Mary Soames: A Lady to the Very Core

Mary Soames is the youngest of the five children of Winston Churchill and his wife Clementine, and their sole surviving child. She is the widow of Christopher Soames, a Tory politician best known now for his decisive role in the dismantling of Rhodesia, but should be remembered also for his role in our joining the EU while he was the British Ambassador to France during four years of tense negotiation under the Heath administration.

Created Baroness Soames, a Lady Companion of the Order of the Garter, a Dame of the British Empire, she was also made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature for her services to English literature. Lady Soames was chair for many years of the National Theatre.

I interviewed her during the winter of 1992, despite her initial reluctance when her daughter Emma, who was editor of the Literary Review at the time, asked her for an interview at my request. She later relented, I was told, encouraged by reading an interview I had done with Lady Butler, which she had liked.

The interview turned out to be a great success. We got on extremely well and as a result I was overwhelmed by her charm, honesty and down-to-earth vision of the world we live in. I was equally impressed by her humility as to her background and achievements. In brief, these qualities I considered to be but a shining armour of her most endearing personal warmth.

When writing about your childhood you say that although elements of anxiety, sorrow and disappointment began to appear as the years went by, in your own recollection it is the happiness which predominates. Is that in effect a tribute to your parents who helped shield you from the darker side of life? 

I wrote those lines after describing life at Chartwell and the wonderful Christmases we had there. As life went on and I became a teenager I began to know that life wasn’t a Garden of Eden, and it was disquieting to me because of my idyllic childhood at Chartwell. The first time I saw my mother cry was one of the most traumatic moments of my young life. I had very rarely seen grown-ups cry and to see this beautiful woman whom I loved and admired, and also rather feared, weeping and completely integrated with grief was a terrible shock to me. I saw my parents a lot because we children were never kept away in the nursery wing, and also I was very much the Benjamin, so I strayed around all over the house and never felt I was excluded from my parents’ life when they were at Chartwell. I went to day school; I was never sent away to boarding school, and those parts of my life that my mother didn’t take personal part in she organized with perfection. I also had the most wonderful duenna figure in my life, a first cousin of my mother’s who came when I was a baby to look after me and stayed right through until I went away to the war; and so when my parents were absent I still had a wonderfully secure life. I adored Chartwell, believing that it was a very large house and a beautiful house; of course now I see that it isn’t a very large house and it certainly isn’t a beautiful one, but I do look back at my childhood as bathed in golden sunshine.

As the youngest child you were perhaps the one to benefit most from the stability that Chartwell offered. How important do you think that was in later life? 

I suppose I did have a rather different upbringing from my elder brother and sisters. I could try and count all the houses, the nannies and governesses and nurses they lived through, but that would be counter-productive. Does a very stable, almost cabbage-like existence, like a plant in the garden, with one set of influences make a great difference to a child? I suppose it does. There was Diana, Randolph, Sarah and then there was Marigold who died the year before I was born, so I was brought up almost like an only child. Sarah was already seven when I was born, Diana was thirteen, Randolph was eleven … they were godlike Olympian figures. Sarah was really the only one with whom I had close connections; I loved the others, but really didn’t know them at all. They inhabited a different landscape from me.

You describe your relationship with your mother at that time as respectful and admiring, rather than close. Was that a retrospective analysis or something you were aware of at the time? 

I grew into being aware of it and can almost date it: when I was thirteen my mother realised that Cousin Moppet had a great influence on my whole outlook on life and she saw that I was growing much closer to Cousin Moppet than to her. It was then that she started taking me away to ski in the holidays and I began to be more than just respectful and admiring. I came to love her in a much more real way I suppose, and it wasn’t without same painful interludes, because I was a tiresome teenager. My mother was a complex character, and could also be difficult, but I came to love her when I got to know her better.

Although your mother was devoted and conscientious there was never any doubt that Winston came first. You seem not to have any sense of grievance about this. Did you come to mind it later? 

Not at all. We all felt that our parents had other very important things to do. I never felt neglected emotionally or in any other way by them. It was in my mother’s nature to be dedicated, and it was true also of my father, luckily for him and perhaps the whole world as well. However, much later, when I knew my husband Christopher was going into politics, I took a vow in my heart that I would try to give my children a greater priority than perhaps we had with my mother. But I think it very important in this context to remember that when my mother was bringing up her children it wasn’t a mark of bad mothering to have nurses and governesses; it was part of the way of life in that stratum of society. I certainly never regarded her as a bad mother. She had some less than happy relationships within the family but I think that happens very often. If you have a number of children you’re probably not equally close to all of them.

Were you the closest to your mother? 

