Churchill: Great and Mean

Winston Churchill and his daughter Sarah laying bricks at their house in Chartwell, Kent, September 1928
Davis/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Winston Churchill and his daughter Sarah laying bricks at their house in Chartwell, Kent, September 1928


In 1930, Winston Churchill published My Early Life, which remains his most likable and authentic book. At its end he comes forward to September 1908 when, without mentioning Clementine Hozier by name or his proposing to her at his ancestral home of Blenheim Palace, his last line tells us in fairy-tale fashion that “I married and lived happily ever afterwards.” Their son Randolph also wrote a memoir, Twenty-One Years, an affable if flimsy account of his upbringing, published in 1965 just after his father died, which begins facetiously with his own birth in 1911 “to poor but honest parents.”

Those parents rarely went to church in adult life, but Winston had a very retentive memory, in which much of the Bible lay buried from long boyhood hours in chapel at Harrow. He would echo its hallowed phrases, as when he called the 1930s his “wilderness years,” impiously comparing himself with John the Baptist, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness.” That was the theme of The Gathering Storm, his best-selling if highly tendentious book published in 1948 as the first of the six volumes of The Second World War, which contains another echo of scripture, the passage from Ecclesiasticus that begins “Let us now praise famous men” and continues “Rich men furnished with ability, living peaceably in their habitations.” Or as Churchill wrote about those pre-war years: “Thus I never had a dull or idle moment from morning till midnight, and with my happy family around me dwelt at peace within my habitation.”

It would be hard to say which of these sundry Churchillian lines is the most far-fetched, or simply false. The “political wilderness” is a most misleading description of his decade of self-imposed (but very lucrative) exile from front-bench politics. At no time was Churchill ever “poor”—Randolph was born when his father was home secretary with a salary of £5,000, and income tax was only paid by those fewer than a million British citizens earning £160 a year or more—while readers of David Lough’s hugely enjoyable and illuminating study of “Churchill and his money” may even ponder the word “honest.” Then again, Sonia Purnell’s informative new biography of Clementine reminds us that “my happy family around me” was tragically untrue. To borrow one more famous line, the Churchill family was unhappy in its own way.

“The only thing that worries me in life is—money,” Winston told his brother Jack. “We shall finish up stone broke.” That was in 1898, but he could have gone on saying it for more than forty years to come. Until his sixties and his apotheosis as leader of his country, Churchill’s income,…

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