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A Daughter’s Tale

A Daughter’s Tale

“Mary is very gracious to me & spends ½ an hour each morning in my bed while I breakfast,” Winston Churchill wrote to his wife Clementine in 1926.  “Some of her comments are made in the tone & style of a woman of thirty.  She is a sweet.”

Mary was two and a half years old at the time.  Now nearly ninety, she has, if this memoir is anything to go by, stayed the course of graciousness throughout her life.  Her recounting of her childhood at the family estate, Chartwell – idyllic really is the only word – will slake the thirst of anyone pining for the return of Downton Abbey.  A good deal younger than her siblings, she was “alternately in the roles of new cuddly toy and real little bore – to be discarded rapidly when a more pressing or suitable-to-age attraction presents itself.”  However, once “discarded,” she could turn to a nanny, a nursery, a complicated collection of dolls, an even more imposing collection of pets, a pony and a playhouse called the “Marycote” with a working kitchen.  Yet there is not a touch of hauteur in her.  She works very hard to produce a scene or two demonstrating her bad behavior – failing to sit still for a portrait when she is four years old, pouring water on a policeman’s head from the window at No. 11 Downing Street when she is just a little older, a quarrel, as an adult, with her brother Randolph which Winston deemed “unsisterly.”  But it doesn’t work – she is too decent, happy, and well brought-up.  They don’t make them like this anymore.

During the war, she works as a gunner in the women’s auxiliary, achieves an officer’s rank, and is awarded an MBE for her service.  However, it is here, most unfortunately, that the narrative falls down a little.  Hundreds of characters have paraded through her story, nearly all of them “charming” or a “lifelong friend.”  A lifelong diarist and prodigious correspondent (as were her parents), she has cartons of material from which to pull, but would have benefitted from a firmer hand helping to select what is presented.  Surely there was more to her war than a series of “jolly” luncheons, the guest lists and menus of which are dutifully recorded.  What about that MBE?  Her reserve, modesty, and graciousness, all qualities we would want in a friend (particularly in a “lifelong friend”) make her a bit of an unreliable narrator.

Still, a valuable volume for an account of the social life of a certain time and place, from an ultimate insider. 

A Daughter’s Tale:  The Memoir of Winston Churchill’s Youngest Child
Mary Soames
Random House
349 pages