My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Clarissa Eden was born Clarissa Churchill in 1920, the daughter of Winston Churchill’s younger brother Jack and Lady Gwendeline Bertie, known as ‘Goonie’. Her upbringing and education were typical for an upper-class girl of that time. She was sent for a few years to Kensington High School – ‘the only sensible schooling I got’ – but was then packed off to a fashionable boarding school where the emphasis was on riding, drawing and music lessons. It was her mother’s view that what really mattered was to be ‘clever, charming, lovely and lovable’; such things as exams and qualifications were of no importance.
Boarding school was followed by ‘finishing’ in Paris. Here, among other enlightening experiences, Clarissa saw her first naked female body – that of Josephine Baker, performing at the Folies-Bergère dressed only in a circlet of bananas. Another encounter in Paris was with Donald Maclean, the Russian spy. ‘He complained that I was not a proper Liberal girl like the Bonham-Carters and the Asquiths – I was too smart. It turned out that he wasn’t a proper Liberal boy either.’
On her return to England Clarissa decided, whatever her mother might think, to get herself properly educated. Enrolling as an undergraduate and taking a degree wasn’t an option, but she took herself off to Oxford anyway and studied philosophy with a variety of dons. She soon felt at home with Oxford’s most renowned intellectuals, including Isaiah Berlin, Stephen Spender (‘huge, Germanic and ironic’) and Maurice Bowra (‘a bullish appearance and the voice of a sergeant major’).
Philosophical studies were ended by the war, during with Clarissa worked at ‘decoding’ in the basement of the Foreign Office, putting up with Pam Churchill (wife, later ex, of Randolph) in the Dorchester. After the war, she turned to journalism, getting to know a wide variety of writers, critics and painters.
Then in 1952, to the amazement of all their friends and acquaintances, the 32-year-old Clarissa became engaged to the 55-year-old Anthony Eden, then Foreign Secretary and eventual successor to the Prime Minister, Clarissa’s Uncle Winston.
The role of the political wife in the 1950s was a self-effacing one. From now until her husband’s death in 1976, and particularly during his time in office, Clarissa devoted herself to ‘looking after him and being sure that everything was just right for him’. Her own friends and interests had to take a back seat. Very occasionally she lets slip a note of frustration about this. ‘How self-important all politicians are,’ she comments at one point, and she was cross not to have been included in a trip to Yugoslavia, particularly as Marshal Tito had invited her. But on the whole she has no regrets.
This is a fascinating (and copiously illustrated) memoir, full of insights into personalities and events from someone who saw them close up and from a unique perspective. It has been sensitively edited by Cate Haste, who provides just enough background information to set Clarissa’s memories in context.
Clarissa seems to have met just about everyone, from the Duke of Windsor (‘a wistful man’) to Greta Garbo (‘With a low and melodious voice, nothing she said was of the slightest interest – and very often made no sense – but one was enchanted all the same.’) She also provides some very touching glimpses of her aging uncle, clinging cantankerously on to office, driving everyone around him to a despair mingled with profound admiration.
And where else could you read about a young Prince Charles on a family picnic, refusing to give up his cushion to the Prime Minister on the grounds that ‘I’m tired too. I’ve been running about.’? Or about an evening at Balmoral, relaxing with the Queen, the Duke and – incongruously, given the entertainment on offer – the Principal of the Church of Scotland: ‘Afterwards a film in the ballroom. It was a French X film about gang warfare with a very loud soundtrack and shots of women with breasts exposed.’
Clarissa has a ready wit and a deliciously dry sense of humour. She gives a very amusing description of the two Soviet heavyweights, Khrushchev and Bulgarin, overwhelmed after meeting the Queen: ‘the two Russians were very excited in the car going back to Claridge’s, saying, “The Queen said to me…” “No, she said that to me…” and so on.’
But perhaps my favourite anecdote was of Clarissa’s accidental discovery of the cyanide pill, issued to Anthony during the war in case of capture by the Germans, which had been ‘rattling around in his sock drawer for thirty years’.
[An edited version of this review first appeared in The Daily Mail in November 2007.]
View all my reviews