In 1947 Sir Winston Churchill penned the only non-sequitur in his dazzling writing career. In a short essay, Churchill imagines (or possibly recalls) a ghostly conversation with his father Lord Randolph Churchill who had died over 50 years earlier. The Dream’, – as it was later named by his family – was kept under lock and key by Churchill and was posthumously published by his family. It remains, to this day, the greatest insight into Winston Churchill’s soul.
Churchill’s official biographer, Martin Gilbert, writes that a family dinner at Chartwell was the genesis for the piece. Churchill’s daughter Sarah, sharing a meal with her brother Randolph, asked her father: “If you had the power to put someone in that chair to join us now, whom would you choose?”
Sarah later recalled that she had expected to hear one of her father’s heroes from history like Caesar, Napoleon, or his ancestor the Duke of Marlborough. Instead, Churchill replied, “Oh, my father, of course.” He began describing an incident when he was painting in his art studio and, with a flash, his father returned to life and spoke with him.
Randolph was unconvinced as to the origin of the story, remarking years later that he wasn’t sure if his father “was recalling a dream or elaborating on some fanciful idea that had struck him earlier.”
What is manifest is that ‘The Dream’ is the single best insight into how Churchill viewed his father and how he thought his father saw him. Lord Randolph died in 1895 the age of forty-six when Winston was 20. It’s a cliche to say their father-son relationship was complicated, but Randolph never conceived of much of a future for his son and told him so. He certainly would never have entertained the prospect that the Western world owed Churchill their survival.
At only eight pages in length, readers are left to gaze at the staggering abyss between the two men. Randolph spends most of their conversation inquiring as to the state of the world, politics and his hobbies. A token effort is made to understand who is son is and he never point-blank asks what route his life has taken.
In his 1930 autobiography, My Early Life, Churchill subtly illuminates his father’s expectations that he follows in the footsteps of their distinguished ancestors, including himself. Lord Randolph, like most upper-class parents of the era, left the education of his son to boarding school and emotional support to their nanny. Churchill could count on one hand the meaningful conversations he had had with his father. He could recall Randolph’s castigations about his intelligence, lack of qualifications and general promise far more readily. The son nevertheless was in awe of his father, perhaps even more so after his death.
Churchill is unusually acquiescent and deferential in the essay. There is no bombastic pride at his accomplishments, his family and not a mention of winning the Second World War. It was Churchill’s lifelong regret that his father did not live to see what he had achieved. He doesn’t offer to correct this injustice, he only diligently answers his questions about the last half-century with candour and insight.
Winston Churchill, the boy, is still waiting for his father’s approval at the age of seventy-three but he never dares ask for it. The open wound is a tragedy and one, as we find out, that culminates in Randolph being too arrogant to even ask what his son had done with his life. The last page is a punch of poignancy that makes the essay, whatever its status as ‘fact’ or fiction, a powerful insight into a young man who knew he could never meet his father’s expectations, anyway.
In many respects, Churchill was the better man. Both were politically driven – and even held some of the same positions in government – and were prone to mood swings and deep depression. It was Churchill, however, who accepted his ‘black dog’ and foibles and harnessed them to make a life of great consequence.
In 1945, despite winning the Second World War, Churchill lost the general election and became opposition leader. Reversals in fortune were his forty and often produced his best-written work. Churchill’s excellent memoirs, The World Crisis, appeared between 1922-24 after he had lost his parliamentary seat and Marlborough, his excellent biography of his ancestor, and his autobiography My Early Life, were both written in the 1930s as he stood alone in the political wilderness warning about Adolf Hitler.
The result is a touching and nuanced essay that provides a far greater penetration of Churchill’s complicated view of his father than even his own biography of the man offered. ‘The Dream’ may be from the perspective of an older, ruminating Churchill, but it’s a more emotionally intelligent than any of his other works.
Churchill’s family encouraged him to commit the ‘incident’ to paper, and the result was titled a ‘Private Article’ written for his family’s eyes only. Resisting their urgings for the article to be published, Churchill locked the essay in a box for the rest of his life. After his death, Clementine, Churchill’s wife, donated it to Churchill College, Cambridge and it was subsequently published a year after his death in The Sunday Telegraph.
The piece became more widely available for the first time in The Collected Essays of Sir Winston Churchill in 1976 and was published on its own in September 1987. In Richard M. Langworth’s introduction, he writes “One question about The Dream that continues to fascinate is whether the account was all fiction. When asked this question by friends who had read the story, Winston Churchill would smile and say ‘Not entirely.'”
To this day, ‘The Dream’ remains an anomaly in Churchill’s writing because it is overshadowed by his work as a historian. Churchill was nominated four times for the Nobel Prize for Literature before finally winning in 1953. The historian Paul Johnson concluded in his book Churchill that the future prime minister wrote an estimated eight to ten million words in more than forty books, thousands of newspaper and magazine articles, two scripts and several poems to say nothing of the thousands of government papers bearing his name.
When weighing Churchill’s successes and failures in life historians often focus on the decisions with a cursory look at the personality. ‘The Dream’ is a special and rare insight into Churchill’s heart, and it deserves far more attention than it often gets. Sir Winston was, really, motivated to please his father. It’s perhaps not too far a stretch to presume this is what drove him so hard, and made him, as Lord Alanbrooke once said, a superman on this earth.
Churchill died on 24 January 1965 – the same day his father died seventy years before.
You can read ‘The Dream’ here.