The earliest vivid memory I have of my grandmother, Clementine Churchill, is of her sitting up in her beautiful four-poster bed, her hair perfectly groomed and wearing something glamorous that certainly did not look slept in.
My mother and I — then all of the age of four — would walk up the hill from our home at Chartwell Farm to visit Clementine while she enjoyed breakfast in bed, eating toast and marmalade and reading the newspapers in a pair of white gloves to protect her hands from printers’ ink.
With my mother Mary — the youngest of Clementine’s five children — perched on the end of the bed, they would talk of grown up matters, while I played around in her boudoir, an elegantly decorated dressing room with chintz at the windows. On her table, there was scented powder in glass bowls and lipsticks aligned in perfect order — all of them banned from my attentions.
The Churchill family on the Pink Terrace at Chartwell, Reading, from left to right : Duncan and Diana Sandys, Julian Sandys, Emma Soames, Mr,Churchill, Nicholas Soames, Winston Churchill, Mrs Churchill, Arabella Churchil and Randolph Churchill in 1951
Or I would wander on to the terrace outside her bedroom that commanded the glorious views of the Weald of Kent.
Later, I realised this morning ritual was, for my grandmother, a moment of respite from a daily life packed with great events and demands as she fulfilled the role of loving consort to the extraordinary man she’d married 45 years earlier.
My grandfather, Sir Winston Churchill, was then 79 and in his second and final term as prime minister.
Much of what Clementine endured, both personally and as the wife of Winston, would have pole-axed a lesser woman. But luckily for him — and, indeed, for all of us — she was so much more than a dutiful wife.
And now at last she is portrayed as a powerful force in her own right, in the new film, Darkest Hour, which looks afresh at the events of 1940 when Churchill became PM, and all his worst fears about the rise of Nazi Germany — about which he had warned throughout the Thirties — come to fruition.
Gary Oldman delivers an Oscar-worthy performance in which he inhabits, rather than plays, my grandfather, but he is matched in uncanny resemblance and bearing by Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine. Scott Thomas captures her rather rigid posture, her nervous tics at moments of tension, and her elegant style.
The affection between them is vividly brought to life in charming scenes where Churchill is more puppy than bulldog and Clementine an affectionate playmate. For our family it is thrilling to see her no longer in the shadows, but rather as my grandfather’s confidante and cheerleader — and also his equal.
The Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his wife, Clementine, sit on board a naval auxiliary patrol vessel as it travels down the Thames towards docks in east London on 25 September 1940
In 1908, aged just 23, she had committed herself to a complex and brilliant man with a love of action, whose ambitions were high but whose early career was uncertain. His personal sense of destiny was only fully vindicated when he became Britain’s wartime leader.
In the course of their 57-year marriage, Clementine saw Winston through desperate days of political humiliation and disfavour, episodes of the ‘black dog’ — the crippling depression and self-doubt that haunted him periodically — and the tragic loss of the fourth of their five children, Marigold, who died aged three.
And of course, she was at his side through the war years when his need for support was never greater.
So who was this woman, whom history has rather consigned to the wings, unfairly diminished by the long shadow cast by her husband, and whose impact, until now, never been fully portrayed on film?
Clementine Hozier was born in 1885, the daughter of Blanche and Colonel Henry Hozier. Her father was a thorough scoundrel, whose business activities at Lloyd’s were regarded with horror even in those unregulated days. Privately he was a bully and an authoritarian — his children were terrified of him.
Even before their separation, the Hoziers had what would now be called an open marriage, and their four children (Kitty, Clementine and twins Nelly and Dick) are assumed to have been fathered by Blanche Hozier’s several lovers. (She once boasted that she was juggling ten men at once.)
Clementine’s father is thought to have been Bertie Mitford, Lord Redesdale, grandfather of the famous Mitford sisters.
Following her divorce, Blanche Hozier took her children to live in Dieppe where, as a foreign, titled beauty, she embraced the bohemian lifestyle of a group of expat writers and artists which included Oscar Wilde.
But this idyll came to a sad end in 1900 when her eldest daughter and Clementine’s confidante, Kitty, died of tuberculosis. The heartbroken Blanche moved back to England where the family lived in a state of impoverished gentility in Hertfordshire.
Clementine attended Berkhamsted High School for Girls at a time when girls of her class were usually taught by governesses. As a result, Clementine was far better educated than many of her peers. She also mixed with girls from a variety of social backgrounds, another rarity in those far-off days, which stood her in great stead as the wife of an MP.
Kristin Scott Thomas and Gary Oldman star as Clementine and Winston Churchill in director Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour
She first met my grandfather in 1904 at a society ball where he was, uncharacteristically, dumbstruck by her beauty. She was not impressed by his small stature or his silence and soon escaped to dance with someone else.
Their next meeting, in 1908, was more auspicious when Winston arrived late to a dinner party to find Clementine Hozier seated next to him.
He was enamoured from the start — here was a girl, not just of great beauty but also intelligence, one whom he could talk to rather than just worship from afar. She was more guarded but increasingly captivated as he lay siege to her by daily letters.
Soon after, during a weekend at Blenheim Palace, Winston’s birthplace and home of his grandfather, the Duke of Marlborough, he proposed to her. She wrote to his mother Jennie: ‘I feel no one can know him without being dominated by his charm and brilliancy.’
Their early married life was idyllic and their love for one another shines through their letters.
Clementine proved to be an eager student of politics and was thrilled by her husband’s work, first as president of the Board Of Trade and then as home secretary. In the first two years of their marriage there were two babies, and she fought the first of 14 election campaigns at his side.
