Letters for the Ages: The Private and Personal Letters of Sir Winston Churchill
“. . . an introduction to the private and personal Churchill that often gets lost in the larger works of history and biography.”
Winston Churchill’s public greatness sometimes overshadows the private and personal man. Allen Packwood, the director of the Churchill Archive at Churchill College, Cambridge, and James Drake, founder of the Future Science Publishing Group, have collected and edited one hundred letters written by or to the private and personal Churchill to, in their words, “look behind the public figure” and show that he was “neither god nor demon; he was human, with human emotions, frailties and ego.” This is Churchill “at his most honest and self-aware” and provides “a unique private window on a life lived largely in public.”
The editors acknowledge that the eight-volume official biography of Churchill, written initially by his son Randolph and completed by Sir Martin Gilbert, includes 23 companion volumes that contain “a huge selection of his letters.” Packwood and Drake view their work as an introduction to the private and personal Churchill that often gets lost in the larger works of history and biography.
Of course, Churchill was not shy about writing about himself, especially his experiences in wartime as a reporter, soldier, and statesman. Perhaps his most intimate and “private” book was My Early Life: A Roving Commission, first published in 1930 and still in print. His book Thoughts and Adventures (which was also published under the title Amid These Storms) contains essays on World War I, Moses, elections, and remarkable predictions about the future of science and world affairs. But the letters selected in Letters for the Ages provide a glimpse into Churchill’s “private” mind—when he is writing “off the record.”
The letters are presented chronologically, beginning with a letter to his mother sent from St. George’s School when he was eight years old (begging her to visit him), his early forays into politics in the late 1890s and early 1900s, letters to and from his wife Clementine and others during World War I, during his rise to prominence in the Conservative Party, the wilderness years out of power as war clouds gathered in Europe and Asia, during World War II, and the postwar years as the Cold War emerges.
In these letters, Churchill reveals the loneliness and sadness caused by his parents’ indifference and criticisms, his excitement in times of war, his Machiavellian scheming to succeed in politics, his fidelity to the British Empire, his belief that he was destined for greatness, his disappointment with his son Randolph, his enjoyment in being “at the scene of action (especially in wartime), his hatred of socialism, and his longing to remain relevant in the post-World War II world.
Other correspondents in the letters include his nanny Elizabeth Everest, King George VI, Anthony Eden, Neville Chamberlain, Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower, and Charles de Gaulle. But the most interesting letters are those to and from his parents, his wife, his children, and his friends—it is in those letters that we glimpse Churchill’s ego, beliefs, emotions, passions, prejudices, loves, and hates.
The last letter in the book was written by his daughter Mary on June 8, 1964, seven months before Churchill’s death. In the letter, Mary expressed her gratitude to her father for showering her with love and helping her and her siblings and their children financially. She closes the letter with this memorable sentence that sums up Churchill’s greatness: “I owe you what every Englishman, woman and child does—liberty itself.”