Churchill Quotations: “The Artist, the Invalid, and the Sybarite”

Churchill Quotations: “The Artist, the Invalid, and the Sybarite”

Q: Sybarite, invalid, artist…

In his first let­ter as a war cor­re­spon­dent attached to the Malakand Field Force (3 Sep­tem­ber 1897) Win­ston Churchill wrote of Rawalpin­di:  “When I recall the dusty roads, the burnt-up grass, the intense heat, and the desert­ed bar­racks, I am unable to rec­om­mend it as a rest­ing-place for either the sybarite, the invalid or the artist.”

Three years lat­er, his only nov­el, Savro­la, opened with a descrip­tion of the fic­tion­al Mediter­ranean Repub­lic of Lau­ra­nia: “It was the first rain after the sum­mer heats, and it marked the begin­ning of that delight­ful autumn cli­mate which has made the Lau­ran­ian cap­i­tal the home of the artist, the invalid, and the sybarite.”

Do you not think that there is, in a psy­cho­log­i­cal sense, some­thing sig­nif­i­cant about this rep­e­ti­tion? I believe “the sybarite, the invalid, and the artist” were always togeth­er in his mind. He would not rec­om­mend Rawalpin­di as even “a rest­ing-place” to any of them. Yet he ven­tured to estab­lish the cap­i­tal of Lau­ra­nia as a home for all three! (Churchill start­ed writ­ing Savro­la upon his return to Ban­ga­lore from the north.)

How can these three ubiq­ui­tous but unre­lat­ed fig­ures be account­ed for? Could it be that the invalid was his late father Lord Ran­dolph (who had vis­it­ed India in the mid 1880s), the sybarite his spend­thrift moth­er (from whom he received a steady sup­ply of expen­sive books); and the artist him­self (then of only words, but lat­er also of colours)? If not, then how might one explain the rep­e­ti­tion of so sin­gu­lar a choice of nouns?

It is also inter­est­ing, and per­haps per­ti­nent, that the expres­sion in ques­tion does not, so far as I am aware, appear in the book The Sto­ry of the Malakand Field Force (1898).  —Bilal Haider June­jo, London

A: An ear for the congenial phrase

This inter­est­ing ques­tion first went to Andrew Roberts, who replied: “I think answer is more straight­for­ward than your Freudi­an take. Churchill con­stant­ly self-pla­gia­rised, espe­cial­ly in speech­es but you have found an exam­ple in his writ­ing too. He thought poet­i­cal­ly, and if a phrase such as ‘the sybarite, the invalid or the artist’ seemed to work, he thought noth­ing of re-using it, and why not?” Dr. Roberts for­ward­ed his reply to me, and I agreed (we almost always do!), adding some observations…

Churchill had an ear for the con­ge­nial phrase, and a pho­to­graph­ic mem­o­ry that reprised favored lines years apart. Andrew recalled how the Hills­dale Churchill Project tracked the famous phrase “Let us go for­ward togeth­er,” to 17 appear­ances between 1910 and 1959. There was also “the mag­ic of aver­ages,” which Churchill deployed when refer­ring to social insur­ance between the 1910s and 1940s. Then there was Bourke Cock­ran‘s “the earth if a gen­er­ous moth­er.” Young Win­ston first heard that around the turn of the last cen­tu­ry, and was repeat­ing it (with cred­it to Cock­ran) into the late 1950s.

If Laurania, why not Morocco?

As for the lack of a sybarite and oth­er fig­ures in the Malakand, that book was not a col­lec­tion of war despatch­es, although based in part on them. The phrase was clear­ly lin­ger­ing in his mind when he wrote Savro­la.

But there are no oth­er occur­rences of “the sybarite, the invalid or the artist” (and oth­er com­bi­na­tions) in Churchill’s pub­lished canon. Evi­dent­ly it didn’t “stick” as well as “for­ward togeth­er” or “mag­ic of aver­ages.” If it had, he might have applied it to Moroc­co or the South of France–where he was all three of those things from time to time. Next to Chartwell, he loved them most. He found both to be per­fect for con­va­lesc­ing, paint­ing, or enjoy­ing the lux­u­ries of life. (Of course, he knew where to stay!)

Sybarite but not Lotus-eater

While search­ing for “sybarite”  I found sev­er­al exam­ples of Churchill him­self being so described. Princess Bibesco wrote in Churchill: Mas­ter of Courage (1957) that he was born and remained a sybarite. Paul Alkon wrote of Savro­la in Win­ston Churchill’s Imag­i­na­tion (2006):

There is a touch of sybarit­ic imag­i­na­tion at work when Churchill describes the “great recep­tion-room” of the Pres­i­den­tial Palace almost as though issu­ing direc­tives for an archi­tect com­mis­sioned to design young Winston’s own ide­al prime minister’s res­i­dence. (146)

But WSC can­not be judged a sybarite in iso­la­tion from his oth­er traits. Roy Jenk­ins, whose Churchill (2001) approach­es but doesn’t equal Andrew Roberts’ Walk­ing with Des­tiny, writes:

His sybarit­ic tastes only attained full sat­is­fac­tion when they were super­im­posed on a peri­od of high and test­ing achieve­ment. He had not enjoyed his con­va­les­cence [from a stroke in 1953], and com­ment­ed on it in an engag­ing way. “I have not had much fun,” was his dis­missal of July. He may have been a sybarite, but he was as far as it is pos­si­ble to imag­ine from being a lotus-eater. He did not wel­come old age, and he knew that the best way to stave off the effects was to post­pone the time when pow­er had gone for the last time. There­after it would be down­hill all the way. (868)

I can­not dis­agree with that.

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