by Sonia Purnell
I came across this book when I watched a video of the author giving hints and tips about writing biography. I’ve just noticed that there are two titles by this author about Clementine Churchill. Could it be that one was published in the US and one in the UK, with different titles? I can’t imagine that they can be different books. She has also written about Boris Johnson. Hmmmm.
My feelings about First Lady are mixed. On the plus side: the life is interesting enough for a biography, the times Clementine lived in provide an exciting backdrop, and Churchill himself is thrown into relief through this narrative of his wife’s life. I found myself exploring some of the background, and even watched the film The Battle of Britain again after reading about that period in history. During the time I was reading this book, we had also been to see the newly-released film Darkest Hour. So I may say that the film sparked my imagination and my interest in the era Clementine lived through, and especially the Second World War.
But I have reservations about the writing style, as well as the story’s coverage.
Purnell’s language does not scintillate in the way that, say, Claire Tomalin’s writing does, making you feel that not only the subject of the book, but the writing itself compels you to read on. A previous reader of my library book had ‘corrected’, in pencil, various words and phrases through the text. I rubbed some of these out. They were either stylistic alternatives and not improvements (“due to” in place of “thanks to”) or just plain wrong (“materiel” corrected to “material”). Annoying, but hardly the author’s fault! What I did find annoying, though, were the occasions when the author seemed to ‘dumb down’ what she was writing for the sake of a presumed uneducated reader. In the chapter describing the Churchills’ life at Chartwell in the 1920s and 1930s, the list of notable people they entertained there includes “Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother” and “Lawrence of Arabia”. Presumably she means the Duchess of York and T E Lawrence. It is not only an inaccuracy, but insulting to the reader not to say so. Put their other names in brackets or in a footnote if you must. This is perhaps the crassest example, but I really felt that throughout the book, the author missed opportunities to elaborate on some of the no doubt interesting background to other characters, and links to the world around its subject.
There is no doubt that this book is painstakingly researched. Notes at the end reference the many quotations in the text. Maybe these are less distracting than footnotes on the page; but I would have welcomed something, in notes or in the body of the text, to make the story glow rather more than it does.
If this were an essay I would grudgingly give it an A or perhaps A-. I won’t be rushing to read another book by Ms Purnell. And anyway, who wants to read about Boris Johnson’s life?