I came to be because of my position in the family as the youngest. When the war broke out for instance, Randolph was away in the army, my sister Diana was married and had her children. Sarah was married to Vic Oliver and then went into the air force. I did go into the army eventually, but by the time I was sixteen or seventeen the others had flown the nest. My mother more and more confided in me and we became much closer, but it was an accident of timing.

Was your mother difficult in her relationships with people generally? 

She was a very complex and emotionally charged character, but she wasn’t difficult all the time. She had enormously high standards which she imposed with varying degrees of success on her children, but she was also very hard on herself. She adored my father, was completely absorbed in his life, and involved in his politics, and she felt it all with every fibre of her being. But she was undoubtedly a highly strung animal.

But did she clash with your father because of that? 

Yes. Perhaps history would have been different if my father had married a docile yes-woman’ he might have had an easier time at home. But my mother had the will and the capacity to stand up to my father, to confront him, and to argue with him, and the fact that she had that capacity is more important than whether she was always right. I don’t think she was always right, but she took a passionate interest in his political life, and there’s no doubt about it that sometimes her judgements about his friends were truer than his. I’ve always thought my father married an equal in temperament and in spirit.

Would you say that she influenced his political life as well as his private life? 

She was a Liberal at heart and she never really changed, but she did have an influence on him though it’s quite hard to say exactly to what extent. He didn’t necessarily take her advice, but it was very important to him as a politician that she could enter into the arguments and the choices.

Did your father have time to show you affection when you were young? 

Both my parents were enormously affectionate, visibly so, and he was a great hugger, my father, and loved having us around. The stiff upper lip of the British upper class had really no part in our family life; it was something I read about in books. I may have been deeply shocked the first time I saw my mother cry, because that was as a result of a great drama in the family, but I often saw my father weep and it never struck me as odd that a man should express emotion. My mother could be cold when she wished to express disapproval or to distance herself from a person, but to walk into a room where they both were was to be enfolded and embraced. We were a very noisy and extrovert family; when we were happy we laughed and hugged each other, and when we were sad we cried, and when we were angry we stamped our feet – there was never any doubt about how we were all feeling.

What kind of thing made your father cry? 

He was moved by events and tragedies, by people behaving nobly, by poetry … I’ve seen him recite Shakespeare with his eyes brimming with tears. He wept easily and he wasn’t ashamed of it.

I know you hate being asked what it was like to be the daughter of Winston Churchill, so I will ask you something rather different. Were you aware of being set apart from your peers by virtue of your father’s importance, and if so, was that something you found difficult to cope with? 

It came upon me gradually. Of course, as a small child I took my parents completely for granted. It never struck me as odd, for instance, that my father wrote books, made speeches, built walls, painted pictures, but the realization of his importance and fame grew upon me. I may not have had a very profound understanding of events, but I realized that significant things were afoot. I used to listen to my parents talking, and with great events impinging on our domestic life, I came to realize that my father was an important figure who played a leading role in all this. We were all brought up with a great sense of public service. I would have thought it contemptible in me to have wished my parents to be at my school sports day; what did it matter if they saw me coming fourth in the egg-and-spoon race? When the war broke out and Papa took office, my feelings for him as his child became confused and mingled with the feelings I had as an ardent young Englishwoman. 1940 was special for us all, and my father was the hero of the hour to whom we all clung. Me too.

For much of the 1930s your father had been in the political wilderness. Then in May 1940 when power slipped away from Chamberlain, Churchill began his ‘walk with destiny’ for which he considered all his earlier life to have been a preparation. How great a part do you think destiny played in all this? 

Destiny played a great part, because he was a young soldier-of-fortune and seeking ‘reputation in the cannon’s mouth’, he could have lost his life on about five or six different occasions. Although my father longed to be in office in the 1930s, my mother often said to me that it was a real blessing that he never held office then, because he couldn’t single-handedly have turned the tide of appeasement and slow rearmament; he would have been involved in government in a time that came to be regarded, perhaps rather unjustly, as the dark decade when we were purblind, as it was he was able to start with a clean slate.

You served for five years with the ATS. The contrast between the life you had known and life in the army must have been stark. Did you find it an ordeal, or did the conditions of war make everything acceptable. 

I was thrilled to go into the army and rather gloried in the discomforts. I really did want to do my bit and felt I was part of this great enterprise going on. So I loved it and was a tremendously enthusiastic soldier, rather too much probably.

But did you feel that because of your father you were looked upon in a different light? 

Yes. I had difficult moments. It was always agony going to a new unit because I knew I wouldn’t be treated in quite the same way as others. I always felt I had to overcompensate, scrub more floors than anyone else.

