quite forgave him for his (totally untypical) lack of candour with her at the time of its purchase.
The autumn of 1922 was an eventful one both for the Churchills domestically and for the country politically. While Winston lay very ill from an emergency appendectomy in October, the famous and fateful meeting of the Conservative party at the Carlton Club put an end to the Coalition: Lloyd George and his government resigned, and were succeeded by Bonar Law and a Conservative administration. Parliament was dissolved, and at the ensuing general election in November the Conservatives won a large majority over the Liberals, the latter fatally divided between the followers of Lloyd George (Winston among them) and of Asquith.
Winston’s seat in Dundee, which he had represented for fourteen years, was gallantly fought by Clementine and a band of devoted supporters until Winston, still in a very weak condition after his operation, arrived late in the campaign. It was here that I made my first entry into politics, at the age of seven weeks, when in the local newspaper a photograph of my mother arriving by train from London for the campaign bore the unhelpful (and, in the circumstances, churlish) caption: “Mrs Churchill and her unbaptized infant [my italics] arrive in Dundee.” A further ill omen was their local address in Dudhope Terrace. Winston was roundly defeated, thereby evoking his rueful comment that he found himself “without an office, without a seat, without a party and without an appendix.”
After all these events and calamities, Winston (liberated from the ties of government and Parliament) and Clementine took themselves and their brood off to five sunshine months in Cannes, where they rented the Villa Rêve d’Or. Winston recovered his health, painted, and pondered his future; Clementine loved the warmth and played a lot of tennis; and I (after my first singularly unsuccessful foray into politics) lay cocooned in my pram.
i was nearly two years old when our family moved into a rehabilitated and largely rebuilt Chartwell, after all the usual hazards and hindrances, compromises, and final ill will between architect and clients which seem inevitably to accompany such enterprises.
Winston, with the three “Big Ones,” Diana, Randolph, and Sarah, formed the pioneer party, moving in with a basic survival kit and minimal staff support in the Easter holidays: Winston wrote his first letter to Clementine from Chartwell on 17 April 1924. But it would be nearly another two months before she, Nana Whyte (who will figure very prominently in my story), “Baby Bud” (me), and the rest of the household took up residence. The first weekend guests signed the visitors’ book in the last weekend of June.
My first memory is snapshot-clear, and must be from that summer. I am lying in my big pram under the great yew tree on the lawn in front of the arcaded windows of the new dining room. Woken up from my midmorning siesta, I am greatly bored: I start jiggling (I am really too big now for the pram), and (securely held by my harness) manage to rock my “boat.” Now I try a back-and-forth movement: this is great fun—except suddenly the pram pitches forward on to its handle, and I slide down, held awkwardly suspended by my straps. Suddenly grown-ups, clutching white table napkins, are running towards me—a luncheon party was in progress, and my plight had been observed: I am rescued, taken into the dining room, consoled, and made much of. I think dining-room life is very agreeable, and plan to join it as soon as may be!
At this point I must introduce Nana. After the trauma of Marigold’s death, and the departure of Mlle. Rose, Clementine was much shaken in her confidence, and, fully aware that her life with Winston would always mean frequent absences from her children, cast about to find a more mature nanny/nursery governess figure to take charge of them. As chance would have it, she did not have far to look: her own first cousin, Maryott Whyte, was a trained Norland nurse—then, as now, the ne plus ultra in terms of child care. Maryott, known as “Moppet,” was the younger daughter of Lady Maude Whyte, a daughter of the Earl and Countess of Airlie and so Clementine’s aunt. Lady Maude Ogilvy had made a late, and—since she had next to no money herself—improvident marriage to Theodore Whyte, himself an impoverished gentleman land agent. The Whytes had four children—Madeline, Mark (who would be killed aged nineteen in Flanders in 1918), Maryott, and Felix. The two girls were well educated, but, unlike their female cousins (or indeed the majority of their female social contemporaries), knew that they must earn their living. Madeline was an intellectual artisan, learning carpentry and working at the famous Doves Press. Here, under the tutelage of Cobden Sanderson, she became an expert in bookbinding, a craft she subsequently taught herself for many years. Moppet was sensible and intelligent, but less eccentric than her elder sister: she elected to train as a children’s nurse and, at the time her cousin Clementine Churchill was looking round for someone to take charge of her lively nursery/schoolroom, was aged twenty-six and in one of her early posts after completing her Norland training.