What is the truth about Churchill suffering from depression, which he referred to as his “black dog”? —A.L. Kansas
Churchill himself makes a few early mentions of his “black dog,” but the expression is much older than he was. It was frequently used by Victorian nannies, like Churchill’s Mrs. Everest, when their charges were in a dark mood. One reference dates it to Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Visit the Churchill Centre search engine and enter “Black Dog”; you will be led to numerous illuminating references. The first one is by his daughter Lady Soames, who I think has it right:
A lot has been made of the depressive side of his character by psychiatrists who were never in the same room with him. He himself talks of his black dog, and he did have times of great depression; but in my opinion, marriage to my mother, and later his discovery of painting, which was a lifelong solace, largely kennelled the “black dog.” Of course, if you have a “black dog” it lurks somewhere in your nature and you never quite banish it; but I never saw him disarmed by depression. I’m not talking about the depression of his much later years, because surely that is a sad feature of old age which afflicts a great many people who have led a very active life.
She was referring in particular to psychiatrist Anthony Storr’s chapter in Churchill: Four Faces an d the Man, who made far too much of it. She told me once that anybody who was not depressed over some of the events early in the two World Wars would not have been normal.
From Mary Soames, Speaking for Themselves: The Personal Letters of Winston and Clementine Churchill (London: Doubleday, 1988) page 53, WSC to CSC, Home Office, 11 July 1911:
Alice [Guest] interested me a great deal in her talk about her doctor in Germany, who completely cured her depression. I think this man might be useful to me—if my black dog returns. He seems quite away from me now—It is such a relief. All the colours came back into the picture. Brightest of all your dear face—my Darling…