Churchill offered his countrymen ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’, and they responded with indomitable spirit. Do you think that the strength of their response surprised him, perhaps humbled him even? 

Yes. The response of the British people was something which moved him deeply. He was very conscious of all the devotion and valour and dedication, and he valued them enormously. It was a pact really, between the British people and him.

Churchill was held in near veneration during his lifetime. In more recent times the history books have not been especially kind. How do you respond to criticism of your father’s wartime period? 

I try not to mind too much about judgements on public events. I dislike mean judgements and those based on being wise after the event. But of course my father must stand the test of history. He didn’t do everything right or make all the right judgements, but we did manage to win, despite all the mistakes, so I can only imagine the enemy made even more. One must keep these things in perspective, but of course I find it difficult to detach myself entirely, and when it’s a question of personal criticism, I sometimes know his critics are actually wrong.

To be a very successful politician, particularly in time of war, you have to take decisions which might be interpreted later on, or even at the time, as ruthless, where sometimes the innocent have to pay a great price. Do you think your father ever took decisions which were perhaps good for Britain but were rather questionable on moral grounds? 

My father would have done almost anything to win the war, and war is a rough business. I daresay he had to do some very rough things, but he wasn’t a man who took these sort of decisions lightly. All those things weighed with him, but they didn’t unman him.

You refer in your book to what you call ‘slaps at Winston’s departed greatness’. What did you have in mind? 

I don’t remember in what context I made that particular remark, but I suppose I was thinking of how much I minded that, in quieter times, people took slaps at my father. But I’ve been brought up in quite a rough political school, so one accepts that that must be so. No true historian of the war is guilty of unjust or ill-informed criticism, but people who write meretricious histories are being tremendously wise after the event. They assume that we knew that we were going to win. But when you lived through it at the side of people like my father who were so deeply involved in it, the uncertainties were enormous. I feel that people very often don’t understand how much the war was lived step by step and day by day.

Did your father ever despair? 

A lot has been made of the depressive side of his character by psychiatrists who were never in the same room with him. Of course he himself talks of his ‘black dog’, and he did have times of great depression, but marriage to my mother very largely kennelled the black dog. Of course if you have a black dog it lurks somewhere in your nature and you never quite banish it; but I never saw him disarmed by depression. I’m not talking about the depression of his much later years, because surely that is a sad feature of old age which afflicts a great many people who have led a very active life.

Was he dictatorial? 

No. He had a greater measure of power than any leader in democratic times in our country, but you must remember that every Tuesday when he was in this country and the House was sitting, he answered questions in the House of Commons. He always regarded himself as a servant of Parliament, and I don’t think there is a recorded instance of his having gone against the decisions of the joint Chiefs of Staff. Of course he would argue his corner but it’s not true to say he always got his way; he didn’t, and sometimes it made him very cross. Sometimes he even acknowledged they were right. Several times during the war he pressed something to a vote of confidence which people found rather tiresome because of course he would always get the vote of confidence, but he wished to demonstrate to the world that this was a war waged by a democratic country, and that he was empowered by the democratic vote, even at the height of war.

Your introduction to Christopher Soames was reportedly love at first sight … was he your first love? 

No. I can’t remember who was the very first. I was quite susceptible when I was young and I’d been in love with several people by the time I met Christopher. I was very attracted to men and fell head over heels many times. I was very high spirited and had a lovely time in a way, but when I came back from the war I found it quite difficult adjusting to my own class, funnily enough.

Were you flirtatious? 

Yes; but having been brought up strictly, I was quite prim. I was also horrendously innocent. I can only say the gods look after their own and I had a guardian angel. I don’t think I was very sensible.

Tell me how you first fell in love with Christopher Soames. 

It wasn’t love at first sight on my side, I have to say, but we met for the very first time in the British Embassy in Paris where, years and years later, he was to be ambassador … and that was rather romantic. My father and I were in Belgium and he was going to fly straight back to England, but the US Secretary of State was going to be in Paris and my father wanted to see him. We both flew to Paris for twenty-four hours, and in those twenty-four hours I met Christopher Soames. I think he fell in love straightaway, and I did quite quickly after that, but the first time, I really thought he had other fish to fry.

Did you have other fish to fry? 

