One important thing I learned while reading Lady Clementine by Marie Benedict is that her name is pronounced in the British style to rhyme with Josephine, not the American pronunciation which rhymes with Maritime. It was nice to return to my favourite genre, historical fiction, especially since I enjoyed the same author’s earlier book, The Only Woman in the Room so much. Winston Churchill has innumerable books, films, and documentaries dedicated to his life, but what do we know about the woman behind the man?
Clementine Hozier was born into the aristocracy but unfortunately, did not enjoy the wealth that usually accompanies the status. Her bohemian mother was a gambler and an alcoholic and as a result of her numerous affairs and string of lovers, there was never any definitive answer to Clementine’s actual paternity. She grew up in a family that was consistently broke and Clementine was required to tutor students in French to earn money to help support the family.
By the time she met Winston Churchill at a dinner party in 1908, she had grown into a confident, independent, politically aware young woman. He was immediately impressed with her beauty, her intelligence, and her forthrightness. Winston was an ambitious young politician from a family far wealthier and more affluent than her own and he envisioned his life married to a clever, informed woman. Their courtship was brief and their marriage was attended by England’s highest ranking members of society.
Their marriage, however, was not always a happily-ever-after story. What started out as the usual tender, young love soon took on far greater and more stressful dimensions. While Clementine welcomed and even enjoyed her greater involvement in his career, living with Winston the man was quite a different matter. After the honeymoon phase of their marriage wore off, Clementine realized that Winston Churchill was an extremely high-maintenance husband. Like most husbands of the day, women took second place in the marriage, even though they often contributed equally.
Four children were born to the couple during the early years of their marriage and like most aristocratic families of the time, the nurturing and raising of children was delegated to various nannies, who were not always reliable or qualified. Two girls, Diana and Sarah were followed by a son, Randolph who proved to be a lifelong challenge and disappointment for his mother. Difficult and temperamental, Randolph’s bad behaviour was ignored by his father which caused ongoing friction between Clementine and Winston. A third daughter, Marigold, the fourth child was sickly and unwell.
Even though Clementine genuinely loved her children, she was not particularly maternal and her handing them off to nannies turned out to ultimately be a source of pain and regret in her life. By the time their fifth child, a girl named Mary was born, she adopted a more hands-on style of mothering and was supported and assisted by an able nanny who was also a cousin.
As Winston’s career rose and fell and rose again, Clementine worked relentlessly vetting his speeches and acting as a sounding board for his political strategies. This was all accomplished while Clementine and Winston both suffered the effects of crippling mental illness and depression, or as it was carefully couched in her case, as nervous exhaustion. He treated it with alcohol and erratic behavior while Clementine went for regular rest cures.
The role of Clementine Churchill has been vastly underrated and unappreciated over the years. She acted as a buffer between his irascible personality and the members of their staff. She advised him on political decisions and made sure he was informed of issues that were not immediately evident to him because of his position. Clementine Churchill initiated numerous social programs to improve wartime conditions in bomb shelters, for widows, and the general population.
I must confess to finding the early part of this book to be overly romanticized and a bit flowery at times. It’s the job of a writer of historical fiction to imagine conversations and scenarios but I found Marie Benedict’s language in Lady Clementine was not as compelling as in The Only Woman in the Room, her fascinating earlier biography of Heddy Lamarr. But the interest factor arched upwards as I got further into her World War II years. Overall, I’m glad I read Lady Clementine and would rate it 7 out of 10.
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