By Marie Benedict
Read Nov 2020
This reader has learned about Winston Churchill through a variety of means—documentaries, books, audio short courses, movies. The latter is certainly a form of historical fiction, in this case for the movie theater. This reader knew Churchill was married and had some children but knew nothing about his wife beyond this. Thus this reader was delighted to have Lady Clementine chosen as a book for one of her book discussion groups.
This reader was initially surprised that Lady Clementine is a historical fiction book about her vs a biography, but the bigger surprise was that it is written in first person and narrated by Lady Clementine. This reader has come to understand that her preference for the approach to historical fiction is like that used in Dreamers of the Day—a fictional character and their story occurs in parallel to historical events depicted or mentioned in the novel. Coincidentally Dreamers of the Day introduced this reader to a major meeting held after WWI to set up the modern Middle East. Two major players were Churchill and Gertrude Bell, a figure previously unknown to this reader. Dreamers of the Day led this reader to read a biography of Gertrude Bell.
However, once this reader decided to set aside some discomfort with the approach, this reader found Lady Clementine to be interesting and informative. The focus is appropriately on Lady Clementine, but given her spouse and the nature of their relationship, Winston Churchill certainly plays a big role. His nature to demand a tremendous amount from his wife and those serving him is certainly consistent with other sources with which this reader is familiar.
This book filled in this reader’s lack of understanding of The Dardanelles Campaign which injured Churchill’s career substantially. It draws out the major contributions Lady Clementine played in several critical aspects of WWII including courting the Americans to join the WWII war effort, spearheading efforts to obtain donations to support the struggling Russian people while they were enduring the ravages of war, and improving the quality of air raid shelters in the UK in which citizens spent countless hours while their country was incessantly bombed by the Germans. The disappointing learning for this reader (and Lady Clementine) was that, in the end, it isn’t clear how much credit Churchill gave to Lady Clementine for the role she played in enabling his personal success or the success of the war effort. This likely isn’t surprising given the general view of the place of women at the time and given Churchill’s self-centeredness. Lady Clementine points this out in an interesting way. Although both Churchill and Lady Clementine were from the upper class, they relied on the Churchill’s small income as a government official (small since most government officials of this rank were independently wealthy) and income from his writing to support their family and fulfill the entertaining obligations expected of his rank. Despite their limited income, Churchill insisted on drinking expensive champagne which he ordered by the case.
While Churchill didn’t publically acknowledge his wife’s contributions, others have done so. Lady Clementine covers a trip she makes to Russia near the end of the war where she is surprised to receive a high honor from the government for her efforts in feeding the Russian people. Additional research this reader did regarding Lady Clementine revealed that she was appointed a grand dame cross in the Order of the British Empire and was created a life peer member of the House of Lords when Churchill passed.
This reader found it interesting where the author chooses to end her book—at the end of the war and before Churchill again loses his position as Prime Minister. Perhaps this is due to a desire to keep the book at about 300 pages or perhaps the author didn’t have sufficient primary source material to describe Lady Clementine’s life during this period. Certainly most of her most notable efforts are appropriately covered.
While devoid of the references in a more academic treatise, Benedict has clearly done substantial research. This reader was disappointed the author didn’t provide any details of this research in her notes. However she does share her motivations for writing this book. While British citizens alive during WWII may have known about her, especially those in London where she played a personal role in visiting the bombing debris, standing watch for incoming bombers, and improving the air raid shelters, this book allows Lady Clementine to be visible well beyond this population. This reader does thank the author for that and for piquing her interest in learning more about Lady Clementine—a measure this reader uses when assessing the impact of what she reads.