- 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
The house is a metaphor of its squire. It is above all staunch. On the outside the red bricks meet neatly, within the walls are upright; studs join beams with precision, doors fit sensibly. Like the householder, it is complex and, like him, steeped in the past. Most of the existing structure was built late in the fifteenth century, but annals record an owner in 1350, and the oldest part of the building, now occupied by Churchill’s study, dates from twenty years after the Battle of Hastings, making it ten years older than Westminster Hall. After acquiring it for 5,000 in the early 1920s, he spent 18,000 on renovations. The front is stately, almost classic in its simplicity. The back of the mansion is craggy, a consequence of the master’s many accretions.
At daybreak the air is fresh and cool, but by midmorning it will be uncomfortably warm, and the mullioned, transomed windows are open. There is an exception. Those in Churchill’s bedroom are puttied shut. He likes the country, but not country air; drafts, he believes, invite common colds, to which he has been susceptible since childhood. There is also the matter of noise. Any noise, especially if high-pitched, is an abomination. The jangling of cowbells will destroy his train of thought. But whistling, notes W. H. Thompson, the Scotland Yard detective who serves as his bodyguard from time to time, is the worst: “It sets up an almost psychiatric disturbance in him—intense, immediate, and irrational. I have seen him expostulate with boys on the street who were whistling as he passed....”
Daybreak brings movement to Chartwell’s grounds. Sleep still envelops master, mistress, and their four children—Diana, twenty-three and about to be married; Randolph, twenty-one and already a problem (he has been drinking double brandies since he was eighteen); titianhaired Sarah, dreaming of fame on the stage at eighteen; and in the bedroom above her, little Mary, who mercilessly taunts Sarah about her beaux. The pets are up and about, however. Trouble, Sarah’s chocolate-colored spaniel, Harvey, Randolph’s fox terrier, and Mary’s Blenheim spaniel, Jasper, a gift of the Duchess of Marlborough, are investigating the rose bushes and anointing them. Winston’s pet cat, a marmalade named Tango, stretches himself; so does Mickey, a tabby cat; a fox trots up from the studio; horses begin to snort, a small black goat strides across the orchard, a goose waddles about aimlessly, a pig peers hopefully toward the kitchen. Presently people appear. Because today is a special occasion—all the children are home—the cook is Mrs. Georgina Landemare. These days Mrs. Landemare is here on and off, but like many other Westerham folk, she will eventually be absorbed by Chartwell and the needs of its master. Already there are eighteen servants, including Mr. Kurn, an assistant gardener who now arrives from his home in nearby Westerham to prowl the grounds in his daily search for the cigar butts Winston discarded yesterday, to use in his pipe.
Like its squire, Chartwell is complex and, like him, it is steeped in the past.
Most of the staff are natives of Westerham. Both his secretaries, Grace Hamblin and Violet Pearman (“Mrs. P.”), live within walking distance. Since childhood they have known Frank Jenner, the Westerham taxi driver who sometimes carries Churchill to Parliament and back and also serves as Chartwell’s handyandy, and Harry Whitbread, the laborer who taught Churchill to lay bricks and returns from time to time to work beside him. All of them, regardless of political persuasion, are proud of their eminent neighbor, though far from awed. Whitbread lectures him on how workingmen see social issues; Winston is attentive and thanks him afterward. The town delights in Churchillian lore. Once a month Westerham’s barber trims his fringe of hair in his bedroom. Recently a temporary replacement asked him how he would like his hair cut. Churchill replied: “A man of my limited resources cannot presume to have a hairstyle. Get on and cut it.”
Chartwell is Churchill’s sanctuary, his great keep. All his forays into tumultuous London politics are made from this sure base. However harsh the storms in the House, or the attacks on him in the press, here he is among friends and on grounds which, to him, epitomize his island nation. To him the essence of Chartwell is that it is completely, utterly, entirely English.
As one of the last great advocates of the British Empire, he remembers the dictum of Queen Victoria: “I think it very unwise to give up what we hold.” His struggle against England’s pledge to free India has cost him much. But on matters of principle he has never learned how to compromise. He does not know how to give in.
Had he yielded on India, he could have looked to broader, brighter horizons. But he believes in his star. And if he can be spectacularly wrong, he can also be terrifically right. Almost alone he has seen England imperiled by the greatest evil Europe has ever known. If we are to understand his victories and his defeats, we must try to define him, to identify him. One way is to follow him through a typical day at Chartwell. It is worthwhile if only because he will be forever remembered, not only as a great statesman but also as one of history’s great originals.