Churchill & Son

From The Wall Street Journal:

When Randolph Churchill was a young boy in the 1920s, his father Winston stayed up with him one night, talking with him into the late hours. At 1.30 a.m., Winston—then in the political wilderness and not yet the man who would come to be seen as one of the greatest Britons in history—turned to his son and said: “You know, my dear boy, I think I have talked to you more in these holidays than my father talked to me in the whole of his life.”

Josh Ireland writes of this episode very early in “Churchill & Son,” his account of the relationship between Winston Churchill and his only male heir, and a reader would have to be ice-cold of heart not to pause to take a sorrowful breath. Winston Churchill had had a loveless childhood. He was ignored by his glamorous American-born mother and, most crushingly, cold-shouldered by his father, who barely spared his son a second glance.

Although Winston pined for his mother’s attention, he worshiped his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, a volatile and brilliant iconoclast who was appointed chancellor of the exchequer at the age of 36. But Winston’s filial adoration was not returned. Instead, when Lord Randolph did pay Winston any attention, it was to scorch him with put-downs and unfatherly contempt. As Mr. Ireland, a British journalist, notes wryly: The “best thing Lord Randolph ever did for Winston was to die young”—at age 45.

Winston would write a biography of his father, published in 1906, 11 years after Lord Randolph’s death. It is a book of many qualities, none of which includes, says Mr. Ireland, “the detachment of a professional historian.” As a cousin of Winston observed at the time: “Few fathers have done less for their sons. Few sons have done more for their fathers.” Reading Mr. Ireland’s book, it is tempting to conclude that the inverse of that judgment applies to Winston and his own son. Few fathers did more for their sons than Winston. Few sons have done less for their fathers than Randolph.

Winston was determined, writes Mr. Ireland, “that his son would not suffer the same neglect that had blighted his own childhood.” If his own father had poured scorn on him—describing him in a letter as “a mere social wastrel” destined for “a shabby unhappy & futile existence”—Winston constantly encouraged Randolph. In Mr. Ireland’s words, he “praised him, told him that the future was his to seize.” In the jargon of our times, Winston can be said to have overcompensated for his own desolate childhood by lavishing love on Randolph.

Did he give Randolph too much love? And was that love corrosive? “Winston was obsessed with his son,” Mr. Ireland says, and was “never more himself than in Randolph’s company.” As Randolph grew from boy to man, father and son spent so much time together, absorbed in conversation, “that they had come to inhabit the same mental space.” And when they communed, they shut out the rest of the world—including Clementine (Winston’s wife, Randolph’s mother) and Randolph’s three sisters.

As a child, the cherubic Randolph got more attention from his mother than his sisters did. “Clementine even breastfed him,” Mr. Ireland tells us. But as Randolph became as much a companion for Winston as he was a son, his mother began to resent him. She felt that Winston indulged Randolph to excess, failing to check his rudeness at table and his misbehavior in society. Winston was “consumed by his own sense of destiny” (in Mr. Ireland’s words), and Randolph was the “incarnation of his dynastic obsession.” So Winston placed him on a pedestal—one from which Randolph was wont to spit at the world, or even urinate upon it, as he did once on the heads of his father and David Lloyd George—the prime minister—from a bedroom window at the Churchill country home. Lloyd George thought it was a passing shower.

Yet the more Clementine criticized Randolph, the stronger Winston’s love for him seemed to become. Perversely, she blamed Randolph for Winston’s failure to discipline his own son. She felt that she was vying with Randolph for Winston’s attention. Ever the devoted wife, she had sacrificed her own needs to care for Winston’s many whims. But instead of paying her the attention she expected, Winston was, Mr. Ireland says, “infatuated by his glorious, golden, chaotic son.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)