No, I was rather unhappy when I came out of the army. I’d had an interesting, exciting war – as the equivalent of a captain. I’d served in mixed anti-aircraft batteries and, in much as it was possible then for women in England, I’d been in action against the enemy. In some ways one felt sparkling and confident and yet in other ways not. I hadn’t been in my own world for five years. The men in London whom I saw when I first came out of the army were either beardless boys who seemed to me like schoolchildren, or they were young married men very occupied with beautiful young wives; and most of my friends were either dead or still in the army or abroad. I found it quite difficult to re-establish life at home and I wasn’t very happy. I don’t think I woke up in the morning saying I was miserable, but looking back, it wasn’t a happy time in my life and I couldn’t think what I wanted to do. I didn’t have a vocation, certainly not a profession, and the only way I could have earned my living would have been as a lift operator or a scrubber of floors, so I was in rather a strange position. My father, although out of office immediately after the war, was enormously famous, and I was made much of and had a lovely time wherever I went with him; but my own actual personal life wasn’t very satisfactory. Then, within a year of being demobilized, suddenly wonderful Christopher Soames appeared on the horizon and, like my parents, we married and lived happily ever afterwards.

In your book about your mother, you describe a certain inhibition in Clementine which made for a barrier between her and her children, a certain formality and lack of spontaneity. Was that something you tried consciously to reserve in your relationship with your own children? 

Yes. My relationship with my children was quite different. For one thing it was more knockabout and workaday. It’s true, I had a nanny, a wonderful nanny, who looked after them all, but Christopher and I lived in the country and life was different. I think that all of us in that age group had a freer and cosier relationship with our children than our parents had had with us.

As PPS to your father, Christopher Soames was a key figure, particularly when your father suffered a stroke and was scarcely functioning. How was it possible to keep this from the public and keep things running smoothly? 

That’s really an extraordinary episode, and the more I look back on it, the more extraordinary I think it is. Again fate steps in. My father sustained the stroke in the evening at a dinner party at Downing Street; the next morning he presided at a Cabinet meeting. Harold Macmillan and Rab Butler and several others were absolutely amazed afterwards when they learned of the extent of the stroke. They all said that Winston was rather silent and looked pale but none of them at the time noticed anything seriously amiss. By the morning Lord Moran had diagnosed a stroke and my father headed for Chartwell having walked to his car from No 10. When he got to Chartwell which was an hour’s drive away, he couldn’t get out of the car, and had to be carried inside. So it was only then that the worse effects of the stroke became obvious, and at Chartwell he was kept absolutely incommunicado. That weekend Lord Moran told Christopher that he thought my father was going to die. Christopher didn’t tell me that, but I knew he was very ill. He was there for six weeks and somehow – it couldn’t happen now – Christopher and John Colville between them kept the machine turning over. Julian Amery is very naughty about it: he always says that Christopher was Prime Minister, but it isn’t true that Christopher ever said or ever felt that he was.

Did your husband ever resent the fact that his own natural politician prowess was sometimes obscured as a result of his kinship with Churchill? 

Not at all. Christopher loved my father, he loved him as he didn’t love his own father with whom he had an unhappy relationship. From the first they took to each other and were great friends. Christopher had become interested in politics when he was assistant military attaché at Paris during the Peace Conference, but he knew he owed an enormous amount to my father. I never heard him express anything other than that he was grateful for the start that his relationship with my father gave him. He was actually my father’s parliamentary private secretary before officially being appointed. Christopher was also able to do a great service for my father in that second period of office, first as leader of the opposition and then as Prime Minister in 1951. My father by that time was rather old and so very eminent people were quite frightened of approaching him, and it was through Christopher that quite a number of young MPs on both sides of the House used to gain access to him.

Did the fact that Christopher was very close to your father cement your marriage more? 

It was a wonderful thing. In the first ten years of our married life we lived in the farmhouse at Chartwell, and so we saw my parents constantly. It was a very close relationship, and gradually my mother became fond of Christopher. She didn’t like him at first, though she was pretty good about it. But I remember one day years later, certainly after Papa’s death, when Christopher, Mama and I were all sitting round at table, having a lovely cosy talk, and Christopher said to her, ‘You didn’t like me, did you, when I first married Mary?’, and I remember it so well, she put out her hand and covered his and said, ‘No darling, but I’ve made up for it since.’

Although his native talents were not in doubt, it was 1960 before your husband finally got out of his father-in-law’s shadow. Was that a relief to all concerned? 

I don’t remember feeling that. It seemed progressive. He had quite a difficult time getting a seat, despite being my father’s son-in-law. He was inexperienced politically and constituencies were quite wary of him to begin with. Somebody once implied that Christopher wouldn’t have been anything in politics if it hadn’t been for my father. It’s true that he might not have had the start my father gave him, and a wonderful start it was, but if Christopher had been no good he would have just fizzled out. In fact, he held Bedford for sixteen years and increased his majority each time.

You have sometimes referred to the golden years of Paris. What is it that makes you recall that period with such fondness? 

