BOUND TO PLEASE / Long-hidden gem finally gets own chance to shine

The Japan News

By Heather Howard / Japan News Staff WriterClementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill

By Sonia Purnell

Viking, 436pp

To read “Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill” is to ricochet between admiration and frustration. Admiration for the intelligence, drive and political acumen of Clementine Churchill and frustration that these qualities couldn’t have been devoted to a more independent life.

To be fair, Clementine’s intelligence was a key element of her appeal to Winston Churchill when she entranced him at a London dinner party in March 1908, and in the courtship that followed. His first letter to her calls it “a comfort & pleasure ... to meet a girl with so much intellectual quality & such strong reserves of noble sentiment.”

Nevertheless, he expected that intelligence and sentiment to be focused primarily for his benefit. While Churchill served on the European front during World War I, Clementine was responsible for establishing nine canteens for factory workers in London and did an exemplary job of it. Yet author Sonia Purnell quotes no compliments from Churchill for this work. He appears to have saved his praise for things like her efforts to lobby men of influence on his behalf — Churchill was in political disgrace at the time, blamed for the disastrous attack on the Dardanelles straits — “You have indeed been active ... Persevere, the D.C.M. [Distinguished Conduct Medal] is yours,” he wrote.

But again to be fair, Churchill was hardly alone in believing a woman’s place was primarily at the side of her man. Modern readers will doubtless heave a sigh when a teenage Clementine shows interest in an academic career, only to be swiftly thwarted by the machinations of her own mother.

And within the role she could play, Clementine achieved a remarkable amount, repeatedly demonstrating impressive insight and judgment. Time and time again, her political and personal advice to her husband was proved right, and “she would only rarely give up [on important matters], however exhausting the fight became.”

So savvy and effective was she, readers will surely add another element to their frustration: the unfairness of such a woman going almost completely unheralded by history for so long.

Perhaps the most gratifying section of the book describes the bond that formed between Clementine and the equally formidable Eleanor Roosevelt when the latter traveled to Britain in 1942. It’s startling how similar the two women’s backgrounds were, including unloving mothers, the tragic loss of a young child, and last but hardly least, marriage to extremely demanding, egotistical men.

Each woman clearly had an effect on the other — after Eleanor’s departure, Clementine “was to push herself forward in a way that would have been unthinkable before,” Purnell tells us. And Eleanor, for her part, “did something completely out of character” upon returning to the United States. “She took,” we learn, “an hour and a half out of her frenetic work schedule to have her hair and nails done.”

Where to Read

In a bookstore cafe where you can purchase biographies of the many historical figures Clementine knew and almost universally impressed.

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