Tom Bower

How Charlotte Wahl Johnson’s troubled life shaped her son Boris

How Charlotte Wahl Johnson's troubled life shaped her son Boris
Charlotte Wahl Johnson (Credit: video)
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Attractive, accomplished and admired as an artist, friend and mother, Charlotte Wahl’s promising life could have been wrecked, first by cruel sicknesses and then by an adulterous husband. Instead, she bravely defied adversity and found happiness in a second marriage, her four children’s success, her friendships and painting.

Her death at 79 will be particularly painful for Boris Johnson, the eldest of her remarkable children. Despite all the pressures, he regularly visited his mother at her comfortable flat in Notting Hill Gate, recognising how much he owed her.

In frail health from Parkinson's and other complications, Charlotte agreed to meet me in September 2019 for the biography I was writing about Boris. I had met her several times over the previous 20 years.

After describing her own happy childhood and Boris’s youth, she unexpectedly launched into a vivid description of her terrible marriage to Stanley Johnson. Describing her suffering because of his long absences, adultery and violence – allegations Stanley has denied – she had clearly decided, before illness finally prevented her speaking at all, to tell the truth. I had been invited, it appears now in hindsight, to hear her final testament before she died.

Her background should have protected her from suffering. Brought up in a happy, social family in a large house in St John’s Wood, Sir James Fawcett, her father was an outstanding international lawyer, classicist and latterly the bursar of All Souls college. Beatrice Lowe, her Jewish mother, was the daughter of two academics – her father was a professor at Princeton and her mother was translator of Thomas Mann into English. Both were politically active liberals and outspoken campaigners for human rights, women’s equality and against racism.

Educated at Mayfield and then Westminster Tutors, Charlotte had been deliberately seated by her father next to Stanley Johnson for a dinner to celebrate his winning the Newdigate Prize for poetry. On her own admission, she fell instantly in love with the charming student, who was two years older. She described what followed with amazement and deep regret.

Abandoning her last year at Oxford, she agreed in 1963 to quickly marry and go with Stanley to America where he had won a Harkness scholarship. Boris was born in New York.

On their return to Oxford to finish her degree, Stanley accused Charlotte of seeing too much of her friends. ‘He resented that I cared about my friends,’ she recalled, 'and that’s when he hit me.’ Boris was asleep in the room. Charlotte blamed herself for Stanley’s anger and continued her studies. 

Instead of forging a loving and deep friendship with Stanley, she had become infatuated with a man who deliberately minimised the seriousness of anything and ridiculed intimacy. Sadly, she felt guilty for provoking Stanley’s violence.

With little money and restless to find fame and fortune, Stanley left Charlotte with Boris and Rachel (her second child) with his parents on their isolated farm on Exmoor while he travelled across the world. Despite the impecunity, Charlotte instilled in her growing family a love of art, poetry and literature. Her father instilled Boris’s love of the classics. Watching her struggle to survive, especially after she divorced Stanley with little money to escape misery, Boris understood better than most Etonians the daily problems of the man-in-the-street. More than anyone, her hard life shaped his social conservatism.

In that isolation, she taught her children friendship and loyalty to each other. While they played or read, she painted dark, troubled and remarkable images in oils that reflected her anguish. Nearby, Boris would enthusiastically paint and fluently reply to Charlotte’s questions. Their domesticity was frequently interrupted by sickness. ‘We were all lying ill on the floor,’ said Charlotte. Boris suffered periods of deafness.

Getting three children to the village school was a problem. Without a car, Charlotte walked with them nearly two miles to the main road to wait for a lift from Phil, a local garage owner. Charlotte returned home and repeated the walk in the afternoon to collect the children.

Charlotte’s exceptional paintings reflected her suffering, especially after a long period in hospital following the breakdown of her marriage. Her first painting showed a woman’s anguished screams to her family.

‘Stanley wanted to be loved,’ she recalled, ‘and wanted sex and he wanted power. And when I contradicted him, it threatened his power.’

Initially, Charlotte never thought of leaving: ‘I stayed because I loved him’. She sympathised with the frustrations in his life, especially his inability to become a famous writer.

Boris agonised over his mother’s fate. Unwilling to confide to others about his parents’ troubled marriage, he became a loner.

In the end, proud that Boris was Prime Minister, she was equally detached from his personal life. To Boris’s misfortune, he did not learn from Charlotte or his father the need for loyalty to his spouse. Charlotte found deep happiness with her second husband, Nick Wahl, an American academic. She feared that Boris was furious that she had divorced his father. The emotional confusion of Boris’s childhood has dominated his life, and it seems his premiership.