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All great fun: Mary Churchill dances through the war

11 September 2021

9:00 AM

11 September 2021

9:00 AM

Mary Churchill’s War: The Wartime Diaries of Churchill’s Youngest Daughter Emma Soames

Two Roads, pp.416, 20

The famous photographic portrait by Karsh of Winston Churchill as wartime prime minster personifies heroic defiance and grim determination. His daughter Mary’s affectionately intimate and emotionally volatile diaries, depicting the family in close-up during one national crisis after another and in final triumph, are an informal record that perfectly complements Churchill’s own six authoritative volumes of memoirs of the second world war.

Emma Soames, one of Mary’s five children, has edited them with vivid clarity and understanding, providing an introduction, a summary, elucidations and footnotes. She rightly points out that ‘it is not long before the reader of these diaries is eavesdropping on history’.

No matter how formidable the generals, admirals, politicians and peers of the realm gathered at Churchill’s table at Downing Street or Chequers are, Mary almost always finds them ‘gay, charming and interesting’ and, to her, ‘sweet and kind’. ‘Gay’ is by far her favourite term of praise — in the OED (‘dated’) sense of ‘light-hearted and carefree’ ‘brightly coloured, showy’. In Mary’s generously flexible judgment, the word can be applied equally to General Smuts and rehearsals at the Dorchester for Queen Charlotte’s Ball. And she, too, is usually gay, charming and interesting, and adores ‘Mummie and Papa’ — as they adore her.

She was already keeping a diary at the age of 16, early in 1939. Like many other dedicated literate diarists, she seems to have hoped, even if subconsciously, to convey to posterity an impression of enthusiasm and piety. She was a regular churchgoer who evidently felt able to communicate with God straightforwardly and to ask for all sorts of favours. Her most fervent prayers are for her father’s safety on hazardous journeys to America, the Soviet Union and North Africa, and for victory and peace.

She is a prolific user of exclamation marks, on special occasions in bunches!!!, interspersed with French phrases. Alone in her bedroom, reviewing the day’s events, she is critically self-analytical, and her selfish, ‘shy-making’ behaviour often makes her despondent, tearful and determined to do better. She loves her sisters more than they seem to love themselves. Diana, after a divorce, suffered nervous breakdowns and committed suicide, and Sarah, also after marital failure, took to the bottle. Churchill cherished his only son Randolph, who never reciprocated, and Mary, reluctantly, finds it impossible not to recognise that her brother’s arrogant, demanding boorishness is unlovable.

She enjoys a robust appreciation of food: everything from cottage pie to haute cuisine is ‘scrumptious’. Visiting restaurants and nightclubs with her friends is ‘great fun’. She very much likes going to Mirabelle for lobster and champagne, and on to The 400 Club for dancing till dawn. Though reluctant to give up many of the luxuries of civilian life, she enlists, aged 18, as a private in the Auxiliary Territorial Service and is assigned as a gunner to anti-aircraft batteries. She is later commissioned, and eventually promoted to captain and awarded the MBE (Military) and the Cross of Lorraine by the Free French. When stationed near or in London she can still wear stylish clothes off duty and keep in touch with fashionable friends.

From the Strangers’ Gallery in the House of Commons she witnesses some of her father’s most inspiring speeches, such as the ‘We shall never surrender’ declaration after Dunkirk, the tribute to ‘the Few’ after the Battle of Britain, and his repudiation of the censure motion against him on 2 July 1942, which he defeated by 475 votes to 25. His oratory is ‘magnificent’.

She is courted by two young suitors and wonders agonisingly about them, one by one, whether what she feels is really love, and turns them down. We learn from her editor that she became involved in a ‘dalliance’ with a sergeant, which was considered ‘inappropriate’ (officers were not supposed to dally with other ranks).

Churchill was easily able to commandeer his daughter as his ADC on official trips. On one of these, to Quebec, New York State and Washington, she is in introduced to President Roosevelt, who would become a good friend. On a visit to the British embassy in Paris, she meets Christopher Soames, a junior military attaché; they are immediately attracted to each other and very soon decide to marry, in 1947. When Soames was appointed HM Ambassador to France in 1968 it was obvious that Mary was well-prepared be a successful diplomatic hostess. This is a happy book.

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