Sonia Purnell biographer

Interview by Bridget Osborne

May 2015

In 2015 one of the themes of the Chiswick Book Festival was the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Sonia Purnell published First Lady: The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill, also commemorating the 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s death.

Without Winston Churchill’s inspiring leadership Britain could not have survived its darkest hour and repelled the Nazi menace. Without his wife Clementine, however, he might never have become Prime Minister. By his own admission, the Second World War would have been ‘impossible without her’. Yet Clementine Churchill seems to have been airbrushed out of history. One official biography of Churchill makes not one single mention of her.

Sonia Purnell (journalist and serial biographer – she’s written one on Boris Johnson too) has had unique access to members of the family – the papers of their son Randolph’s wife Pamela Harriman for example – and to some of their staff. With her exhaustive research she has produced a book which not only sets the record straight but is a thoroughly good read. She illustrates how Clementine was Winston’s emotional rock and his most trusted confidante involved in some of the most crucial decisions of war, exerting an influence over her husband and the Government that would appear scandalous to modern eyes.

A Woman of No Importance

Sonia’s research into the Second World War also led her to unearth the story of Virginia Hall, an American spy who changed the course of World War II.

“She was without question a hero, who played a significant role in altering the course of the war. In 1942, the Gestapo made it a priority to track down the mysterious ‘limping lady’ who was fighting for the freedom of France”.

Virginia limped because she had lost a leg in a boating accident before the war, which didn’t stop her escaping from France by hiking over the Pyrenees into Spain, through deep snow.

Read my interview with Sonia about A Woman of No Importance here.

Boris

Before plunging into researching and writing about the Second World War, Sonia’s first biography was of the colleague she shared an office with in Brussels when they were both there as journalists writing for the Telegraph. Her book Just Boris – A Tale of Blond Ambition, published in 2011, is ‘a major and controversial new biography of one of the most compelling and contradictory figures in modern British life’ (Goodreads).

It made her a New York Times best seller as well as putting her on the map as an important biographer in Britain:

‘Sonia Purnell examines how a shy, young boy from a broken home became our only box-office politician – and most unlikely sex god; how the Etonian product fond of Latin tags became a Man of the People.’

Since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, Sonia has been in great demand in the media, commenting on his character; (‘reckless and un-priministerial’ for example). Read some of the scathing comments she’s made about him here.