Clarissa Churchill (1920-2021) R.I.P.

One of the last of Evelyn Waugh’s contemporary friends died yesterday. This is Clarissa Churchill.  Her father was Jack Churchill, Winston’s younger brother, and she was always close to Winston’s family. She grew up in a house in South Kensington which the two brothers shared. In 1952, she married Churchill’s Foreign Secretary and successor as Prime Minister, Anthony Eden. She acquired the title Countess of Avon when he became the Earl of Avon in 1961. It was this marriage that brought Evelyn Waugh most memorably into her life. As explained in the Daily Telegraph:

When she announced her engagement, her aunt Clementine Churchill expressed the view that Clarissa was too independent to make a suitable wife for a politician. Others were shocked by the fact that she was marrying one.

Evelyn Waugh suddenly confessed that he had been in love with her – “a rare treat which came my way now and again” – and opposed the match on the grounds that Eden was a divorcee and she was a Roman Catholic, albeit a lapsed one. He berated her: “Thousands have died and are dying today in torture for the Faith you have idly thrown aside.” Their friendship never recovered, but as she recalled: “Other Catholic friends were more civilised.”

The Telegraph’s obituary is quite detailed but it does not explain how she came to be a Roman Catholic or when she allowed her Catholicism to lapse. According to an editorial note in Waugh’s collected letters (p. 378) she “had been brought up a Roman Catholic in a household that was not fervently religious.” But Waugh did rather carry  too far his persecution of her for her marriage, somewhat in the same manner in which he tormented John Betjeman for not following his wife Penelope into Roman Catholicism when she converted to that faith. It was not Waugh’s finest hour. See Letters, pp. 378, 381-82.

The Telegraph’s obituary opens with this introductory explanation of her acquaintanceship with Waugh and his circle of friends:

… A fragile-looking haute bohemian beauty in youth, with fair hair and pallid skin, she was also an intellectual with highly developed tastes in literature, art, music and design. Before her marriage she had received close attention from figures such as Evelyn Waugh, James Pope-Hennessy, Cecil Beaton, Cyril Connolly, Duff Cooper, Lord Berners, Lucian Freud, Greta Garbo and Isaiah Berlin. The list of those whose path she crossed in her early life ranged from Jean Cocteau and the composer Nicolas Nabokov to Edith Sitwell and Orson Welles. And these were not mere meetings. She read their books, studied their art and had a clear understanding of what they were trying to achieve…

According to the Telegraph, both Berners and Pope-Hennessy used her as a model for characters in their novels:

… she inspired the character of Emmeline Pocock in Lord Berners’s wartime book, Far From the Madding War. Berners described her thus: “The first impression was one of gentleness and modesty. Then you began to realise that she was extremely pretty.” […]

She was also the inspiration for Perdita, the heroine of James Pope-Hennessy’s book London Fabric, which was dedicated to Clarissa. Together they wandered round war-torn London, frequently disagreeing over the architectural gems visited.”

Pope-Hennessy described “Perdita” as looking “with her freshness and her swinging golden hair, like a Hans Andersen princess in a dungeon. It was hard to know what she was thinking. There is about her a withdrawn aloofness that just misses being haughty and widely misses being absurd. It is an unmodern quality, and I find it arresting.”

Pope-Hennessy was devoted to her, but her long friendship with him ended when she married, as his lifestyle proved too bohemian for Anthony Eden.

She was 101 when she died. Several other papers (Times, Daily Mail, Guardian) mention the Waugh connection but in less detail than the Telegraph. The Guardian obituary has the distinction of relating to a subject who outlived her obiturist. This was Cate Haste who died 25 April 2021 and had cooperated with Clarissa in the writing of her autobiography.

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