Sonia Purnell’s Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill is a big book (448 pages or 14 CDs) overflowing with the juicy details of life in the upper class Churchill household.
Clementine the Great
Purnell’s Clementine looms larger and more remarkable than the indomitable Eleanor Roosevelt, her American counterpart! Her Clementine simultaneously enabled Winston’s outsized career while defining and filling the role of England’s premiere First Lady.
Clementine the Confidant, Adviser, Surrogate
Clementine pampered Winston to excess, personally arranging his homes, his meals, and his guests to his liking and needs. Another might have done that as well. But Clementine also starred in the roles of confidant and stand in. Winston told her everything. She was his sounding board and adviser about politics, government and, especially, war. She helped write his famous speeches, stood in for him on the hustings — keeping him in Parliament continuously for over 40 years — and was his charming and effective surrogate with everybody who was anybody in the UK and beyond. It was her finger that tipped the scales in his favor when Winston was busy being Winston.
Clementine on Her Own
Clementine showed her independent mettle during the great Wars. With Winston busy in the War Office, she worked tirelessly on behalf of the YMCA organizing canteens to nourish and comfort the WWI munitions workers. Afterward, she was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her efforts.
During World War II she was Chairman of the Red Cross Aid to Russia Fund, and President of the YWCA War Time Appeal, among other executive roles. Near war’s end, Russia recognized her contributions, awarding her the Order of the Red Banner of Labor, an honor usually reserved for Russian nationals . (Learning that she was to receive the award from Stalin himself, Winston urged her to explore the Russian leader’s plans and mindset.) After the War, in 1946, the Queen made her a Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire.
More Stew Than Steak
Unfortunately, the book reads like the first draft of a made-for-TV period drama. (I like Essie Davis for Clementine.) The author, who was a toddler when Clementine was in her dotage, writes as if she were her intimate. Chatty and gossipy, Clementine is a lightly fictionalized biography that sometimes takes liberties with the facts. While the immediacy delivers impact, the closeness diminishes veracity.
There’s a lot to chew on in Clementine, but it’s more stew than steak. To pick and choose, I recommend the print version over the audio, whose reader (Susan Lyons) is as stiff-lipped as the text is extensive.