This post was originally posted on my old blog on May, 15, 2013.
Update: Clarissa, Lady Avon, died in November, 2021, aged 101. Her obituary.
Clarissa Churchill Eden, is a hard woman to put into words. Part Katherine Hepburn, part spoiled brat, Clarissa has intrigued me for years. And, I admit, I still don’t have a true read of her. She famously disdained the rites of passage of her class by refusing to be presented at court in spite of being the Great-Granddaughter of the Duke of Marlborough. She hung out with a cerebral crowd that included Cecil Beaton. When she decided to finally marry she chose as her husband not only a man old enough be her father, but one in horribly bad health and on the brink of serving as Prime Minster at a time when the nation was approaching one of it’s top national crisis of the 20th Century. To say she liked attention would be an understatement. Yet, she also seemed shy. A enigma.
At the start, in my opinion, she was about as full of her self as only a 20-something can be. Life would gradually give her just the tiniest taste of humility though. And, let’s face it, in England, all her life there was a gal 6 years younger who is still dominating the world stage, so maybe it took more for women to get noticed–even a Churchill. Maybe she was just another boring, “I’m better than you” pseudo-intellectual who wore trousers and smoked in public and hung out with men and women we know today (and likely she knew then) were homosexuals. Maybe she was stuck surrounded by boring, “I’m better than you” pseudo-intellectuals who were a little too safe in taxis and she was desperately banging on the bars of her upper-class prison of a life? Maybe she envied her cousin Sarah (Winston’s daughter) and wanted a life on the stage. Maybe she thought she should have been Katherine Hepburn. No, I didn’t think so. She was stuck up as a young woman.
Or, more likely she was insecure. It would be hard not to be insecure in that family. Clarissa was a Churchill, but she was not a “Winston” Churchill. Her father was the great man’s little known younger brother Jack–a successful businessman in the city. Clarissa herself was born well after her brothers in a home shared by Jack’s family and Winston’s at a point when Winston’s over-the-top-lifestyle left him in reduced circumstances. By her mid twenties Clarissa was an orphan.
Her autobiography, which I found boring, is truly tough sledding. She was literate–VERY literate , and intelligent– VERY intelligent, but does not communicate well thru the written word. True, most of the book consists of snippets from diary entries, but there are very erudite diarists out there and she, sadly, is not among them. Like another celebrated younger woman who married an older man (Princess Diana) Clarissa left school with no qualifications, but in an era when that was pretty much expected of young women of her class and very much a badge of honor among the notoriously un-bookish aristocracy. Her mother, for example, had no idea what “matriculation” meant with regard to education and was unconcerned that her daughter’s boarding school stressed “horses.” (As I said, this was a different generation and her mother’s views were almost identical to that of a young mother known as the Duchess of York, who didn’t even believe her daughters she be forced to even go to an actual school.) But here she differs wildly from that norm–her friends were, almost to a one, either intellectuals or highly creative individuals.
As for Anthony Eden, at first glance he is a conventional man of his class–Eton, Oxford, officer in WWI, but he, too, differed a bit from that norm. He had a passion for art and was fluent in, among other languages, Persian. The word consistently used to describe him as a young man was “sensitive.” An understatement. He made a conventional first marriage that fizzled and faltered and finally collapsed. He lost brothers in the First World War and his beloved oldest son, Simon, in the Second World War–a death he characterized as the worst pain of his life. He was a shining star of the Conservative party for many years, but for all of them his light was all but blocked by the eclipse that was Winston Churchill. His years as Churchill’s heir were nearly as long as those of Prince Charles to Queen Elizabeth.
So, while Clarissa Churchill skulked around Vogue, the workroom of Cecil Beaton and the drawing rooms of the upper class intelligentsia leading a Katherine Hepburn-ish, trousered, existence and Anthony steered the ship of foreign affairs and weekended with the Mountbattens and Noel Coward, both were missing something in their lives. Each Other. They “met,” in terms of romantic interest at least, at a dinner party. Eden shyly asked her to have dinner with him and she accepted. And who wouldn’t? A woman would have had to be deaf, blind, dumb AND stupid to turn down one of history’s great crushes. Eden, so suave and so well dressed that he had a hat named after him, was one the best catches in England.Anthony and Clarissa married in a civil ceremony and had their reception, appropriately enough, at 10 Downing with Uncle Winston and Aunt Clementine.
Tigress or Trophy Wife? Protector or Pandora?