Winston was most definitely a rising political star — until the disaster of the Gallipoli campaign in World War I. In 1915, as First Lord Of The Admiralty, Churchill wanted to open a second front away from the massacre of the trenches in France and Belgium.
He boldly proposed to thread his naval fleet through the needle of the Dardanelles, the narrow 38-mile strait in north west Turkey. However, Turkish troops — allied to Germany — trapped Allied forces on the beaches of the Gallipoli peninsula. It cost 250,000 lives on both sides with the Anzacs — troops from Australia and New Zealand — bearing the brunt.
In the course of their 57-year marriage, Clementine saw Winston through desperate days of political humiliation and disfavour
Fairly or unfairly, Churchill became the scapegoat as the government was thrown into crisis, and the Liberal Prime Minister, H. H. Asquith, was forced to bring the opposition Conservatives into a coalition government. Winston was sidelined to a nominal position of Privy Counsellor where he had no power to influence the direction of the war. He was humiliated and frustrated, and the couple were vilifed by political colleagues, the Press and the public.
Clementine was at her best when things were going badly: she wrote a passionate letter to Asquith pleading for Winston to remain at the Admiralty. It resulted in a furious row with the PM’s wife, Margot Asquith, who regarded the letter as an act of gross disloyalty to the government.
In her diaries, Margot reports saying to Clementine at the end of their shouting match: ‘You are a hard little thing and very very foolish as you will do harm to [Winston’s] career.’ She told her husband that Clementine had shrieked at her ‘like a fishwife’.
Fiercely loyal she may have been, but Clementine was also sharply critical of her husband when no one else dared, and would rip into him if his standards of behaviour slipped.
She once wrote him a stern letter when she judged he had been rude to his secretaries. She was also infuriated by his extravagance, and in the new film berates him for not providing funds to pay the household bills.
Nor did she hold back from expressing political opinions that did not coincide with his — most vehemently over the Abdication. Churchill supported Edward VIII’s right to remain on the throne even with divorcee Wallis Simpson as his Queen Consort, while Clementine took the side of history and saw that the king had to abdicate.
The long years of their marriage passed through many stormy waters, particularly the so-called Wilderness Years in the Thirties when the appeasers were in the political ascendancy. The Churchills were ostracised by many — including his own party. He was regarded as a renegade and class traitor for his fervent opposition to Hitler.
In their personal life, I have always been amazed by Clementine’s acceptance of Winston buying Chartwell, an 81-acre Kent estate, in 1922. Dating from Tudor times, it had dark Victorian interior decor and was infested with earwigs, but it was presented to her as a fait accompli.
She later said that it was the only time in their marriage when Winston was less than candid with her. Chartwell was their home for 40 years.
The truth was that my grandmother was not a country person. Her idea of a country walk took her as far as the croquet lawn — a game she played with vicious aplomb — and she tolerated pets as long as others looked after them.
For years, the Churchills lived hand to mouth as they embarked on extensive building work at Chartwell. In the Thirties, they were dependent on bank loans given against Winston’s next book or article. But although he wrote prodigiously, their spending often outran his income. At one point they even considered moving elsewhere and letting out the house.
Even in the Fifties, when I remember it, Chartwell was run like a proper old-fashioned Edwardian house — with domestic help and always a very good cook. There was an office of charming secretaries to deal with the huge number of letters and telegrams that poured in and out of the house. As children we loved to pop in and fiddle with the paperclips; the tags used to hold final versions of his speeches and, best of all, the red labels which read ‘Action This Day’.
By the time I was born, the fears over how Clementine might pay the butcher’s bill were over, and the overriding atmosphere I remember was one of warmth and tranquility.
Later on, my grandparents loved to take part in our family life, attending regular Sunday lunches at Hamsell Manor, our house in Sussex. And my grandmother always graced children’s parties, normally playing the role of Prize Giver.
Chartwell was Churchill’s sanctuary and Clementine endured her country exile for his sake because of it. After his death in 1965, however, she left it in the safe hands of the National Trust and moved to London to live out the rest of her days in a lovely flat overlooking Hyde Park.
Fiercely loyal she may have been, but Clementine was also sharply critical of her husband when no one else dared, and would rip into him if his standards of behaviour slipped
When I was in my last year of school in London, I would have tea with my grandmother every week, enjoying a delicious array of tiny sandwiches and rich chocolate cake.
Clementine was curious to know about my academic life, how my French was progressing and telling me, to my amazement, that I should be learning Mandarin: even in the early Sixties she saw the influence that China would exert in my lifetime.
And she was thrilled once to meet ‘Emma’s young man’, a friend who was taking me that day to Royal Ascot. She greatly approved of him in his pale grey tailcoat, but not of my effort, lending me a pair of white kid gloves to upgrade my outfit.
Nothing gives me more pleasure than to see Clementine, in Darkest Hour, assume the prominence she so deserves as an independent life force without whom my grandfather would not have reached the summit of greatness.
We have always revered Clementine for the part she played in his and, indeed, our lives, for the wise counsel and her fierce loyalty.
And Churchill recognised this. On their 40th wedding anniversary in 1948, he gave her a present with a note that read: ‘how little [this token] can express my gratitude to you for making my life and any work I have done possible, and for giving me so much happiness in a world of accident and storm.’
Nor did it surprise me to find in my late mother’s papers, hundreds of letters of condolence to her following Clementine’s death, peacefully at home, aged 92 in 1977.
They include letters and telegrams from the Queen, the Queen Mother, Jimmy Carter, then U.S. president, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and numerous world leaders.
Then, the free world recognised the debt it owed Clementine — and now it is wonderful for a new generation to be reminded of it.