“Politics, Pamela, finances and books,” wrote the 25 year-old lieutenant, Winston Churchill to his widowed mother Jennie in 1900 explaining why he was returning home from the war in South Africa. “They all need my attention.” She clearly understood his priorities. Politics first, women second and money, or as often was the case, lack of it, a long way after both. Jennie, the raven-haired American beauty who had married Lord Randolph Churchill when just out of her teens, was urging her son at the same age to make a name for himself fighting. She repeatedly told him he must work hard if he was going to succeed. After all, many men of his age were already supporting their mothers, not vice versa. He took her advice, worked hard and pushed his courage to the limits. As soon as he earned any money he sent her a large cheque for £300 “for I could never have earned it had you not transmitted me the wit and energy which are necessary.”
Pamela Plowden, the first woman Winston had fallen deeply in love with, was “the most beautiful girl I have ever seen”, he told his mother shortly after they had met in India. Soon the romance was common knowledge in London society and Winston wrote that she was “the only woman I could ever live happily with.” But it was not to be. Too busy with politics, his top priority, Winston lost Pamela to another man and in 1902 she married Victor, Second Earl of Lytton, much to Jennie’s sadness
At this time Winston was still awkward around women and suffered rejection from two others with whom he was in love; Muriel Wilson, who concluded that he did not have much of a future, and the actress Ethel Barrymore, who believed she would not be supportive enough in his chosen field of politics. Yet crucially, through it all, he had the vital and unconditional love of his mother. For ever since Mrs Elisabeth Everest, the ample-bosomed Nannie, had come to look after him as a baby, Winston always depended on one woman as an essential emotional back up in his life
Mrs Everest was the undisputed focus of young Winston’s life. He called her Woom, short for Womany, and clearly adored her. It was Woom who noticed the horrific scars and birch marks from flogging on the back of her young charge and begged his mother to remove the child from such a sadistic school. Winston had grown pale and susceptible to a variety of illnesses in the short time he had been there and, as he commented later, “if my mother hadn’t taken me away I would have broken down completely.”
Mrs Everest took Winston on holiday with her to the Isle of Wight where her sister, married to a prison warder, lived. Lord Randolph worried about these visits in case his son was mixing with the wrong sort of people. But young Winston loved them especially as Mrs Everest’s brother-in-law took him for long walks over the downs, telling him exciting stories about prison mutinies.
As a child, some of his letters to Woom, when he lets down the guard he kept up for his parents, are pitiful. “I was all right after you left till just this evening,” the eleven year old wrote. “I feel as if I could cry at everything.” Winston, although by this time at a different school, was ill once more, this time been dangerously so with pneumonia and very high temperatures nudging 105o for several days. The doctors, recognizing the intensely close bond between the young boy and his nannie, warned when he was on the verge of recovery that Mrs Everest should not be allowed in the sick room “lest the excitement of pleasure at seeing her might do harm and cause a relapse.”
Sometimes Winston sent letters to his mother and his nanny in the same envelope signing the one to his mother ‘your loving son’, the one to his nurse: “I am ever darling Winny.” But there is no evidence Jennie was jealous of this relationship. She had her own worries trying to keep her marriage – dangerously close to divorce – together.
When Mrs Everest herself fell ill it was Winston who urged his mother to look after her generously and not dismiss her. When she died in 1895 Winston organized the funeral. As he wrote to his mother: “I shall never know such a friend again.”
Mrs Everest’s death came just a few months after Randolph’s, from suspected syphilis. Jennie immediately transferred all her frustrated hopes and aspirations on to her son. She had been betrayed by her husband for whom she had had such high ambitions. When Winston came to write an account of his childhood, long after both his parents had died, he described his mother as “a glorious fairy princess, a radiant being possessed of limitless riches and power who shone for him like the evening star.” He adored her – but at a distance. But now the relationship changed. Winston and Jennie were more like brother and sister. Theirs was a relationship of intense mutual dependency and mutual adoration. He accompanied her to business meetings, advised her on an idea for a journal and discussed his writing projects with her. He expected her to be his agent, negotiating rates with newspapers, to supply him with books and food and to get him a position with Kitchener’s army in the Sudan. Above all, he demanded that she promoted his talents among her circle of important friends. “I put it down here that you really ought to leave no stone unturned to help me at such a period. I beg you have no scruples but worry right and left and take no refusal.”
This was a role she fell into willingly, convinced that it was his fate and destiny to succeed in life. She even promised to go to Cairo and see if she could “work” the Sirdar with success. In fact, she was using the opportunity to visit one of her handsome young admirers, Major Caryl Ramsden of the Seaforth Highlanders posted to Cairo, a visit that ended with disastrous consequences for her as she found Ramsden in the arms of another woman. Nor did it advance her son’s career.
Winston and Jennie advised each other too, although not always to good effect, hardening each other’s resolve. Jennie was always vehemently anti-suffrage but now militant suffragettes were gaining ground by using dramatic tactics including hunger and thirst strikes. When they deliberately targeted Winston’s meetings she dubbed them the Shrieking Sisterhood. Since she had always been able to exert influence behind the scenes she failed to understand the necessity for women to have the vote. One January, she was at a meeting in Manchester with Winston when a placard-waving suffragette demanded to know whether he was in favour of female suffrage or not. The mood was angry and Churchill, complaining later that he was “henpecked” into a decision, replied on the hoof: “I utterly decline to pledge myself.”
It was a difficult time as Jennie had married again, a man Winston’s age. But there were already cracks in the marriage and they were so short of money that she apologized to Winston she could not even afford a cable for his birthday. And then suddenly everything she had worked for fell into place. In 1908 he was given his first cabinet posting – President of the Board of Trade -and he fell passionately in love with the beautiful but impoverished Clementine Hozier.
Although Jennie recognized immediately that Clemmie would be the perfect life companion for her son, Clemmie was not so fond of her mother-in-law. She was shocked by her attraction to and for younger men, thought her extravagance was a drain on family money and considered her taste rather brash and vulgar. The two women clashed almost immediately over Jennie’s warm-hearted idea to do up her son’s home in readiness for the couple’s return from honeymoon. Clemmie, whose own taste was very simple almost austere, thought the covers Jennie had had made- trimmed all over with large bows – were cheap and tawdry.
But eventually, as she saw how bravely Jennie faced up to her difficulties in life including a divorce, burglary and toe amputation, she decided her mother-in-law’s courage and “pluck” was to be admired. Winston, now a father himself, increasingly turned to his wife for emotional and intellectual support but Jennie continued her ambitious attempts to help him by holding small dinner parties with interesting people.
When he left the Admiralty in 1915, blamed for the dreadful fiasco of the bloody Dardanelles campaign, Clemmie was the quietly supportive one while Jennie loudly raged on his behalf, telling everyone how unfairly he had been treated. At this low point in his life, when Clemmie thought he would die of grief, he relied on both kinds of female support. It was almost as if his survival depended on knowing the strength of his mother’s bitterness and realizing that she, above all, saw how cruelly he had been treated and that she still believed it was his destiny to lead his country.
Anne Sebba is the author of Jennie Churchill : Winston’s American Mother (John Murray, £25)