Anne Sebba

Blood, Toil, Tears

The Churchills: A Family at the Heart of History – From the Duke of Marlborough to Winston Churchill

By

Little, Brown 462pp £25 order from our bookshop

In her preface to this vivid and enjoyable rollercoaster of a book, Mary S Lovell pre-empts critics who may want to take her to task for adopting a gossipy tone by pleading guilty. She is right to make a virtue of reality, as there is much in this family saga, told with élan to the last of its almost 600 pages, to gossip about. From syphilis to gambling debts, alcoholism to papal annulments, it’s all here. Several of her protagonists indulge in innumerable adulterous affairs and marry three or even four times. There is also, along with the triumphs and romances, much tragedy and sadness, including suicides and nervous breakdowns, and the same stories could have been told with an air of gloom or moral censoriousness. Lovell does not go in for any of that. For example, Pamela Churchill, who was married to Randolph and became Winston’s much loved daughter-in-law, comes a close second to the long-suffering Clementine as the heroine of the book. She was often out of the country in the immediate aftermath of the war because of her busy social life and frequent visits to the USA. This, according to Lovell, had its benefits, since her son often went to stay at Chartwell or Minterne so that both sets of grandparents saw a good deal of him – while she saw a good deal of Averell Harriman. ‘Pam, having enjoyed an amusing flirtation with David Niven … was now involved in a casual affair with the devastatingly handsome Prince Aly Khan,’ Lovell writes briskly a few pages later.

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