Book Review for “Lady Clementine” by Marie Benedict.
This is the story of Clementine Churchill, the woman married to Winston Churchill, best known as the man who was twice Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Although most people know of Winston’s exploits, which included successes and failures alike, the woman at his side set a new standard for a PM’s wife, but her influence over her husband, and thereby the governing of the country, was at turns overlooked, derided, and marginalized. With this biographical, women’s, historical fiction novel, Benedict attempts to right this wrong, and place her on almost equal footing with the very famous man she was married to for over 56 years, so that we can finally appreciate who she was, and what she did for her country – both officially and unofficially.
First off, I must admit that found the title of this novel to be a bit confusing. If you look her up on Wikipedia, you’ll see a very skeletal biography. But what you will find is that she obtained titles in her own right. She became a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1918, a Dame Grand Cross in 1946, and only received the title of Lady in 1953 by virtue of Winston’s knighthood. Finally, she actually became a life peer in her own right when she was awarded the title of Baroness in 1965, a few months after Winston’s death. Therefore, the particular title of “Lady” was one of the few she received only because she was married to Winston. Considering everything she accomplished, to portray her with this title, seems terribly ironic, if you ask me. But… what’s in a name, right? (That said, to be totally honest, I’m also not wholly in love with the cover art, but that shouldn’t put you off this novel. I mean, it isn’t horrible, but it also isn’t extraordinary.)
With that out of the way, I found that Benedict uses her straightforward and uncompromising literary style to focus this novel mostly on Clementine’s life starting from when she met Winston in 1904, through 1945. That means the book encompasses both world wars. Think about it… to put 41 (very eventful) years into just under 340 pages is no small accomplishment. To achieve this, Benedict did some very careful picking and choosing, so that the events that got into the book were almost only those where Clementine’s involvement was either obvious, or should have been much more discernable. For example, Benedict describes the open secret that Clementine helped Winston write most of his speeches and had a large hand in editing his writings. Benedict also shows Clementine meeting with international heads of state, even in situations where she was the only spouse in the room. There’s also the relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt, the famously heavy-handed and highly influential wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was the US President during almost all of WWII. The parallels Benedict drew between these two women was probably my favorite part of this novel, since they were truly the proverbial “two peas in a pod”! Think about it – FDR had his debilitating Polio (albeit before he became president), and Winston almost died of pneumonia while he was PM during WWII. These wives nursed their husbands, knowing full well that their husbands’ political careers would take front and center the moment they were once again physically able.
I think what impressed me the most about this novel was how Benedict succeeded in making all of it – even the places where Clementine wasn’t playing an instrumental part – truly Clementine’s story, told in first person. That doesn’t mean that she ignored Winston here, but rather that we saw it all through Clementine’s eyes, through her emotions, through her feelings, and through her own actions (or inaction, as sometimes the case might have been). Benedict also suggests that Clementine was very self-aware regarding her own inadequacies and ineffectiveness, and in fact more than implies that Clementine suffered from no small amount of emotional distress that might have had an impact on her mental health. I don’t know if this is factually correct, since my copy of the ARC didn’t have any author’s notes included, but it certainly sounded plausible to me.
What I’m saying here is that essentially, with the tiny exception to the title of this novel (which I suspect may not have been Benedict’s first choice), this is precisely the type of novel that I look for in women’s, biographical, historical fiction. Benedict’s precise, practically surgical selection of events shows Clementine as not just a strong supporter of her husband, but a tough, intelligent, leader of a woman in her own right, and one who doesn’t hesitate to take action, even when its controversial, or when failure is lurking in the shadows. Clementine isn’t simply a bystander or witness, because she’s practically on the front lines of every battle, even when she’s behind the scenes pulling her own strings. It seems very strange for me to say this of the first book of 2020, but I must give this novel a full five out of five stars. Benedict has outdone herself here, and I cannot recommend this book warmly enough.
Sourcebooks Landmark released “Lady Clementine” by Marie Benedict on January 7, 2020. This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Foyles, Waterstones, Walmart (Kobo) US eBooks and audiobooks, the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), Wordery or The Book Depository (both with free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley.