- Historic Sites
The Lion Caged
An outstanding American historian follows Winston Churchill through a typical day during his political exile in the 1930s and uses that single twenty-four-hour period to reveal the character of the century’s greatest Englishman in all its complexity. See Churchill lay bricks, paint a landscape, tease his dinner guests, badger his secretaries, dictate a history, make up a speech, write an article (that’s how he earns his living), refuse his breakfast because the jam has been left off the tray, refight the Battle of Bull Run, feed his fish, drink his brandy, fashion a “bellyband” to retrieve a particularly decrepit cigar, recite all of “Horatius at the Bridge,” take two baths—and await with noisy fortitude the day when he will save the world.
February/March 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 2
Chartwell 1932. Early morning. The first olive moments of daylight, anticipating the imminent appearance of the sun over the English Channel, disclose a wide, misty, treeless plain descending to the South Downs and the sea. This is the great green Weald of Kent. It is a peculiarity of the Weald’s terrain—demonstrated in the shrouded past by Romans, Saxons, and Normans—that it would be quite defenseless should an enterprising foe cross the Channel. Were any force to prepare for an invasion, its campfires on the far shore would be visible from here. But now, fourteen years after the Armistice of 1918, the Weald is an idyll of peace, and the explorer on foot finds that it possesses camouflaged delights. Its smooth breast, for example, is not entirely unbroken. The pastureland, sloping upward toward London, is cleaved by a shallow valley. This comb rises to a timbered crest. There, among eighty-two sheltering acres of beech, oak, lime, and chestnut, stands the singular country home of England’s most singular statesman, a brilliant, domineering, intuitive, inconsiderate, self-centered, emotional, generous, ruthless, visionary, megalo-maniacal, and heroic genius who inspires fear, devotion, rage, and admiration among his peers.
At the very least he is the greatest Englishman since Wellington, a quaint survivor of Britain’s past who grapples with the future because he alone can see it. Yet even as events in Central Europe confirm his warnings, the House of Commons, which didn’t heed them and now ignores them, shouts him down, silencing the old lion who asks but for one more pounce, knowing that if he misses his spring all that he cherishes, including freedom and Western civilization, will be irrevocably lost.
Now in his fifty-eighth year, he is already regarded as an anachronism. He first became a household word as a gallant young British officer, a loyal subject of Queen Victoria, handsome and recklessly brave, serving in battles on India’s northwest frontier, with Kitchener at Khartoum, and in the Boer War—all symbols of the nation’s imperial past, which he fiercely defends despite flagging allegiance elsewhere in the realm. He is mocked for failures that were not his, notably his strategy to force the Dardanelles, which, under competent officers, could have brought the Allied Powers a brilliant, relatively bloodless victory by 1916 but was bungled by timid British commanders at the scene and inadequate support in Whitehall. He seems less a figure of the twentieth century (which he loathes) than of the nineteenth or, reaching even farther back, of Renaissance versatility. The wide sweep of his interests and activities embraces literature, painting, philosophy, hunting, polo, military science, the history of the United States—even architecture, bricklaying, and landscaping. Indeed, many of the shining ponds, pools, and happy waterfalls between the Weald and the manor were created by him, wearing hiphigh Wellingtons and excavating the rich earth with his hands.
Tree-locked and silent at dawn, Chartwell’s grounds further testify to his stamina. On the south side of the house a garden walled by pleasant red brick—walled by him—invites his guest inside the “Mary Scot,” a brick playhouse that he built for his ten-year-old daughter Mary. Between the playhouse and the great house lie his orchard of fruit trees and a tennis court of barbered grass he shaped for his wife, Clementine. Eastward the flushed sky reveals a lawn terrace; northward his heated swimming pool and a pool inhabited by black swans and “Churchill’s goldfish” (actually golden orfe). He is planning to cement into Chartwell’s north wall, overlooking the pool, the family’s coat of arms and its Spanish motto, so appropriate in these years of Churchill’s political exile: Fiel Pero Desdichado (“faithful but unfortunate”).
Interspersed among other gardens on the grounds are various lesser buildings, including a painting studio. A white cottage with two bedrooms houses Maryott Whyte, Mary’s governess—“Nana” to the little girl but “Cousin Moppet” to the others; she and Nellie Romilly, Clementine’s sister, are two of Mrs. Churchill’s relatives sharing the household tasks. Another cottage is planned; Winston expects to finish it in 1939; then he and Clemmie will move into it, leaving the mansion to their son, Randolph. It is startling to realize that you are less than twenty-five miles from Hyde Park Corner. There men on soapboxes tell crowds that society is rushing toward catastrophe. In seven years it will be upon them, but here all is serene. The sound of heavy guns, the roar of hostile bomb-laden aircraft overhead, arrowing toward London, is unimaginable. Quietude lies like a comforting veil over the householder’s small masterpiece, and his Daimler 35/120 six-cylinder Landaulette seems an intrusion. He would do without it if he could; he despises automobiles, and if he encounters a traffic jam on one of those infrequent occasions when he himself is at the wheel, he simply drives on the sidewalk.