“Life is not always what we want it to be, but to make the best of it as it is – is the only way of being happy,” Jennie Churchill wrote to her demanding first-born son Winston in 1896. A young widow, she was trying to use her influence with Lord Kitchener in order that Winston would, as he wanted, serve in the Egyptian Army for two years. But she warned him that she might not be able to pull it off and in any case had doubts as to whether it was the right thing for him. She added that she would send him £25 now with a further £25 to follow. All she could afford.
It’s a typical letter, mixing practical with philosophical advice, in this entertaining and illuminating collection which could be read at a gallop or lingered over and dipped into at leisure. As a whole, it is a deeply moving account of a single mother’s attempt to do her best for a son she adored, who was exposing himself to grave dangers, with very limited means at her disposal. Both participants are gifted writers and, under Jennie’s guidance and tutelage, Winston, having left school a teenager with an undistinguished academic record, blossoms into a published author and courageous journalist while still in his early twenties. Jennie can take credit for working hard as his literary agent, placing his articles and advising on book deals, acting as his romantic sounding board when he met Pamela Plowden – ‘the most beautiful girl I have ever seen’- and his ongoing educator. While he is in India he read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “a long and delightful companionship,” and then asked her to send out volumes of the Annual Register and Macauley’s History of England.
When Winston was involved in a scandal, which he was appalled to see reported in Truth, he told her “you must not allow this to go unchallenged as it would be fatal to any future in public life for me… I leave matters in your hands.” Winston never intended to make a career in the Army, simply to make a name for himself, acquire some experience and popularity with the country before embarking on a political career. This he succeeded in, with his mother’s help, in 1900.
There is a sense of great energy in these letters between an exuberant mother and forceful son, only twenty years apart, who shared many characteristics including a huge sense of charm and ambition and an extravagant life style. Jennie is in perpetual motion, staying at one aristocratic country house after another, even embarking on a trip up the Nile, ostensibly on her son’s behalf to promote him to General Kitchener – “An action which – if ever I have a biographer – will certainly be admired by others” – but also to visit a young officer with whom she was enamoured, Major Caryl Ramsden of the Seaforth Highlanders.
Jennie promised she was talking to lots of people about her son’s exploits and “you will get plenty of kudos… I will see that you do, Darling boy.”
But Winston wanted more. “Now do stir up all your influence…Don’t be afraid of trying every line of attack… you have so much more power.” On another occasion he asked her; “you might arrange one or two dinners – and get me a few invitations. I want to see people and to get about!”
Kudos, after all, is not enough to live on and the need for money and how to earn it became an overwhelming driver for mother and son, especially once it became clear that the Churchills had been victims of a fraud. Both turned to their pen as a source of income. Winston commented wryly in 1897; “When I come back from Turkey I hope to have material enough for a book so indispensable
nowadays to write a book. If you don’t you expose yourself to dangerous notoriety. The man who has travelled and never written a book! Shocking!”
Far more shocking, however, was Jennie’s engagement to George Cornwallis-West, a man twenty years younger than her. Yet Winston promised “whatever you may do or wish to do, I shall support you in every way.”
I should declare an interest. In my 2007 biography of Jennie, I argued that those who claimed she was distant and uncaring had failed to recognise that she was the mother Winston needed. Admittedly as these letters show, she might not have visited him often enough during his schooldays but, as soon as his brilliant if volatile father Lord Randolph Churchill died, Jennie more than fully engaged in the task of promoting Winston, assuring him that from then on “all my political ambitions shall be centred in you.” Jennie and Winston had an intense relationship of mutual support and understanding until the day she died, aged 67, in June 1921, following an accident.
“I don’t think much of a woman whose children dislike her,” Jennie had written in 1896 about Georgina Ward, Dowager Countess of Dudley. These letters, edited and annotated with just enough of a light touch background by David Lough, prove why that was a fate never likely to befall Jennie Churchill.