IN JULY 1891, Winston Churchill, a rather unsatisfactory pupil at Harrow School, wrote in a PS to his mother, the enchanting Jennie, “Really I feel less keen about the Army every day. . . I think the Church would suit me better.”
I wonder what his headmaster, a future Dean of Durham, would have made of that. Fortunately for him — and, indeed, for Church and State — nothing came of this madcap idea. He was later to write: “I do not accept the Christian or any other form of religious belief,” and “I expect annihilation at death. I am an atheist — to the tips of my fingers.”
That is all of a piece with his extraordinary physical courage and indifference to death, from his first encounter with military action in Cuba in 1895 to his service in the trenches during the Great War, in the aftermath of which Jennie died at the age of 66, undaunted and eternally youthful. Despite many epistolary blessings from her, that is all there is here about faith.
Instead, we are given a rich interchange of mingled affection and exasperation over the course of 40 years of frequent correspondence. The relationship is close, with greetings and ascriptions of the most loving kind, but spiced with frustration, irritation, and constant, humiliating rows about money — or, rather, lack of money.
It is astonishing what a hand-to-mouth life they led, at the highest levels of society and of privilege, yet always on the move from one unsatisfactory lodging to another, or staying in the great houses of their more affluent friends and relations. Between upstairs and downstairs we get glimpses of affairs of state. It is good to be reminded that Europe is not the only topic to divide the country and split the parties. Home Rule and Free Trade were hotly contested, and Winston Churchill was both liberal and a Liberal for most of the period covered.
The great joy of this book is to track his transition at the age of about 22 from an aimless and untalented youth to a mature man, as he finds his own vocation for politics and his own voice for public speaking and for writing. My supervisor at Cambridge warned me against reading too much Gibbon, “or I would end up writing like Churchill”. After reading these letters, I wish I had not taken his advice.
The Very Revd Dr John Arnold is a former Dean of Durham.
Darling Winston: Forty years of letters between Winston Churchill and his mother
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