May 29, 2023

New Collection of Churchill’s Private Correspondence

Review by W. Mark Hamilton

James Drake and Allen Packwood, eds., Letters for the Ages: The Private and Personal Letters of Sir Winston Churchill, Bloomsbury Continuum, 2023. 256 pages,£15.32/$23.40 (hardcover). ISBN 978-1399408172

With their noteworthy selection of letters, editors James Drake and Allen Packwood have made a unique contribution to the voluminous existing literature about Winston Churchill. Many of the letters appear here in book form for the first time, including some that were never sent. Though other books have featured many Churchill letters, this volume intentionally includes a preponderance of his more personal and social letters so as to focus on his private reflections.

This volume is the first in a series called “Letters for the Ages,” which Bloomsbury describes as “a series of eclectic anthologies, each comprised of around 100 outstanding letters written throughout history, and united by an overarching theme.”

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Organized chronologically, the compendium of Churchill correspondence not only provides a basic biography of Churchill, but intersperses the information about his life with his personal letters pertaining to each decisive period in his long and productive career. Some of these letters are photographically reproduced; most appear within the text, numbered and labeled, with the date and the names of each letter’s sender and recipient.

Many of the letters, which were written to a variety of recipients, bring to light the private man behind the public figure. They show a man with strong human emotions and a large ego, as well as a man with periods of depression and many passions—one who held strong beliefs and had no problem with being controversial.

Along with biographical information about each stage of his life, the book contains reproductions of his humorous childhood letters and fascinating photos of Churchill and his Victorian world. One photo shows a young Winston in a sailor suit, which is not only a symbol of later Victorian navalism, but symbolic of Churchill’s own later strong connections to the Royal Navy. The letters also convey that Churchill loved music and particularly enjoyed the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Churchill’s childhood letters contain amusing drawings of toy soldiers, which foretell the artistic man and military strategist in the making. As a child, Churchill’s best friends were his nanny, Mrs. Everest, and his only sibling—his younger brother, Jack. Churchill’s childhood correspondence with his rather distant parents is revealing. When Churchill was at Harrow, the letters from his father, Lord Randolph, were very harsh and critical; he tells Winston that he is “young, stupid,” and a “social wastrel.” Since Churchill worshiped his parents from afar, his father’s words must have been painful.

His mother, Jennie Spencer-Churchill, was more supportive and understanding, especially in the letters she wrote to him while he was in the British army in India, where Churchill served from 1896–1899. Both Winston and his mother shared a strong desire to spend money, and several of his letters to his mother contain requests for more money, despite his allowance. Some also included riveting descriptions of the brutality of the warfare in British India.

In 1899, Churchill left the army and was elected to Parliament the following year. His letters to his mother at this tie detail his political ambitions and his faith in his “star.” As with his mother, the letters between Churchill and his wife, Clementine, show a closeness and strong support for Churchill’s political ambitions. Both women worked behind the scenes to advance his political career. Clementine had strong views on the controversial Admiral Lord Fisher. In a letter to Churchill, she refers to Fisher as “a malevolent engine,” and in the related biographical part of the book, she is reported to have gone so far as to tell Fisher to his face at a luncheon: “Keep your hands off my husband.”

In her letters to Winston, Clementine is critical of Churchill’s continued habit of overspending and was especially concerned about the purchase of their Kent country house, Chartwell. Though the Churchills even considered renting out Chartwell to economize, in the end they instead compiled a strict household spending budget, which is published in detail in a 1926 letter from Winston to his wife. In the letter, Churchill promises not to smoke more than four cigars a day and to reduce the champagne consumption, neither of which seemed to happen! There was also no reduction in spending on books, perhaps not surprising as Churchill was an avid reader all his life, saying of books, “Let them be your friends.”

Churchill was among those who early recognized Hitler as a threat. Writing in 1935, Churchill called Adolph Hitler “a child of German rage and grief” as well as “a grim figure with a spirit of revenge.” Among the letters in the early stages of the Second World War is correspondence with Neville Chamberlain, Churchill’s arch-opponent and political enemy. Churchill’s letters to his fallen foe following Chamberlain’s resignation—and Churchill’s ascendance—as Prime Minister show no personal ill will, but rather an understanding of Chamberlain’s desperate situation after his failed government’s approach to appease Hitler as a means of preventing Great Britain from being drawn into a war. Tellingly, the letters reveal Churchill’s magnanimous nature.

Editors James Drake and Allen Packwood must have been greatly challenged in choosing from Churchill’s vast correspondence written over a very long Iife. In addition to being an entrepreneur and philanthropist, Drake is founder of the Bloomsbury Publishing unit that “uncovers the hidden stories of the past through the power of personal correspondence.” Packwood is the subject-matter expert on this book, and as Director of The Churchill Archive at Churchill College, Cambridge, he was obviously cognizant of the great viewing platform his position provides. In this volume of Churchill’s letters, he parlays his expertise to expand readers’ access to the historical record of Churchill.

The book’s Foreword by Michael (Lord) Dobbs confirms Churchill as “an exceedingly complex figure, as these letters reveal. They are not the artifice of today’s media manipulators but authentic Churchill, the unvarnished thoughts of a man in the most private moments of his extraordinary life.” 

The volume provides a clear look at Churchill by Churchill. Any student of Winston Churchill will find this book a compelling read and a welcome addition to their library.

W. Mark Hamilton is author of The Nation and the Navy: Methods and Organization of British Navalist Propaganda, 1889–1914 (1986).

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