The Churchills Mary S. Lovell

Little Brown, pp.640, 25

‘There never was a Churchill, from John of Marlborough down,’ wrote Gladstone, ‘that had either principles or morals.’ With the shining exception of Winston and his brother Jack, Churchill men have tended to be bad hats, but this makes them all the more interesting to read about.

‘There never was a Churchill, from John of Marlborough down,’ wrote Gladstone, ‘that had either principles or morals.’ With the shining exception of Winston and his brother Jack, Churchill men have tended to be bad hats, but this makes them all the more interesting to read about. Mary Lovell’s new book tells the story of the Churchills as a family over four generations, and it never ceases to amaze and entertain.

John Duke of Marlborough and his wife Sarah founded a dynasty of melancholic dukes who survived by selling off the family assets. What saved the Churchills from sinking into obscurity on their dwindling estates were lucky marriages. Mary Lovell’s story really starts with Duchess Fanny, Winston’s formidable grandmother. She was a Londonderry — her mother ran the family coal business — and she brought energy and perhaps a touch of insanity. Fanny had two clever sons: the rakehell Blandford, who succeeded as duke, and Randolph, who was a brilliant but mercurial Tory boy.

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One of the strongest characters in the book is Randolph’s wife, the American Jennie Jerome. With panther-like good looks and a Native American bone structure, she had little money but many lovers and much style. After her husband’s meteoric career apparently ended in syphilis, she married two much younger men, but she was a good mother to Winston and Jack. Blandford, meanwhile, married an English aristocrat known as Goosie, who was not as stupid as her name suggests. When her cheating husband came down to breakfast one morning, he lifted the silver salver to find that Goosie had placed a small, pink, celluloid doll on toast instead of the usual poached egg. He fled, and embarked on a scandalous career of adultery.

Blandford’s son Sunny (so called not because he was a Muslim but as a shortening of his courtesy title, Sunderland) married not one but two American duchesses. The Vanderbilt heiress, Consuelo, was a serious-minded, swan-necked beauty. Forced by her mother to marry at 18, she brought pots of tin but much unhappiness. The love of Sunny’s life was the American Gladys (pronounced to rhyme with ‘ladies’) Deacon, but this marriage was even more disastrous. Her beauty was destroyed when the paraffin wax in her cosmetically-straightened nose dribbled down inside her face and formed disfiguring lumps in her neck and jaw.

The American duchesses poured their trust funds into Blenheim. The house, which had once been so cold and grim that miserable guests would escape to Woodstock and send telegrams to themselves with urgent summons to return home, was restored to its former glories, and liveried footmen in powdered hair served meals on gold plates. But in the Thirties Blenheim was almost ruined when Gladys, who went rather mad, became estranged from Sunny. She slept with a loaded revolver beside her bed, and her pack of 50 Blenheim spaniels wandered freely downstairs, defecating as they pleased. Dog flaps were cut into the grand mahogany doors of the State Rooms.

Towering over the story is Winston, Sunny’s first cousin and good friend. More words have been written about Winston Churchill than almost any Englishman, but Mary Lovell manages to avoid getting bogged down in this forest of print. Sticking firmly to the story of the family, she skilfully interweaves the narrative of Winston’s political career into the tragic farce of Sunny and Gladys’s marriage. Insufferably brash and pushy as a young man, Winston was cordially hated by his contemporaries. But as his first love Pamela Plowden remarked, ‘The first time you meet Winston you see all his faults, and the rest of your life you spend in discovering his virtues,’ and this very human side is what emerges from Lovell’s account.

Winston’s marriage to Clementine was loving but not without its strains. The hurly-burly of noise that Winston generated around him was often too much to bear for his highly-strung wife. She was constantly worried, especially about money, and she always put Winston first, which left little time for her five children. Having been starved of affection by his mean father, Winston spoiled his own son, Randolph, who emerges from this account as a monster. His endless arguments with Winston drove Clementine mad, he had a talent for antagonising people, and when he was drunk he was aggressive and sometimes violent. The story of Winston’s children is a tragedy — Sarah was thrice married and arrested several times for being drunk and disorderly, Diana committed suicide, and only Mary was an achiever. The last part of the book is a Daily Mail tale of meaningless marriages and affairs and rows. The many men in the life of Pamela Harriman, Randolph’s first wife, are particularly tedious.

Mary Lovell is a second-wave biographer. She takes all the biographies — and there are many, and some very good indeed — and blends them together to form a very fruity smoothie. There is not much that is new here, at least about the earlier generations. Lovell is a skilled storyteller, and she writes in a level, assured tone with little speculation or analysis, just telling it as it was. The result is an unputdownable family saga which it would be hard to invent if it wasn’t true.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book reviews, Churchill, History, Non-fiction