When Winston Churchill finally had dinner at 10 Downing with the Queen and Prince Philip and agreed to retire, Anthony was left holding the bag and living in a 10 Downing with, as his young wife famously put it, “the Suez canal flowing thru [the] drawing room.” As a warm-up to the canal, Britain’s first divorced Prime Minister was saddled with the Princess Margaret wanting to marry her late father’s divorced equerry–a mess that would have killed many a lesser man on its own. But Suez, and not the Princess, was the last straw.
The canal and the bickering over it brought down one of the longest running careers in foreign relations.Here is where the Eden fans begin to disagree over Clarissa and her influence. While first wives can be a huge influence, second, younger, beautiful wives (trophy wives in today’s icky parlance) can be Machiavellian. Some unkind souls view Clarissa as an usurper, a devious power behind, if not a throne, than a Prime Minister. Suez was such a phenomenal mess that the leader of the British Military of the time, Eden’s old buddy, Lord Mountbatten, tried unsuccessfully to resign and came perilously close to treason in his opposition to Eden’s plans.
Never mind that the whole thing was a disaster it must be that Anthony was besotted with his wife–right? Sure, why not! How much stuff was Eleanor Roosevelt blamed for? Hilary Clinton? Denis Thatcher? Clarissa though, saw the whole thing through a different lens–the lens of Anthony’s deteriorating health. She was from the earliest days of her marriage, to use a well-known Downton Abbey quote, “an old man’s drudge.”
Eden, though not yet sixty had the health of a corpse and very nearly died from a botched gal bladder operation. It was left to Clarissa to try to keep his job, restore his health, and maintain their marriage. All with the world’s press watching, of course! Did I mention she was only 36 at this time? Her take on things, with the hindsight of many years as a widow, sounds like this:
“My concern throughout was to support Anthony, and I felt that I could only help by bolstering him up without trying to lessen his load or demand that he rested.” (P. 235)”By now we had been living in a a perpetual state of tension for over three months…Yet when Anthony came up each evening he always seemed calm in voice and manner…I didn’t feel I knew enough to interfere in any way. I listened sympathetically, and was interested in the details and behavior of his colleagues. I always assumed Anthony was right because he has so much more experience in foreign affairs.” (p. 254-255)”[Doctor came and said] Anthony’s heart and blood pressure were fine but his nervous system was burnt out…finally decided on a month’s holiday.” (p.256)
A wife young enough to give him children (she miscarried) was asked to deal with the fallout from a totally necessary rest during a world crisis! Could I have done that at 36? I doubt it. After all, when Churchill suffered a heart attack during the war, it was kept a secret even from his wife. His stroke, left his son-in-law, the future Lord Soames, running the country in secret. But, the Edens were forced to take a holiday, so doctors said, to save Anthony’s life, Suez or no Suez. So she’s taking care of an uber-high maintenance, older husband, whose job necessitates him trotting blithely across the world stage in full glare of the press! And we thought Jackie Kennedy originated this role? Ok, Jackie did get the trophy children that Clarissa lacked. Can you then blame Clarissa for being glad when Anthony threw in the political towel?
“I was pleased to leave politics, and that we could have a marriage without all the tensions, plottings and shenanigans of political life.” (p267).
Their “retirement” life featured annual trips to Paris for, among other things, book and art buying,retreats to warmer climates in the winter (including to Colin Tenant’s bizarre island empire, Mustique), life in an idyllic, aesthetically pleasing country home where Anthony toiled away writing his less-than-memorable memoirs while looking debonair in sweaters with silk cravats tucked in at the neck.
While Clarissa’s memoirs give only the briefest glimpse in words of her marriage, I think the photos tell another story. First there are countless pictures around of Eden gazing lovingly at his wife. And, in her book, Clarissa published not one, but two photos of Eden in swim trunks, another of him lounging and looking too adorable for words at their home and countless others of him as his suave ever-elegant political self. Possibly most telling of all (or possibly a totally tongue-in-cheek joke on her readers) a very elderly Clarissa is shown on the back jacket of the book in a tweed jacket and silk scarf in clear emulation of her late husband’s sartorial style. Not of today’s “tell all” generation, I think the pictures Clarissa chose for the book speak louder than words.
While I still find it hard to warm up to her, and I’m sure many of his colleagues were right to worry about her “hold” over her husband (these were men who, after all, had lost a King to such a woman), I have to come down on the side of Tigress Protector. It was her tenacity that solved his medical crisis, her tenacity that protected his legacy and her tenacity that kept him in the public eye long enough to see the polish put back on his tarnished image. I also wonder–did Jackie Kennedy look at her and see a role model?
All quotes are from Clarissa Eden: A Memoir From Churchill to Eden edited by Cate Haste.
Oh I loved this, much more in-depth than my review from way back when. ” one of history’s great crushes” – yes, indeed!
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