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.
These trips were successful, as “I started to get to know my mother — and, most important, to enjoy her company,” but “I sometimes found her difficult to understand and extremely demanding,” a problem made all the more difficult because Mary was in her teens “and must have been at times excessively tiresome, graceless, and, I fear, a dreadful prig.” Things were much easier with her father, who of course was insulated from the daily minutiae of his daughter’s life but seems to have been, in most respects, an exemplary father to all his children. During the 1930s she was largely oblivious to his involvement in the highest circles of government, but by 1940, when he was prime minister and the family was living at 10 Downing Street, that had changed. Her mother took her to the House of Commons to hear him speak after the evacuation of Dunkirk:
“It was now that my love and admiration for my father became enhanced by an increasing element of hero worship. I saw how people turned to him in confident hope; and my own daughterly affection became inextricably entwined with all the emotions I felt as a young, patriotic Englishwoman. And of course, it was enormously exciting being so near the hub of haute politique. My mother confided in me a good deal, and when I became aware that there was a real and growing fear that France might make a separate peace, having been brought up in an ardently Francophile family I was plunged into anguish, finding this prospect scarcely believable.”
In 1941 she and Judy Montagu, her cousin and best friend, were with her father when he was briefed on a plan for “the first heavy mixed (that is, employing both men and women) anti-aircraft batteries.” The women were to “perform all duties and technical operations (including radar) other than actually forming the gun teams, where the physical strength required to operate the 3.7-inch guns and to handle and load the shells was quite beyond the capacity of women.” The girls, still teenagers, “were much excited by all this, and intervened to say that we would both like to become ‘gunner girls’!”
They applied, passed the necessary tests, underwent training and soon enough were assigned to anti-aircraft batteries. The next step up was officers’ training, which they also passed — by war’s end Mary had risen to the rank of junior commander, the equivalent of captain — and were sent to separate batteries, much to their regret. Mary was assigned to a battery in Hyde Park, and though she “felt embarrassed by my ‘special treatment,’ ” her colleagues “were charming and most understanding,” because “they knew I had no part in these special postings which kept me in the London area: the powers-that-were had, I think, decided that my presence near to home would be a solace and pleasure to my father, and his needs featured large in people’s minds.”
If that was what the powers-that-were intended, they certainly were right, for his daughter’s company was indeed important to the prime minister. Over the remainder of the war she often served as his aide de camp on foreign trips, including meetings with Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Joseph Stalin. She seems to have acquitted herself well, notwithstanding her tender age, and the experience enables us to get an inside glimpse of these men and their highest-ranking associates as they plotted the course of war.
Unfortunately toward the end of the book she relies more than necessary on direct quotation from her rather flibberty-jibberty diaries, but youth does have its charms, and these extracts can be forgiven on that ground. On the whole “A Daughter’s Tale” is charming in the best sense of the word, a fit capstone to what has been a remarkable life.
A DAUGHTER’S TALE
The Memoir of Winston Churchill’s
By Mary Soames
Random House. 356 pp. $28