For one thing we were both strangers to diplomatic life, so it was a joint enterprise. We also had a wonderful welcome awaiting us because the French nation was in love with my father. We already had friends there and we took the school-age children with us and the others came in their holidays. Of course it had its ups and downs – the Soames affair (when the Foreign Office blabbed top-secret information) very nearly capsized the boat before we’d been there long, but Christopher survived it although his position was precarious for a while. In our time there, things were happening that were really interesting and exciting: the General died in 1970 … in itself the passing of an era; Pompidou became President; Ted Heath became Prime Minister; the summit took place in Paris where it was agreed that the French would remove their veto. It was intoxicatingly exciting politically, and all the time the life of the embassy was going on. I love France, and how could anyone not love living in Paris?

What did you think of de Gaulle? 

I admired him enormously; to me he represented, as he did to my father whatever their differences and quarrels, resurgent France, the soul of France. I was also much alarmed by him, but he was very civil and kind to me. The only time I really had a conversation with him was in at luncheon in the Elysée, when I sat next to him shaking with nerves. He was not an easily approachable person and we had an extraordinary conversation. He asked me ‘Que faites-vous à Paris, madame?’ and so I panicked and I said, ‘Je promène mes chiens, Monsieur le Président.’ Instead of putting me down for an absolutely asinine answer to his question, he became very interested. He wanted to know what dogs I had and where I walked them, and then suggested I take them to the Ile de Cygnes which is a little island in the middle of the Seine. He drew it for me on the menu, and thereafter I always used to walk my dogs on the Ile de Cygnes with grateful thoughts of the General.

Did you warm to him? 

I never had much time to, but I think one could have done. He was very fond of my mother, ever since the time when she flew at him for making a very anti-British remark. My father had missed it because he was at the other end of the table, and anyhow Papa’s French wasn’t very good, but when the General insulted the British fleet, Mama retaliated in perfect French. The next day there arrived the most enormous arrangement of flowers, and thereafter he respected and liked her very much. For years after my father died he sent my mother a personal letter on the anniversary of his death.

Many people now acknowledge that without your husband’s work and popularity in France, Britain might never have joined the community. Do you think he would have been saddened by the current wrangles? 

Yes. I’m glad he’s thought to have made a difference; I certainly think he did. Our version of Europe was formed during the early crusading days, and although you can never speak for people who are dead, I expect he would be saddened by the present misconception of what Europe is meant to be.

You must have had mixed feelings about your husband’s appointment to the governorship of Rhodesia. Did you ever consider not accompanying him? 

Oh no. In fact, I made it a condition that if he accepted it, I should go with him. I wasn’t going to be left behind. I didn’t know what I was going into, but I certainly wasn’t going to let him go alone.

Many people believe that there could not have been elections without bloodshed in Rhodesia had you not been such a brilliant husband and wife team. You must feel proud of that achievement. 

I feel very proud of Christopher’s part.

But you played an important part. 

No, I was just there. The fact that there wasn’t a complete shambles and breakdown was very largely thanks to Christopher and the brilliant team from the Foreign Office and the Commonwealth Monitoring Force. It was also enormously important that he was able to forge a relationship with Robert Mugabe. In the beginning their meetings were completely confrontational, and yet they became friends. I always thought it was a wonderful recognition of this when Robert and Sally Mugabe flew from Zimbabwe for Christopher’s funeral in our village church.

In 1980 you and your husband were both honoured in Mrs Thatcher’s list, such a joint honour without precedent. Was that an especially proud moment? 

Yes, I was staggered; it was very moving, very exciting for us. That was an extraordinary time, those winter months in Africa.

The following year Christopher Soames was dropped from Mrs Thatcher’s Cabinet, having been widely blamed for the disruptive strikes in the public services and for yielding to the unions. Do you think that was fair, or was he made a scapegoat? 

The civil servant strike was probably the breaking point, because he had advised Mrs Thatcher that certain terms should be met, and she ignored his advice. Then she dismissed him from the Cabinet, which she had every right to do, but without giving that as an exact reason. Two months later the strike was settled on exactly the same terms. I think he was made a scapegoat, but truthfully I never think of it. After all they were very dissimilar in outlook – he was one of the wets – and they weren’t easy colleagues.

It is five years since your husband died … has time ‘healed you of a grievous wound’? 

I’ve been very lucky. I have my children and I’ve been very busy. The acute pain diminishes, luckily, but the sense of loss is there forever; how can it not be, if one’s been very happy with somebody? It’s something that’s gone for good.

When you were appointed in 1989 to chair the board of the National Theatre it was rumoured that you were Mrs Thatcher’s revenge. What was the truth behind that appointment? 

