Mary Soames, who will celebrate her 90th birthday this September, is the youngest of Winston and Clementine Churchill’s five children and now the only surviving one. For years she has been a faithful and effective keeper of the family flame, most notably as the author of “Clementine Churchill” (1979), an exceptional biography that documents her mother’s central role in her father’s historic career, and of several other books about the family, including a collection of her parents’ private letters to each other. Now she turns to her own story, as it unfolded in her childhood and young adulthood before her marriage in 1947 to Christopher Soames, himself a public servant of lengthy and distinguished service.
“A Daughter’s Tale” relies heavily on her diary and letters. Many of these are charming and informative, but others remind us that she was very much a child of privilege and that she moved somewhat giddily in circles far removed from the much harder realities of daily life as it was lived by ordinary Britons. One does tire of breathless accounts of fancy parties, debutante balls, country weekends and exclusive dinners, though on the other hand these passages provide an inside picture of a world that few of us will be able to enter and, no doubt, a world that is much different now than it was in those years before and during World War II.
Even at this late hour in her life, Soames sees herself as “the child of consolation” for her parents, born as she was less than two years after the death of her sister Marigold, of a sudden illness at age 2. There was “a wide age gap” between herself and her elder siblings — “Sarah was nearly eight years old, Randolph eleven, and Diana thirteen when I appeared on the family scene” — and though she loved them all, Sarah especially, she was “brought up virtually as an only child.” She adored her “Nana,” Maryott Whyte, a cousin who “was a trained Norland nurse — then, as now, the ne plus ultra in terms of family care,” and she had other compensations as well:
“Brought up chiefly among grown-ups, I was compensated for the lack of companionship of children of my own age by a procession of pets. Starting with rabbits, I soon progressed to a nursery dog and cat; the orphan lambs; bantams; goats; budgerigars; a pair of canaries (Percy and Lucy); two orphan fox cubs (for a season only); and an exquisite little marmoset — which, however, succumbed quite soon, I fear, to indifferent care and draughts. Most companionable among my menagerie were, of course, my dogs — for to Punch, the beige pug, acquired when I was about four, was added in 1931 Jasper, an enchanting Blenheim Spaniel.”
All this was possible because the family lived most of the time at Chartwell, the comfortable country place her parents had purchased in the early 1920s — her father enthusiastically, her mother less so — that came with a working farm attached. Throughout her youth country living continued at one desirable address or another. Hers was a life centered on Nana and her pets rather than her parents, who were busy and often away. “I loved my parents unquestioningly,” she writes, “and my mother I held in considerable awe: I thought her very beautiful, sought to please her, and greatly feared her displeasure. My relationship with Nana was quite different — much more natural and workaday — and I turned to her for everything.” Eventually her mother “began to cast about for some means of developing a closer relationship with me without entering into an open competition with Nana” and settled on European skiing trips for the two of them and other female relatives.