His Mother’s Son: “My Darling Winston,” David Lough, Ed.

His Mother’s Son: “My Darling Winston,” David Lough, Ed.

David Lough, edi­tor, My Dar­ling Win­ston: The Let­ters Between Win­ston Churchill and His Moth­er. Lon­don: Pega­sus, 610 pages, $35, Ama­zon $33.25, Kin­dle $15.49. Reprint­ed from a review for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For Hills­dale reviews of Churchill works since 2014, click here. For a list and syn­opses of books about Churchill since 1905, vis­it Hillsdale’s anno­tat­ed bib­li­og­ra­phy.

See also my trib­ute to Lee Remick as “Jen­nie.” and Part 1 of the film. 

David Lough…

…added sig­nif­i­cant­ly to our knowl­edge with No More Cham­pagne (2015), his study of Churchill’s finances. Now he fills anoth­er gap in the saga with this com­pre­hen­sive col­lec­tion of Churchill’s exchanges with his moth­er Jen­nie, Lady Ran­dolph Churchill. They range from Win­ston age sev­en to the very last let­ters before Jennie’s death, aged 67, in June 1921.

LoughOn the sur­face it may seem an easy task. Most of the let­ters are at the Churchill Archives in Cam­bridge. What could be sim­pler than dig­i­tal­iz­ing and pub­lish­ing the lot? Not so fast. To pub­lish them all would over­whelm the read­er, not to men­tion the pub­lish­er. David Lough had to elim­i­nate (or insert ellipses in) many of Winston’s let­ters from school, for exam­ple. This was accept­able, espe­cial­ly for the manda­to­ry week­ly “let­ter home.” Repeat­ed­ly those ask for mon­ey or parental vis­its, or offer exag­ger­at­ed tales of prowess at sport or lessons. Lough offers “a rep­re­sen­ta­tive but not exhaus­tive sam­ple.”

Jen­nie was much bet­ter at keep­ing Winston’s let­ters than he hers. As a result, “con­nect­ing tis­sue” is often required from the edi­tor to explain the con­text. The dearth of Jennie’s let­ters requires famil­iar­i­ty with her own sto­ry. At this Mr. Lough excels, pro­vid­ing us with just enough nar­ra­tive, with­out tak­ing over and dis­tract­ing the read­er from his sub­jects. He also pro­vides excel­lent maps and uncom­mon pho­tographs.

“You are in danger of becoming a prig!”

Hav­ing David Lough as nar­ra­tor is like hav­ing a skilled tutor guid­ing us through the four-decade rela­tion­ship between moth­er and son. He nev­er falls short. “If we accept that Jen­nie ‘for­got’ about Win­ston dur­ing his school­days,” Lough writes, “the ease with which they took up the strik­ing inti­ma­cy of their cor­re­spon­dence after Win­ston left school sug­gests that she must have forged a stronger bond in his pre-school years than was typ­i­cal of Vic­to­ri­an par­ents.” She cer­tain­ly did—witness her own diaries, and her loy­al sup­port of Win­ston when rebuked by his father. Do well in your grades, she wrote him, and it will eclipse your father’s low view of your prospects. Yet she didn’t hes­i­tate to crit­i­cize. Once, find­ing him adopt­ing a “pompous style,” she warned: “You are in dan­ger of becom­ing a prig!” For the most part, though, she took joy in his let­ters.

There are ear­ly exam­ples of Churchill’s wry wit and pow­ers of obser­va­tion. Take Calcutta—please: “A very great city and at night with a grey fog and cold wind—I shall always [be] glad to have seen it—for the same rea­son Papa gave for being glad to have seen Lisbon—namely ‘that it will be unnec­es­sary ever to see it again.’” On his grand­moth­er Frances, 7th Duchess of Marl­bor­ough: “Old age is suf­fi­cient­ly ugly and unpleas­ing with­out its too fre­quent accom­pa­ni­ments, capri­cious­ness and malev­o­lence.” Ouch.

Once com­mis­sioned, Win­ston was des­per­ate for action: “scenes of adven­ture and excite­ment,” where he could “gain expe­ri­ence and derive advan­tage.” He felt ham­pered in “tedious” India, denied both “the plea­sures of peace and the chances of war.” Before long, he was yearn­ing for Crete. Why? Because, Lough explains, he hoped for assign­ment as a war cor­re­spon­dent dur­ing the Greek revolt against Ottoman rule. In a para­graph, Lough explains how this promis­ing fra­cas was resolved, much to young Winston’s frus­tra­tion. Yet India would soon pro­vide plen­ty of war’s chances with the Malakand Field Force. It was the grist for Churchill’s first book.