It was the most rum appointment that there ever was. I was simply staggered to be offered the job. But I’ve just been reappointed for another three years so I feel that perhaps I have lived down my reputation for being Mrs Thatcher’s revenge. They thought I was being sent by a Tory government to sort out pinkos on the left bank, though naturally they were too polite to voice that opinion to me, but I have to say there was never at the time of my appointment any suggestion that that would be my role, and if there had been I wouldn’t have taken the job. I don’t know why I was appointed. Richard Luce said he just thought it would be a good idea, and nobody was more astonished than I was. It’s simply thrilling for me to have entered a marvellous new world, to work with talented, gifted people, and I’ve learnt such a lot.

Out of all the Churchill children, you alone managed to keep your marriage intact. To what do you attribute that? 

Luck. And I married a very nice man. I find your question so terribly difficult – I was dreading being asked that. Why does one marriage succeed and another fail? I don’t really know. I think we were both terribly lucky in finding each other, and we both tried very hard. A lot of commitment went into our marriage, but in the end it was just blessed good fortune.

Your elder brother and sisters had a far less settled early life than you. Do you think they paid for that with their marriages perhaps? 

Who can tell? I really can’t go into all that, because the answer is, I just really don’t know. I don’t think they had a bad childhood; they were very close to my parents when they were small, and it was only later that rifts a difficulties appeared, but even so, the door was never shut; it remained always open.

Your parents were obviously saddened by the marital problems of their children – ‘they grieved over the shipwrecks’, as you put in the book. Did they hold themselves in part responsible, do you think? 

I don’t know. I never heard them say so. I often knew them to be sad about it and try in so far as they were able to be a unifying force. In any case it isn’t always the result of difficulties in childhood. Two of my own children’s marriages have failed, and yet they were brought up in a united family, having the same home, the same childhood influences. It’s very hard to identify the root causes. The expectations that people have of marriage can be unreal and the climate we live in is not conducive to keeping a rocky show going. Sometimes people don’t try hard enough, or long enough. My parents had quite a number of disagreements and rows, and they lived through very difficult times. They weren’t always well-off in a marital sense, but they loved each other very much, and they also had a great commitment to the marriage, and I think that’s important above and beyond the commitment to yourself.

You suggest your mother was more comprehending than your father of the difficulties which beset unhappy relationships. You describe her as gentle and fair minded. Did you try and emulate her example when your own daughters’ marriages foundered? 

I hope I did. But no two generations meet the same problems in the same way, and no two problems are identical.

You don’t have much sympathy with the view – most current in American feminist circles – that your mother was eclipsed by your father, still less I suspect with the view that you were to some extent eclipsed by your husband … but isn’t there a degree of truth in it, all the same? 

I don’t feel in the least about myself. My life was tremendously widened and enriched by sharing in Christopher’s. The idea that a life is necessarily wasted because it is to a large extent devoted to promoting a husband’s career is something I don’t understand. I’m always amazed when people say to me that my mother’s life was eclipsed. It would never have occurred to her that she had been deprived, though of course it was a different generation. I certainly never felt eclipsed; I felt enhanced.

You write of your parents’ relationship. ‘She was scabbard to his sword, and she kept it shining.’ Do you think that sort of commitment still has a modern application, or is it hopelessly outmoded? 

I think it’s a little sad that husband and wife enterprises aren’t any longer thought to be particularly admirable. I’m in rather a muddle about this because I do want women to have careers, yet at the same time I recognize that it is quite difficult for women to have careers and to run families. I sometimes think that women have found liberation but haven’t quite found out how to manage it.

You have said many times: ‘I have lived with clever, gifted people all my life’, which rather ignores your own special gifts. Is this what is known as British modesty, or is there some deep-seated need to make light of your talents? 

I have enjoyed the company of clever, gifted people, and of course perhaps something rubs off on one. I don’t at all feel unfulfilled, or that I ought to have had a bigger role at all. I think I have been very fortunate in what has come my way. I never meant to write a book, for example, but once I started I rather warmed to the task. Although I’ve lived all my life with political people, I’m not in myself a political animal. There was never a point in my life when for more than five minutes I considered the idea of going into politics on my own.

I imagine you found it a very emotional experience to write your mother’s biography – that is certainly something which comes through in the writing. 

I said in my preface that it was quite impossible for me to write completely dispassionately or in an unpartisan way, but I tried to be fair, to stand back from it as much as I could. Inevitably, however, in writing about your own family, you do lose objectivity, but you also have knowledge that other people don’t have and a sensitivity that outsiders couldn’t have.

I suppose you discovered many things about your mother that you were barely conscious of during your childhood and young adulthood. Did you also discover things about yourself? 

