Of all Britain’s great families perhaps none has been so overshadowed by the force of one member’s personality as the Churchills. And yet in this vivid and brilliant tale of the dynasty – of which Gladstone remarked, ‘There never was a Churchill from John of Marlborough down who had either morals or principles’– theirs turns out to be a narrative of epic breadth and drama.
From the First Duke of Marlborough – soldier of genius, restless empire-builder and cuckolder of Charles II – onwards, the Churchills have been politicians, gamblers and profligates, heroes and womanisers. The family continued to flourish in the nineteenth and twentieth-century, achieving power and influence in both Britain and America, helped by marriages to the ravishing and wealthy New York society beauties Jennie Jerome and Consuelo Vanderbilt. Mary S Lovell tells a gripping story of momentous times that include the death of Queen Victoria, two world wars, the Wall St Crash and Great Depression, Women’s Emancipation, and beyond. She charts triumphant political and military campaigns; the construction of great houses; quiet, domestic tragedies; disastrous marriages – ending in venereal disease, guns by the bedside and papal annulment – including those of Winston’s children; and profoundly happy ones such as his own to Clementine Hozier.
The Churchills is a richly layered portrait of an extraordinary set of men and women – grandly ambitious, regularly impecunious, impulsive, arrogant and brave. And towering above the Churchill clan is the figure of Winston - his failures and his triumphs shown in a new and revealing context - but ultimately our ‘greatest Briton’ .
The Churchills: A Family at the Heart of History by Mary S Lovell – review
A deft history traces the family from the first Duke of Marlborough to Winston Churchill
Kathryn Hughes The Guardian, Saturday 2 April 2011
The Churchill family must be one of the most picked over, ever. All its major stars, from the first Duke of Marlborough, via the dollar princesses Jennie Jerome and Consuelo Vanderbilt to Winston himself, have inspired multiple biographers in their own right. There is, then, little in this epic group study that you cannot find elsewhere. Chances are, though, that until now you will have been hazy about how all these lives link up.
Mary Lovell's deft synthesising narrative succeeds not simply in walking us through the succeeding ducal generations at Blenheim, but also in showing us how all those branch lines – assorted Grenfells, Guests, Mitfords and Felloweses – hook on to the main story. The plate-spinning is extraordinary, even if Lovell's weaker chapters occasionally sound like a round robin sent by a posh if rather rackety family: "This year Arabella enjoyed a good hunting season, Sarah finally tackled her drink problem and Esmond annoyed everyone by becoming a communist."
Lovell's story starts, almost inevitably, with the hero of Blenheim. John Churchill was born into the minor gentry in 1650, his clodhopping origins a reminder that, even now, there are those who like to think of the Churchills as nouveaux. His great triumph of 1704, by which Britain was made safe from French ambition for the next hundred years, clearly demanded a marker. John's pushy duchess, Sarah, hired Vanbrugh to build "an English Versailles" in the Cotswolds and then spent the next 15 years being cross about it. By the time the elderly couple took possession of Blenheim Palace in 1719 they were sick of the whole project, with Sarah raging at "that wild unmerciful house". The duke made his feelings clear by promptly dying.
This churning distaste for Blenheim was not shared by Winston Churchill, who loved the place with all the wistful longing of someone not entitled to live there (his father was only a second son). If the jump between 1719 and the birth of Winston in 1874 seems a big one, then that's because the Churchills fielded no real stars in between. Lovell dispatches the second to the seventh dukes of Marlborough in barely a page, before landing with a pleased thud on Lord Randolph, Winston's father and brother to the eighth duke. Now, you feel, we can take our coats off (the heating at Blenheim has always been dicey) and start to have a proper look round. Lovell's story really begins in the middle of the 19th century and stretches until Winston's decline into ailing old age a hundred years later.
The focus throughout is on the domestic, intimate, private side of the Churchills, which means lots of pretty girls in splendid dresses, love at first sight, assignations on the Côte d'Azur, and plenty of detail about the rock gardens at Blenheim. Lovell's narrative feels at its freest in the late 19th century, a period that is now becoming so distant that there is less and less chance of causing offence by repeating the old canards about Randolph and his syphilis, Jennie and her toyboys, and that Winston may have been conceived before the wedding day.
Particularly enthralling is Lovell's retelling of the story of poor old Consuelo Vanderbilt, the Edith Wharton-ish innocent who sobbed behind her veil as she was led up the aisle to marry the ghastly ninth duke in 1895. The marriage lasted 11 years, and Consuelo's successor took the sensible precaution of carrying a gun in with her to dinner in case she felt the need to shoot the duke. By the time the book ends, there are an awful lot of nice women who rue the day that they ever got mixed up with the Churchills. The more enterprising used to make early exits from Blenheim house parties by biking into Woodstock and sending fake telegrams to themselves urging a swift return home.
