Letters for the Ages: The Private and Personal Letters of Sir Winston Churchill
- Edited by James Drake and Allen Packwood
- Bloomsbury Continuum
- 256 pp.
- Reviewed by Kitty Kelley
- September 5, 2023
An edifying peek at what “Winny” wrote behind the scenes.
Nazi troops began studying English phrasebooks to prepare for their invasion of Great Britain. France had fallen under Germany’s Blitzkrieg in June 1940, following the capitulation of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Swastikas papered Paris to welcome Hitler.
Across the Channel, Great Britain’s prime minister addressed his country on the radio and summoned them to what he pronounced would be their finest hour: “Hitler knows he will have to break us in these islands or lose the war. If we can stand up to him all Europe may be freed, and life for the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.”
Over the airwaves, Winston Churchill spoke eloquently as he inspired his nation. Behind the scenes, he churned with rage, lashing out at everyone. In desperation, his privy council begged his wife to intercede.
Clementine Churchill knew that her husband would pay attention to a letter, and so she labored over one, rewriting her pages twice before she found the right words. “My Darling Winston,” she began, “I hope you will forgive me if I tell you something I feel you ought to know.” Then, with care and consideration, Mrs. Churchill, self-described as “loving devoted & watchful,” told her ferocious husband that he’d been “rough, sarcastic and over-bearing” to his colleagues and subordinates.
Prim as a schoolmarm disciplining an unruly student, Clementine instructed urbanity, kindness, “and if possible Olympic calm.” She further recommended that the prime minister, who had the power to “sack anyone & everyone,” except for the king, the archbishop of Canterbury, and the speaker of the House of Commons, curb his “irascibility & rudeness. They will breed either dislike or a slave mentality — (Rebellion in War time being out of the question!).”
Unfortunately, Letters for the Ages, a treasure trove of Churchill’s correspondence, doesn’t contain the lion’s response to the lioness, but its editors claim to “be fairly certain that he listened to his ‘devoted & watchful’ cat.” Clementine kept her letter as part of the historical record, as an insight into their relationship, and as an important glimpse into the pressures of wartime leadership.
Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill (1874-1965) wrote 40 books in 60 volumes and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. Trumpeted by YouTube as “Britain’s Greatest Prime Minister,” he served in that office from 1940-1945 and again from 1951-1955. His speeches, especially his wartime broadcasts, inspired a nation under German bombardment and are considered among the most powerful ever delivered in the English language.
So, a compilation of his correspondence promises to be a cornucopia of insights into the man who once introduced himself by saying, “We are all worms, but I do believe I am a glow worm.” The letters he wrote as a child to his mother, his nanny, and his stern father reveal young Winston to be stubborn, willful, and rebellious but utterly persuasive in getting his way — characteristics that would define him as a world leader.
At the age of 13, the adolescent wanted nothing more than to be sprung from boarding school in Brighton to return to London for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Young Winston wrote home that he particularly longed to see “Buffalow [sic] Bill,” the Wild West show of William F. Cody. His teacher denied his request to be excused, so he drafted a letter for his mother, Lady Randolph (Jennie Spencer Churchill), to sign in order to release him from school.
“My dear Mamma,” he wrote without punctuation, “I shall be very disappointed, disappointed is not the word I shall be miserable, after you have promised me, and all, I shall never trust your promises again. But I know that Mummy loves her Winny much too much for that. Write to Mrs. [sic] Thomson and say that you have promised me and you want to have me home…I am quite well but in a ferment about coming home it would upset me entirely if you were to stop me.” He closed by signing: “Love & kisses I remain yours as ever Loving Son (Remember) Winny.”
The next day, “Winny” wrote another letter, again entreating his mother: “Please, as you love me, do as I have begged you.” Not surprisingly, “dear Mamma” agreed.
As fascinating as the letters in this book are the photographs, particularly the one showing 7-year-old Winston in a sailor suit, plucky and cocksure, with one hand on his hip and the other resting on an ornate chair. He looks directly at the camera as if to say, My presence is your privilege.
Interestingly, one of the most iconic Churchill photographs is not included here, although the photographer, Yousef Karsh, was Canadian and considered a British subject in 1941 when he took his famous photo during the prime minister’s wartime visit to Ottawa. Karsh was allowed only two minutes, and as he rushed to set up, his subject lit up. He asked Churchill to put down his cigar because the smoke interfered with the film, but Churchill refused. So, moments before Karsh snapped his lens, he grabbed the cigar out of the great man’s mouth.
“By the time I got back to the camera,” he recalled, “he looked so belligerent he could have devoured me.” Yet when Churchill later saw the forceful image, he complimented the photographer, “You can even make a roaring lion stand still to be photographed.”
This book of letters will find its audience within the International Churchill Society (which offers annual memberships for $100), as well as at the National Churchill Library and Center at George Washington University in Washington, DC, at Churchill College in Cambridge, at Churchill’s War Rooms in London, and at Churchill’s Chartwell estate in Kent. There and elsewhere, the lion still roars.
Kitty Kelley is the author of seven number-one New York Times bestseller biographies, including Nancy Reagan, Jackie Oh!, and The Family: The Real Story Behind the Bush Dynasty. She is on the board of the Independent and is the 2023 recipient of the Biographers International Organization’s BIO Award, which is given annually to a writer who has made major contributions to the advancement of the art and craft of biography.