More about my mother. I tried to efface myself as much as possible. When I started to write I hadn’t really understood about her very difficult early life about which she told me a great deal when she knew I was serious about the book. I also discovered that Mama lacked the capacity for happiness. By that I am referring to something beyond the circumstances in her life because I would never suggest that she and my father were not happy together. In fact I find it very difficult to understand the hurtful things that have been written recently, that it wasn’t a happy marriage, for example, and that my mother was enormously difficult. She could be difficult, but it isn’t only easy people who are loveable. She was someone who felt things very deeply and she was a rather lonely person.

Did you discover things that disappointed you? 

No. I found things that explained certain other things which I hadn’t understood before. If I ever revise the book I’ll write some parts a little differently, particularly those concerning the period in childhood when you don’t think about your parents as having lives of their own; it’s later that you see it.

In the love and devotion between your parents which spanned over half a century, there seem to have been only two ripples … one when your father wrote to Clementine saying that she absolutely had no need to be jealous, we know not of whom; the other when your mother at the age of fifty fell in love with Terence Philip. I had the impression that you tried to play down the possible significance of this attachment saying these five months had ‘the unreality of a dream’. Did you perhaps feel some conflict at that point between your role as daughter and biographer? 

By that time I was old enough to want to understand, and I wrote what I believe to be the truth about that relationship. I truly believe it had the air of unreality about it; it was a holiday romance, and she came back to base. She certainly didn’t seek it, and he for his part was, I believe, quite lukewarm. How much do you tell your children about a relationship you have had with a man who isn’t your father? I asked her ‘Mama, were you ever in love with him?’ and she said, ‘Well, I was rather in love with him, for a time, and he wanted me to be.’ But it wasn’t a commitment, it wasn’t planned and plotted, by which I mean she didn’t go on the cruise to meet Terence Philip. But when she came back she brought a little dove with her; it lived for two or three years with us and when it died it was buried under the sundial in the garden at Chartwell, and round the base my mother had engraved the words: ‘It does not do to wonder too far from sober men, but there’s an island yonder. I think of it again.’

Is infidelity always damaging in marriage, do you think, or can some marriages rise above it, even benefit from it? 

I’m sure marriages can rise above it, and I’m very sorry whenever I see that lack of fidelity has caused a marriage to crash to the ground. Fidelity seems to me to be a very important ingredient in marriage; it’s part of the commitment, but equally I think it’s in certain people not to be able to be faithful, and one must hope then that they are married to partners who can sustain that. For my own part I would have hoped not to know about it; and if I had, I would have hoped to keep it in proportion.

On the issue of Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson, your father – unwisely as it turned out – publicly supported the idea of Mrs Simpson as queen consort. Your mother was shrewder, and predicted the political fall-out. Was your father simply being naïve, do you think, or did the marriage appeal to his romantic side? 

He primarily felt devotion and loyalty to Edward VIII, and felt that he was being cornered. I’m sure that he deplored his wanting to marry a divorced woman, but he so much wanted to keep the king on the throne that he did search for possible ways round the difficulty. I even remember hearing morganatic marriage talked about, which has no part in our constitution at all. Because of his loyalty to the king he didn’t appreciate how much public opinion was against this situation, and of course the dominions all came in strongly against it. My father underestimated that, but my mother never did. I remember they had awful disagreements over this, and my mother was very bitter because she felt that my father’s views in opposition about standing up to Germany were just beginning to be accepted by a lot of people, and suddenly this issue made it seem as if he were deliberately setting out to spike the Prime Minister’s guns, which wasn’t true at all. It was a really good example of my mother being shrewder than my father, but my father’s loyalty was deeply engaged, as was his sense of romance. But there was a very moving coda to the story. My parents were at the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, and as Queen Elizabeth, now the Queen Mother, was being crowned in her own separate ceremony, my father turned to my mother and said, ‘You were quite right, Clemmie, the other one would never have done.’ The beauty of the service had brought home to him what the consort of the sovereign really means.

How did he view the exile of the Windsors? 

He always remained on friendly terms with them, although he had quite a difficult time during the war with the Duke of Windsor who kept making unsuitable demands; trivial requests would arrive at a moment when my father was grappling with the aftermath of Dunkirk or something, and it was by no means easy to deal with them; but he always remained his friend.

As we all know, Churchill took an instant loathing to the eightieth-birthday portrait of him by Graham Sutherland, feeling that he had been betrayed by the artist. Do you feel any sense of betrayal that you were not told of the painting’s destruction till after your father’s death? 

