The New York Times published 30/03/1999 by Michiko Kakutani
Winston and Clementine - The Personal Letters of the Churchills
Winston Churchill's life spanned nine decades and his public life a momentous six. He not only presided over one of the most crucial turning points in modern history, galvanizing the British people's will to survive during the darkest days of World War II, but he also bore witness to most of the formative developments of the 20th century, from the prosecution of World War I to the dismantling of the British Empire to the opening salvos of the cold war.
Throughout these tumultuous events and the wild ups and downs of his own political career, Churchill received love, succor and lots of hardheaded political advice from his beloved wife, Clementine, whom he married in 1908 after a short, intense courtship. As this wonderful new volume of letters, judiciously edited by their daughter, Mary Soames, attests, the two were prolific correspondents, even slipping each other notes and memos while under the same roof. Their letters form a lifelong dialogue, a passionate record of their 57-year marriage and the public events that formed a backdrop to their lives.
The Churchill the public has come to know -- confident, egotistical, purposeful and romantic -- is very much in evidence in these pages. With the advent of World War I he writes Clementine: ''Everything trends towards catastrophe & collapse. I am interested, geared-up & happy. Is it not horrible to be built like that?'' Energized by adversity, this Churchill can declare from the trenches of World War I France that he knows that ''the greatest of my work is still to be done'' and that ''now -- naked -- nothing can assail me.''
His descriptions of people and places are pithy, to the point and often unforgiving. He observes that de Gaulle ''thinks he is Clemenceau (having dropped Joan of Arc for the time being)'' and adds that ''many of these Frenchmen hate each other far more than they do the Germans.'' He confides that President Franklin D. Roosevelt does not tell his wife ''secrets because she is always making speeches and writing articles and he is afraid she might forget what was secret and what was not.'' And he complains that Yalta proves ''that the Big Three in their first and most important action have managed to pick out the very worst place in the whole world for their Meeting.'' There is another Churchill in these pages, too, however: a playful, boyish, plaintive Churchill, eager to please his wife and quick to apologize for his absorption in politics. He decorates his letters to her with charming animal drawings (he calls himself ''Pug'' or ''Pig,'' Clementine ''Cat'' or ''Kat'' and their children the ''puppy-kittens'') and prattles on about the swans and chickens at their country estate. Her love, he declares, ''is the greatest glory & recognition that has or will ever befall me.''
In 1916 he writes, ''Sometimes also I think I wd not mind stopping living vy much -- I am so devoured by egoism that I wd like to have another soul in another world & meet you in another setting, & pay you all the love & honour of the gt romances.''
As for Clementine's letters, they evolve from girlish exclamations to sophisticated epistles, filled with affection, concern and political counsel. Although Churchill does not always follow her advice, it is clear that he relies upon her willingness to offer contradictory or moderating opinions. She warns him about David Lloyd George, the Liberal Welsh statesman, whom she regards as ''a sneak,'' and though she fears for Winston's safety as a soldier on the front lines during World War I, she cautions him not to return prematurely to the battlefields of English politics. ''To gain a share of War direction you are contemplating a terrible risk, the risk of life-long disappointment & bitterness,'' she writes. ''My Darling Love -- For once only I pray be patient. It will come if you wait.''
These World War I letters, written after the debacle of the Dardanelles campaign (for which Winston was largely blamed) and his precipitous fall from political grace, represent some of the most moving and illuminating exchanges. At the nadir of his fortunes, Winston pours out his feelings to Clementine: his regrets, hopes, frustrations and dreams. He tells her what a relief it is to ''write one's heart out to you'' when he must keep a stiff upper lip in front of his men on the Western front, and he implores her to stay in touch with his political allies back home. ''It is fatal to let the threads drop,'' he writes, reminding her to ''represent me in their circle.''
These wartime exchanges, like the Churchills' World War II correspondence, vacillate between events of the gravest national concern and daily domestic matters, between allusions to life-and-death decisions and talk about their children's schooling and haircuts. While Churchill often seems invigorated by the enormous pressures upon him, it is Clementine, fearful for his safety, who usually sounds anxious, despite her best efforts to keep both their spirits up.
As ever with Churchill, the reader comes away awed by his prodigious energy, his disparate enthusiasms for everything from painting to animal husbandry to history. While he is spinning out these myriad letters, notes and telegrams to Clementine, he is also writing the books that would win him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953 (including a six-volume history of World War II and ''A History of the English-Speaking Peoples'' in four volumes), and of course, helping to chart the course of Britain. By the end of World War II his relief at the Allied victory was tempered by dark (and in many ways prescient) concerns about the future. ''The misery of the whole world appalls me,'' he writes Clementine in 1945, ''and I fear increasingly that new struggles may arise out of those we are successfully ending.''
During the last decade and a half of his life a series of strokes undermined Churchill's phenomenal capacity for work. His last election campaign at the age of 84 drained both him and Clementine, and a year later, in 1960, he told one of his daughters, ''My life is over, but it is not yet ended.'' He would retire from Parliament in 1964, having been a member almost continuously for more than half a century.
Though the letters between the Churchills slow to a trickle in the final years, they continue to send each other little notes and love messages that are touching in their frail brevity, testaments, in Churchill's words, to their ''happiness in a world of accident & storm.''
The New York Times published 30/03/1999 by Michiko Kakutani