Saturday, August 25, 2012
Book Review - A Daughter's Tale
A Daughter's Tale
By Mary Soames
The Memoir of Winston Churchill's Youngest Child
Published in hardback by Random House, 2011 and in paperback in July 2012.
This book was an absolute revelation to me. I have always been a fan of Sir Winston Churchill's remarkable literary and historical prowess as exhibited in his books and by the way he led Britain through the dark and dreadful days of Word War II. I didn't actually know very much about his personal family life and the tragedies which surrounded his family in the period immediately before his youngest child Mary was born. After the tragic loss of their young daughter Marigold, Winston and his wife Clementine were delighted but apprehensive to discover that Clementine was expecting another "kitten", as they affectionately referred to their children. Winston wrote sweetly to his wife :
“I think a gt deal of the coming kitten & about you my sweet pet. I feel it will enrich yr life and brighten our home to have the nursery started again. I pray to God to watch over us all."
Mary's earliest memories are inextricably bound up with Chartwell, the house bought by Winston and so loved by him, and which Mary describes in intricate and absorbing detail, including the ceremonies surrounding the making of the Christmas puddings on "Stir-Up Sunday" and the seasonal activities of the family in their retreat, including bottle feeding orphaned lambs. Winston's love of animals was shared to the full by Mary, rather to the exasperation of Clementine!
They moved to no 11 Downing Street when her father became Chancellor of the Exchequer and she vividly remembers seeing the funeral procession of Earl Haig when she was five, and taking part in the solemn annual Armistice Day commemorations.
Religion was - and remains - very important to Mary. She recalls daily prayers at bedtime and being taken to church regularly by her nanny, although her parents were irregular churchgoers themselves. I particularly loved this quote:
"By sheer accident, governed by the year of one’s birth, for Anglicans of my generation our religious education and early churchgoing were steeped in the old Prayer Book and King James Bible, while for younger generations these have become the texts of history or literature lessons. Now we must accept the amiable banality of the successive newer forms of worship, where the search to supply “something for everyone” has resulted in reams of unmemorable language, and a Book of
Common Worship which is almost impossible to find one’s way about. (Forget about travelling with it—or, a consideration which was certainly present for many of my generation, going into battle with it!)"
She met many famous people when still very young herself, due to the wide-ranging friendships her parents had and the extensive social and political circles in which they moved. She recalls the artist William Nicholson, Charlie Chaplin, T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and she became friends with the Mitford family.
Her own growing interest in politics, the unsettled situation prior to the outbreak of World War II and reading "The Testament of Youth" all made her question and carefully evaluate the political views she heard at home before forming her own decided opinions. The declaration of war was to be a decisive point in her life. She sewed blackout curtains and worked shifts as a telephonist at the Ambulance headquarters, learning to drive when she was 17. At 18 she enlisted and became Private M Churchill in the ATS, manning a battery, which was dangerous and arduous work. She travelled to France and Belgium and was in the first ATS to be sent east of the Rhine. She recalls seeing the survivors of Belsen in quite harrowing terms.
She fell in and out of love several times before finally settling down and marrying Christopher Soames after the end of the war, which is where this memoir ends, much to my sadness.
I do so hope she will produce a further volume outlining the subsequent years, as this one is a sheer delight and it is illustrated with lovely family photographs showing a very different side of Winston Churchill from that shown in the press.