Churchill: Remember the man not the myth. Part 8 - The Dream reveals Churchill's soul
In the latest instalment of Alastair Stewart's history series on the life of Sir Winston Churchill, he explores what a posthumously published essay by the statesman tell us about his relationship with his father - a man he felt never believed in him.
As this series progresses, it’s apparent that Churchill the warrior, Churchill the caricature, Churchill the politician or, egregiously, Churchill the drunk and philanderer, are an endless convergence of half-truths. While one can deconstruct these one at a time, there's one story which has remained a compass to me in navigating who Churchill was, and just how human, indeed how sensitive, he truly was.
In 1947 Sir Winston Churchill penned the only puzzling non-sequitur in his dazzling writing career. In a short essay, Churchill imagines (or possibly recalls) a ghostly conversation with his father Lord Randolph Churchill who had died over 50 years earlier. The ‘Private Article', - as labelled by Churchill - was given the perhaps too literal title of ‘The Dream’ by his family much later on. It was kept in a locked box by Churchill and was posthumously published. For all its secrecy, It remains, to this day, the greatest insight into Winston Churchill's soul.
Lord Randolph Churchill
Churchill, sitting in his art studio and recreating a painting of his father, is all of a sudden confronted with the man himself. In a flash, Lord Randolph is sitting in a plush leather chair with his near septuagenarian son standing at an easel. What is said is just as important as what is not said. Randolph and his son then proceed to have a rather dry conversation about what the former has missed over the last half-century, interjected with cruel barbs.
“His eye wandered round the studio, which is entirely panelled with scores of my pictures. I followed his travelling eye as it rested now on this one and on that. After a while: ‘Do you live in this cottage?’
“‘No,’ I said, ‘I have a house up on the hill, but you cannot see it for the fog.’
“‘How do you get a living?’ he asked. ‘Not, surely, by these?’ indicating the pictures.”
The inquiring Randolph is in his prime, inquiring after everything from the state of Parliament, the country and his speaking clubs. The reader is in on the joke - Churchill impishly, and quite differentially, the answers to each of his father’s questions with authority, grace and good humour. His father, on the other hand, holds a cursory and remarkably brief Q&A but his son’s life and his family.
There are presumption and supposition, and few direct lines of questioning. It is a broken-hearted story of a son who knew in life that his father never believed in him all while delivering the twin blow from the beyond the grave of leaving his son unable to even consider that Lord Randolph might have been proud of him.
“I never brought you up to anything. I was not going to talk politics with a boy like you ever. Bottom of the school! Never passed any examinations, except into the Cavalry! Wrote me stilted letters. I could not see how you would make your living on the little I could leave you and Jack, and that only after your mother. I once thought of the Bar for you but you were not clever enough. Then I thought you might go to South Africa. But of course you were very young, and I loved you dearly. Old people are always very impatient with young ones. Fathers always expect their sons to have their virtues without their faults. You were very fond of playing soldiers, so I settled for the Army. I hope you had a successful military career.”
The story is sadder still, for Churchill clearly worshipped his father. Sir Martin Gilbert, Churchill's official biographer, writes that it was a family dinner at Chartwell which was the genesis for the piece. Churchill's daughter Sarah, sharing a meal with her brother Randolph, asked: "If you had the power to put someone in that chair to join us now, whom would you choose?"
Sarah expected to hear one of her father's heroes from history like Caesar, Napoleon, or his ancestor the Duke of Marlborough. Instead, Churchill replied, "Oh, my father, of course" and began describing the incident in his art studio.
Lord Randolph’s namesake grandson was unconvinced as to the origin of the story, remarking years later that he wasn't sure if his father "was recalling a dream or elaborating on some fanciful idea that had struck him earlier." In any event, they encouraged him to commit the tale to paper, and while Churchill was reluctant to do so he penned it and kept it under lock and key for twenty years.
How did Churchill view his father?
What is manifest is that 'The Dream' is the single best insight into how Churchill viewed his father and how he thought his father saw him. Lord Randolph died in 1895 the age of forty-six when Winston was 20. It's a cliche to say their father-son relationship was complicated, but Randolph never conceived of much of a future for his son and told him so. He certainly would never have entertained the prospect that the Western world owed Churchill their survival.
