Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Book review: The Churchills by Mary S. Lovell

While in Maleny over the Easter weekend I wandered into Rosetta Bookshop and as per usual I bought a few books, including The Churchills by Mary S. Lovell.

I bought the book not from any great desire to read about the Churchills but because I have read and enjoyed almost all of Lovell's previous biographies. Choosing slightly off-centre but nevertheless fascinating subjects, Lovell tells the personal sagas eruditely, striking just the right balance between private detail and drama and insight into the world in which they lived and shaped.

When I first picked up the book I thought it would span a greater number of generations than it does. Though starting with John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough and builder of the family seat Blenheim Palace (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site), the action then skips a century or two to the grandfather of Winston Churchill, around whom the majority of the story revolves. 

The family pile: Blenheim Palace. 

Not that there isn't enough going on in the three generations centred around Winston. His mother was the first of the 'dollar princesses' – the flood of wealthy American heiresses who married into the British aristocracy in the 19thC, bringing dowries to prop up the money-poor Barons, Dukes and Earls in exchange for a title and respectability they could never find back home. In just four generations we learn of innumerable affairs, divorces, illnesses and of course, the huge personality of Winston Churchill and the incredibly journey of his life. 

 'Sunny' Marlborough, 9th Duke and his Duchess, Consuelo Vanderbilt, the most famous of the 'Dollar Princesses' whose money saved Blenheim Palace.

This is not a political biography, it is not a war biography. Lovell's focus from page 1 is the private lives of these tumultuous people. Aside from Winston, people who really stood out for me were his mother Jennie, beautiful and charismatic, who made a rare happy marriage and who moved at the epi-centre of British Society for decades and also Winston's son Randolph, intensely unlike-able on the page despite the author's assurances that he could have great person charm in life.

Winston and Clementine Churchill.

Sitting on my bookshelves right now are biographies on The Mitford Girls – six sisters who exemplified the political spectrum of the 20thC from Nazism, Fascism, Communism to the very peak of the British aristocracy; Beryl Markham, pioneering aviatrix, racing horse trainer, explosive personality and the first person to fly from England to America; Jane Digby, 19thC aristocratic wife who ended her life as the wife of a Bedouin Sheikh in the sands of Syria; and finally Bess of Hardwick, independent landowner and the first Duchess of Devonshire who built Chatworth and was the second most powerful woman in Tudor England aside from Queen Elizabeth. I recommend all of these biographies because they are well researched yet easy to read and genuinely fascinating. 

The Churchills is a great read and a intriguing look into a history-making family. 

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