Rival biographers in row over Churchill family archive

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The Independent Online
A bitter row has broken out between rival biographers of Sir Winston Churchill's wife Clementine.

One of the biographers, Lady Mary Soames, Sir Winston's last surviving child, was accused yesterday of removing important correspondence from his archive despite the fact that the government paid pounds 13m to ensure that the papers were available to the public. The suggestion has been furiously denied.

Joan Hardwick, whose biography of Clementine Churchill will be published later this month, writes in her preface: "The archive is not readily accessible to all scholars and writers who apply to see it ...

"The tradition of guarding the family image with the objective of keeping it untarnished apparently continues."

Ms Hardwick was reported yesterday as saying: "It would have been better to have sold [the archive] to America, where people would have had easier access."

She released a copy of a letter written to her by Lady Soames in March last year, which states: "I will not be able to give you access to the letters or associated papers ... until I have finished working on them. And it is not possible for me to forecast when that will be."

Lady Soames produced a biography of her mother 18 years ago and is currently compiling a book of her letters, due for publication next year.

But the suggestion that she had removed papers from the archive without authority was rejected by Dr Piers Brendon, keeper of the Churchill Archive Centre at Cambridge University. "The papers are in my charge," he said. "They do not belong to Lady Soames they belong to the trust. Lady Soames would not be allowed to do such a thing and to say otherwise is to accuse her of theft."

He said that Ms Hardwick had not been denied access to the archive. "These papers are fully accessible to everyone," he said.

Lady Soames was also supported by Andrew Roberts, author of Eminent Churchillians, who pointed out that she had copyright over her mother's personal letters. He said: "If Lady Soames wants to take the letters home and work on her biography of her mother and thereby denies them to a woman who is writing a knocking biography, then so long as they were not included in the National Lottery deal she is well within her rights."

Ms Hardwick's biography, Clementine Churchill, The Private Life of a Public Figure, portrays Clementine as a deeply unhappy wife, sick from the nervous stress she suffered as a result of her married life.

She was, according to the book, miserable for most of her marriage, hated living in the family home at Chartwell and considered divorce.

Her personality was suppressed by her husband, who dismissed her strong views on women's suffrage as support for "the flappers' vote".

The account was rejected by Sir Robert Rhodes James, author of The Complete Speeches of Sir Winston Churchill, who said: "I have got no evidence of that at all; it seems highly improbable. I think it was a fairly stormy marriage but a remarkably enduring one. The devotion to one another even in the letters that have been published is remarkable."

Lady Soames described her mother as the "perfect wife" in a biography published in 1979, two years after Clementine's death.

She wrote that Clementine supported Sir Winston "for the 57 years of their marriage, through the triumphs, disasters and tensions which ruled his public and private life".

In the view of Dr Brendon, Lady Soames's 1979 biography had also fairly reflected the volatile nature of the marriage. "She does acknowledge that they went through difficult times. She tells a wonderful story about Clementine throwing a plate of spinach at Winston. Things were difficult. I don't think any of this is new," he said.