At only eight pages in length, readers are left to gaze at the abyss between the two men. Randolph spends most of their conversation inquiring as to the state of the world, politics and his hobbies. A token effort is made to understand who is son is and he never point-blank asks what route his life has taken.
Churchill is unusually acquiescent and deferential in the essay (a heartfelt confession might even be a better name for it). He talks at lengths about the horrors of the wars of the last 50 years, but there is not a single mention of just who lead Britain in the Second World War.
The last page, after a crescendo of mundane discussion, is a punch of poignancy that makes the essay, whatever its status as 'fact' or fiction, a powerful insight into a young man who knew he could never meet his father's expectations. The open wound is a tragedy and one, as we find out, that culminates in Randolph being too arrogant even to ask what his son had done with his life.
“Winston, you have told me a terrible tale. I would never have believed that such things could happen. I am glad I did not live to see them. As I listened to you unfolding these fearful facts you seemed to know a great deal about them. I never expected that you would develop so far and so fully.
“Of course, you are too old now to think about such things, but when I hear you talk I really wonder you didn’t go into politics. You might have done a lot to help. You might even have made a name for yourself.”
For the reader, it is an indelible bullet wound. It is filled with sorrow, of sadness and a moroseness of time that has haunted one of the great titans of history. Winston Churchill, the boy, is still waiting for his father's approval at the age of seventy-three but he never dares ask for it.
Politically driven men
Without question, Churchill was the better man, even if he may not have thought it himself. Both men were politically driven - and even held some of the same positions in government - and were prone to mood swings and deep depression. It was Churchill, however, who accepted his 'black dog' and foibles and harnessed them to make a life of great consequence.
In his 1930 autobiography, My Early Life, Churchill outlines his father's expectations that he follows in the footsteps of their distinguished ancestors, including himself. Lord Randolph, like most upper-class parents of the era, left the education of his son to boarding school and emotional support to their nanny. Churchill could count on one hand the meaningful conversations he had had with his father, but could greater recall Randolph's castigations about his intelligence, lack of qualifications and general promise far more readily. The son was nevertheless was in awe of his father, his political career and held a genuine love for the man (perhaps even more so after his death).
To this day, 'The Dream' remains an anomaly in Churchill's writing because it is overshadowed by his work as a historian. Churchill was nominated four times for the Nobel Prize for Literature before finally winning in 1953. The historian Paul Johnson concluded in his book Churchill that the future prime minister wrote an estimated eight to ten million words in more than forty books, thousands of newspaper and magazine articles, scripts and several poems to say nothing of the thousands of government papers bearing his name.
The oddity among his sea of work is a touching and nuanced essay that provides a greater penetration of Churchill's complicated view of his father than even his own biography of the man. 'The Dream' may be from the perspective of an older, ruminating Churchill, but it's a more emotionally intelligent than any of his other works.
In Richard M. Langworth's introduction, he writes, "One question about The Dream that continues to fascinate is whether the account was all fiction. When asked this question by friends who had read the story, Winston Churchill would smile and say 'Not entirely.'"
Posthumous publication of The Dream
After his death, Clementine, Churchill's wife, donated the piece to Churchill College, Cambridge and it was subsequently published a year after his death in The Sunday Telegraph. The piece became more widely available for the first time in The Collected Essays of Sir Winston Churchill in 1976 and was published on its own in September 1987.
When weighing Churchill's successes and failures in life historians often focus on the decisions with a cursory look at the personality. 'The Dream' is a special and rare insight into Churchill's heart, and it deserves far more attention than it often gets. Sir Winston was, really, motivated to please his father. It's perhaps not too far a stretch to presume this is what drove him so hard, and made him, as Lord Alanbrooke once said, a superman on this earth.
For all that he did, it Churchill's lifelong regret that his father did not live to see what he had achieved.
Churchill died on 24 January 1965 - the same day his father died seventy years before.
You can read 'The Dream' here.
Catch up with the rest of the series here.
(Lord Randolph image courtesy of Rijks Museum, Lord Randolph and Lady Jennie Jerome copyright The Churchill Archives Centre)