That was an instance when I saw a side of my mother that did quiet astonish me. She used to tell me a lot, and she simply didn’t mention this. Of course I regret that she destroyed it, but I don’t believe all the claptrap that she didn’t have the right to. It’s all a very unhappy story. Christopher and I and Mama were on our way to Jamaica for a holiday to help my mother recover from my father’s death. We were on board either the Queen Mary or the Queen Elizabeth, in the drawing room, and I can remember to this day how I nearly slid off my chair when Mama suddenly cleared her throat and said, ‘Oh by the way, I think I probably ought to tell you and Christopher that I had that dreadful portrait of your father destroyed.’

You must have felt a sense of discomfort at the very least when you were forced to lie about the fate of the Sutherland portrait while your mother was alive. You say it was the correct decision – what exactly lay behind the decision not to reveal the truth till your mother’s death? 

We all took the view that Mama didn’t realise the hornets’ nest it would stir up. She was a most courageous woman, but she was quite old then, and we thought that she didn’t appreciate the awful reaction it would cause in the artistic world. Christopher and I tried to tell her how strongly people would feel about it, and we begged her not to say anything. She never mentioned it again. I like to think that I’m a truthful person basically, but I did for twelve years lie through my teeth when asked about it. People were always trying to get hold of it to stretch the canvas, or clean its face, or put it on exhibition or something. It was awful. But I would do the same again.

You write very movingly of your sister Diana’s suicide, saying that your parents were spared the extreme shock and grief, due to what you call ‘the dulling of sensibilities’ which accompanies old age. You were not spared the same extremes, I imagine. How did you come to terms with it yourself? 

Suicide is such a cruel thing, because it leaves a terrible legacy that people have to live with, of questioning, of self doubt. And I agonized for her children. It was a very sad time, and one of the worst things I’ve ever had to do in my life was to tell my mother and father about it. My mother was ill in hospital and she was rather sedated at the time. I remember walking all the way back from the Westminster Hospital to Hyde Park Gate, trying to think how I could tell my father. I also had to tell Sarah who was in Spain. She adored Diana and was very close to her. I remember having to shriek down a bad telephone, but there you are. Diana was a marvellous person and it was a great tragedy, but worse for her children, awful for her children. I hadn’t always been close to Diana, but I was growing closer; I had always been, even as a middle-aged woman, her much younger sister, and I am afraid in her eyes I was rather  ‘teacher’s pet’ – funnily enough these attitudes sometimes last into adulthood. But we were just really beginning to overcome that, and then this awful thing. She had a very unhappy life, yet my father wrote such beautiful things about her when she was born. She was such a wanted child, and much loved by both my parents, a golden child right into her teens.

Your brother Randolph died a sad and bitter man. You write most poignantly: ‘As always in sorrow Clementine had little to say.’ What do you imagine her thoughts to have been? 

Only when I was writing my mother’s life did it hit home that she had buried all but two of her five children. It’s a bitter thing for a mother. She didn’t have a happy relationship with Randolph, and though she always tried to be helpful and loyal, the misunderstandings were profound. And then when somebody dies, you have to wait for eternity to put them right. My mother wasn’t a self-pitying woman, but she felt it all very deeply and would love to have had a marvellous relationship with both Randolph and Diana. I hate talking about these family relations, and I certainly don’t do so in any spirit of judgement. But my mother was a thinking woman, not an insensitive one, and I’m sure she felt very deep regret and grief.

You must sometimes have had the feeling, particularly when your father died, that he somehow belonged as much to the British people as to your own family. Did that help ease the loss, or did it sharpen it in poignancy? 

When my father died it was a great loss, but also for him it was such a release. Life had become a burden, and it would have been a selfish person who would have wanted him to linger after all he had done in life. It was time, it was time. It’s quite a different sort of sadness from that which you feel when somebody hasn’t run their course. He was ill for a fortnight, and after ten days it was known publicly that he was ill, and from that moment onwards you really felt that the whole world was there at his bedside. I can only say it was the most extraordinary feeling. The funeral I shall remember always.

You have sometimes joked that you feel like the last of the Mohicans. Am I right in thinking a certain sorrow infuses the jocularity? 

Yes. One’s alone in the little shelf of one’s generation. I miss Sarah particularly; she was the closest to me, and when she died, it was awful. We were great friends, and she was always my heroine. She had unhappy times in her life but she was a marvellous person, and we were very close in the months before her death. I miss her very much. But anybody who lives beyond seventy or so is in the foothills of old age, and you can’t arrive there without suffering anything. I think I’ve been so fortunate because I was loved by my parents, I was loved by my husband, and I am loved by my children. My father once wrote: ‘You must accept life with all its contrasts, the good and the bad, the dark and the bright.’ For me the death of my husband was and is a terrible loss, but I had happiness in great measure and I consider myself enormously blessed that life has brought enrichment beyond anything I could have hoped for or deserved or expected.

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