The closer the narrative gets to our own time the tighter we feel Lovell's voice becoming, as if she were anxious not to hurt any of her informants who are still living, such as Mary Soames, Winston's youngest child. Nothing wrong with tact, but it does mean that certain subjects, particularly the relationship between Winston and his wife Clementine, feel filmy, as if viewed through a lace curtain. For instance, Lovell tells us that halfway through preparations for her marriage in 1908, Clementine considered calling the whole thing off, but was sternly reminded by her brother that she'd broken one engagement in her short life already and this was starting to look like a bad habit. Why, though, did Clementine want to back out? Lovell moves us briskly on, like an anxious family retainer keen to avoid dwelling on any unpleasantness. The same thing happens later, when she tells us that Clementine talked about divorce. This sounds like something worth investigating, but Lovell hurries us through the cordoned-off area with an emphatic "Clementine was soon back at home".
Mary Lovell has form when it comes to writing about the aristocracy. Her most recent book was a well-received biography of the Mitford sisters by whom she managed to be tickled but not stupidly overawed. Here her decision to stick to the "private side" of the Churchills might feel frothy were it not for the fact that, when she needs to, she can give us all the heft we need about Westminster, war and Winston's often overlooked writing career. Any tendency towards frivolity is also offset by respect for the facts. Lovell's points are diligently footnoted, she is strict about speculation and courteous towards her subjects. The result is a book that may not break new ground but still manages to tend its own garden with considerable grace and style.
Inside the Churchill Clan
By WALTER OLSON
Published: June 24, 2011 in The New York Times
Like his mother, Jennie Jerome, and his cousin-by-marriage Consuelo Vanderbilt, Winston Churchill’s Aunt Lily Hammersley was an American heiress whose fortune, it was hoped, would assist in bailing out the Churchill clan’s ever shaky finances. Hurriedly wed and brought to England as the newest Duchess of Marlborough, Lily arrived at Blenheim, the family’s vast, dilapidated country seat. “The first thing that confronted her,” Mary S. Lovell writes in “The Churchills,” was a life-size nude of Lady Colin Campbell, her husband’s former mistress and divorce co-respondent, painted by Whistler, “which hung in the duke’s dressing room.” The canvas soon thereafter disappeared from art history. It is widely assumed that Lily had it burned.
If the Churchill family name summons up thoughts of oratory, war-making and politics, be aware that its history is equally replete with sex, real estate and emotional turmoil, all efficiently related in this zippy compilation of Churchill family dish over the centuries. Lovell, whose past biographies have treated the Mitford sisters, among other subjects, is frank about relegating D-Day, Yalta and the like to the background, preferring to concentrate on the family’s unending domestic tangles. “The world,” she explains, “has always thrived on gossip.”
The Churchill name had its debut on scandal’s stage when John Churchill indulged in a fling with the saucy Restoration minx Barbara Villiers, thus cuckolding the reigning Charles II, who kept her as his mistress. Many Churchill men subsequently earned a reputation as cads, not least because the family’s extravagance (and in particular the expense of running Blenheim, named for John Churchill’s great 1704 battlefield victory, by then as the Duke of Marlborough) drove them to marry for money rather than love.
Not that you’d call most of the Churchill wives long-suffering: not the discreetly arsonical Aunt Lily, and much less Winston’s femme fatale mother, Jennie, who married Lord Randolph Churchill, younger son of the seventh duke. Jennie’s social brilliance as much as her money — her family’s holdings included at one point a 25 percent share in The New York Times — fueled Randolph’s political career. When that career flamed out in (probably syphilitic) madness and early death, she kept running with the sort of fast London set in which white kid gloves were discarded after a single use and lovers might not be kept for much longer. Her taste for younger men wound up giving young Winston a stepfather his own age. In reaction to such memories or otherwise, he forged a notably stable marriage with his own Clementine.
Money problems were a constant, Winston himself having shipped off to the Boer War with, Lovell reports, “a huge quantity of luggage, including 72 cases containing fine French wines” and other potables. At the better sort of country house gatherings, each female guest was expected to change clothes several times daily and each evening gown “must not have been seen before.” Yet this display often yielded scant actual fun. Lovell writes that certain young women were “so bored and so cold while staying at Blenheim that they hiked into Woodstock village to send themselves telegrams urging an immediate return home.”
Meticulously detailed on figures like the ever fascinating Churchill daughter-in-law Pamela Harriman, Lovell softens her focus when it comes to the great man himself. Drink and depression remain mostly offstage. Nor does she probe how the clan’s absentee approach to child rearing might have related to the unhappy adult life of three of Winston and Clementine’s four grown children. Lovell steers even farther clear of the revisionist literature on both the left and the libertarian right that paints Churchill as a warmonger and political opportunist.
Give her due credit, though, for expertly organizing her material at an entertaining pace while dropping every imaginable name as her characters “drive down to Ascot in summer frocks and feathered hats.” The book is eminently readable, but the mini-series might be even more entertaining.