24 OCTOBER 1998, Page 48

An odd couple

John Grigg

SPEAKING FOR THEMSELVES: THE PERSONAL LETIVRS OF WINSTON AND CLEMENTINE CHURCHILL edited by Mary Soames Doubleday, £25, pp. 702 With very rare exceptions, men of genius are first and foremost in love with themselves. Winston Churchill was not one of the exceptions. He was married to himself and to his destiny long before he married Clementine Hozier in 1908. By then he was already a Cabinet minister, and his friend and colleague Lloyd George said that at his wedding he talked politics in the vestry.

Clementine was a woman of beauty, intelligence and spirit. Several other such women had turned him down, because they could not face the implications of being married to such a man. Clementine knew what she was doing, but did not shrink from the challenge. She was prepared to marry him, genius, egocentricity and all. For his part, he was and remained deeply grateful to her for accepting him on his own terms, but never for a moment consid- ered modifying the terms. While loving and admiring her after his fashion, and never seriously 'looking at another woman', he went his own way relentlessly.

In her biography of her mother, which is remarkable not least for its honesty, Mary Soames has written:

Winston dominated her whole life, and once this priority had been established, her chil- dren, personal pleasures, friends and outside interests competed for what was left.

Though far from squawlike in tempera- ment, she condemned herself to the life of a squaw, and in the process must have suf- fered a good deal of tension and frustra- tion. But her love of Churchill and her belief in him triumphed over all. Their marriage was broken only by his death in 1965.

She shared his exalted view of himself and his passion for politics. There were also other important bonds. Each came from a rather rackety home background, and could appreciate the blessing of mari- tal stability. And each was much given to communicating on paper. During their long. association, they exchanged 'some 1,700 letters, notes, telegrams and memoranda', from which Lady Soames has now pub- lished her own selection. Much of the material has already appeared in print, though for the most part in relatively inac- cessible places (such as the companion vol- umes to the official life of Churchill). The new book is not just another Churchill pot- boiler, but a fascinating aid to our under- standing of an extraordinary couple.

Of the two, he is the better writer, but she the livelier letter-writer. He tends to write rather ponderously, despite the endearments and little doodles of dogs, pigs etc. Moreover, from August 1918 onwards he often sends her dictated and typewritten letters, an odd form of commu- nication from husband to wife. Both seem to feel obliged to reassure each other repeatedly of their abiding love. Though often apart, from choice as much as from necessity, they go on about the pain of sep- aration and the longing for reunion.

On 30 March 1920, for instance, he writes from the Duke of Westminster's hunting lodge in south-west France: My darling One, This is a line & only a line (the sun is shining bright) to wish you many happy returns of the day. Twelve times now I have seen yr birthday [1 April] come, and each time yr gracious beauty & loving charm have made a deeper impression on my heart. God bless you my darling in the year that now opens & give you happinesses wh fill your life. Always yr devoted loving husband W.

And on 17 January 1935 she writes to him from Lord Moyne's yacht in the South Seas: Sumatra is a 'Wow'. . The natives are Malays, friendly, but really repulsively ugly; quite unlike the Burmans, where the women are so graceful & pretty with little heart- shaped faces ...

My Darling I do love you so much & I con- stantly think of you & of all you do and are.. . .

Meanwhile she was having, as Lady Soames admits, a 'holiday romance' with a fellow guest, Terence Philip. On her return, 'her real life, and her only great love, Winston, Claimed her'.

The one substantial break in the corre- spondence is from 1932 to 1934 when (Lady Soames tells us) they were 'holiday- ing together'. The year 1940 provides just a single letter — but what a letter! The date is 27 June of that momentous year. Clementine writes to warn her husband that a man in his entourage, a 'devoted friend', has told her he is in danger of being 'generally disliked by his colleagues & subordinates', because of his 'rough, sar- castic & overbearing manner'. She then begs him to mend his ways. Lady Soames says that no reply exists in the file, but 'per- haps they spoke'. Surely it would have been more natural for the warning to have been Spoken rather than written in the first place, by a wife living under the same roof?

Incidentally, Lady Soames concedes, in her introduction, that Clementine was probably not Sir Henry Hozier's daughter, but she is agnostic as between the two most likely claimants to paternity, Captain William Middleton and Clementine's uncle-by-marriage, 'Bertie' Mitford. With- out a DNA test there can be no certainty in the matter. Should we really care anyway?