“Your political career will lead you to big things”

Through­out his let­ters, notably in his sol­dier years, we see how Churchill planned his course, always aim­ing toward pol­i­tics. “My sol­dier­ing prospects are a present very good,” he wrote Jen­nie from India. “I should con­tin­ue in the army for two years more. Those two years could not be bet­ter spent on active ser­vice.” He would ride fame into Par­lia­ment. And he did. Polit­i­cal­ly, his mother’s pre­dic­tions were more accu­rate than his. Win­ston was sure the Con­ser­v­a­tives would lose pow­er by 1902, for exam­ple. As Jen­nie expect­ed, they hung on for anoth­er four years. Yet, with the sense of tim­ing for which he was renowned, Win­ston man­aged to bolt to the Lib­er­als in time for the 1906 elec­tion.

Jen­nie “did noth­ing to dis­cour­age a switch of careers,” David Lough tells us. Indeed his “polit­i­cal ambi­tions excit­ed her after the pre­ma­ture end of her husband’s min­is­te­r­i­al career.” This is exem­plary of Lough’s pen­e­trat­ing obser­va­tions. It is often over­looked that Lord Randolph’s pre­cip­i­tate polit­i­cal fall great­ly depressed Jen­nie, more even than his death. Their son revived her hopes, espe­cial­ly after his hair-rais­ing Boer War adven­tures: “I am sure you are sick of the war,” she wrote. Now “you will be able to make a decent liv­ing out of writ­ings, & your polit­i­cal career will lead you to big things.” She was right again. He was also safer—relatively. In pol­i­tics you can be killed many times, he lat­er observed; but in war only once.

Sep­a­rat­ed as they were by oceans and con­ti­nents, two-thirds of their let­ters span the years before Churchill entered pol­i­tics. The rest are large­ly from ear­ly in his polit­i­cal career. There is much more than pol­i­tics, includ­ing details of his romances. He broke up with Pamela Plow­den, whom Jen­nie was sure he would mar­ry, writ­ing his moth­er in 1901: “We had no painful dis­cus­sions, but there is no doubt in my mind that she is the only woman I could ever live hap­pi­ly with…” (Not quite.)

Dis­ap­point­ing­ly, there are no Jen­nie let­ters about Lord Randolph’s death. We have no inkling of what she thought: relief, grief, both? Nei­ther will the pruri­ent find the oft-rumored, unsub­stan­ti­at­ed, Jen­nie let­ters about Clemen­tine Hozi­er, anoth­er woman with whom Win­ston soon found he could live hap­pi­ly. Jen­nie had rein­tro­duced them in 1908, after a bad start four years ear­li­er. A long, hap­py mar­riage began that year. A fine coda to their ear­ly rela­tion­ship is Winston’s let­ter to his moth­er a few days after she ceased being the most impor­tant woman in his life: “Clem­my v[er]y hap­py & beau­ti­ful…. You were a great com­fort & sup­port to me at a crit­i­cal time in my emo­tion­al devel­op­ment. We have nev­er been so near togeth­er so often in a short time.”

“I might have known that 50 miles behind the line was not your particular style…”

Nor do we find reveal­ing let­ters at crit­i­cal junc­tures to come: Churchill’s appoint­ment to the Admi­ral­ty, the out­break of the Great War, his abrupt fall from pow­er. Only after he has resigned to join his reg­i­ment do we find him in Jennie’s thoughts again: “I might have known that 50 miles behind the line was not your par­tic­u­lar style….It is no use my say­ing ‘be care­ful.’ It is all in the hands of God. I can only pray & hope for the best.”

God grant­ed her prayer and he was soon back in the thick of pol­i­tics. But they nev­er indulged much in polit­i­cal exchanges, as Win­ston did with Clemen­tine. Jennie’s few let­ters now were filled with fam­i­ly things: pride in grand­chil­dren, hap­pi­ness at Winston’s polit­i­cal suc­cess, her 1918 mar­riage to Mon­tagu Porch. His step-father was actu­al­ly three years younger than Win­ston, but the mar­riage worked some­how. More­over, his moth­er was hap­py, and that was what mat­tered to her son.

This is quite a won­der­ful col­lec­tion, shed­ding bright light on the youth­ful Churchill’s hopes and dreams, while reveal­ing the world­ly, solic­i­tous, lov­ing influ­ence of his Amer­i­can moth­er. No son could wish for more. For those of us sim­i­lar­ly blessed in our lives, David Lough con­veys an under­stand­ing of why a man is for­tu­nate if he is his mother’s son. As Jen­nie would write to him often, as our moth­ers wrote to us: “God bless you my dar­ling and keep you safe.”

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