“The Dream”: A Fictional Encounter – by Winston S. Churchill
Featured Image: “I was just trying to give the twirl to his moustache when I suddenly felt an odd sensation. I turned round with my palette in my hand, and there, sitting in my red leather upright armchair, was my father …. I could hardly believe my eyes. I felt no alarm, but I thought I would stand where I was and go no nearer.” – The Dream, 1947 (Painting by Sal Asaro, reproduced by kind permission).
The Dream is the most mysterious and ethereal story Winston Churchill ever wrote. Yet the more we know about him, the better we may understand how he came to write it.
Replete with broad-sweep Churchillian narrative, The Dream has many references to now-obscure people, places and things. This online version allows us to provide links to all of them. You need only click on any unfamiliar name or term to be linked to an online reference. After reading the story, click here for a thoughtful appreciation by Katie Davenport, a Churchill Fellow at Hillsdale College.
Churchill wrote The Dream in 1947, a low point in his political career. Two years earlier, British voters had turned his Conservative Party out of office. The former Prime Minister was now a frustrated Leader of the Opposition. But political reverses often brought out the best in his writing. Churchill’s great war memoir, The World Crisis, began appearing at a similar low point, after he had lost his seat in Parliament in 1922-24. Marlborough, his noble biography, was written in the 1930s, as he grieved over the nation’s failure to heed his warnings about Hitler.
The poignancy of The Dream is heightened by the appearance of Winston’s father, Lord Randolph Churchill. Dead in 1895 at the age of forty-six, Randolph had not lived to see, nor indeed ever imagined, his son at the pinnacle of their country’s affairs.
Lord Randolph’s own career had lasted scarcely twenty years. Elected to Parliament in 1874, he rose meteorically. By 1884 he was Leader of the House of Commons and Chancellor of the Exchequer. But in 1886 he resigned over a trivial matter, never to rise again. Compared with Winston, Randolph was a footnote in British history.
The boy Winston worshiped his father from afar, but never conquered Lord Randolph’s disdain. It was his lifelong regret that his father did not live to see what he had achieved. And it is part of the artistry of this tale that the inquisitive young father of forty is not allowed to know what his seventy-three-year-old son has become.
The Dream was conceived during a family dinner at Chartwell, Churchill’s beloved home in the lush Kentish countryside, twenty-five miles outside London. He first entitled the story “Private Article,” showing it only to his family, resisting their urgings that it be published. In his will he bequeathed the tale to his wife, who donated it to Churchill College, Cambridge. On the first anniversary of his funeral, 30 January 1966, it was published in The Sunday Telegraph. The Dream has also appeared as a stand-alone volume in two private printings, and a fine 2005 edition by Levenger Press.
Winston Churchill was a man of transcendental powers. He could, it seems, peer beyond reality. Jon Meacham, author of the seminal Franklin and Winston, believes The Dream sheds light on Churchill’s ability to put a better face on things than they really were: to revere a father who overlooked him; to revere Roosevelt, who, in their later encounters, was less than forthright.
Margaret Thatcher, in my view the greatest British prime minister since Churchill, took a right and kind view of The Dream’s Victorian lurches—which are anything but politically correct. In 1993 I presented her with a private printing. She thanked me in her own hand the next day: “I read it in the early hours of this morning and am totally fascinated by the imagination of the story and how much it reveals of Winston the man and the son.” Later I asked what she thought of Winston’s remark about women in the House of Commons: “They have found their level.” Lady Thatcher beamed: “I roared over that one!”
While vague about the hereafter, Churchill always held that “man is spirit,” and believed in a kind of spiritual connection with his forebears. On 24 January 1953, he told his private secretary, John Colville, that he would die on that date—the same date his father had died in 1895. Twelve years later Churchill lapsed into a coma on January 10th. Confidently, Colville assured The Queen’s private secretary: “He won’t die until the 24th.” Unconscious, Churchill did just that.
One question about The Dream that tantalized his family is whether the story was really fiction. When asked this question, Sir Winston Churchill would smile and say, “Not entirely.” —Richard M. Langworth
One foggy afternoon in November 1947 I was painting in my studio at the cottage down the hill at Chartwell. Someone had sent me a portrait of my father which had been painted for one of the Belfast Conservative Clubs about the time of his visit to Ulster in the Home Rule crisis of 1886. The canvas had been badly torn, and though I am very shy of painting human faces I thought I would try to make a copy of it.
My easel was under a strong daylight lamp, which is necessary for indoor painting in the British winter. On the right of it stood the portrait I was copying, and behind me was a large looking glass, so that one could frequently study the painting in reverse. I must have painted for an hour and a halt, and was deeply concentrated on my subject. I was drawing my father’s face, gazing at the portrait, and frequently turning round right-handed to check progress in the mirror. Thus I was intensely absorbed, and my mind was freed from all other thoughts except the impressions of that loved and honoured face now on the canvas, now on the picture, now in the mirror.
I was just trying to give the twirl to his moustache when I suddenly felt an odd sensation. I turned round with my palette in my hand, and there, sitting in my red leather upright armchair, was my father. He looked just as I had seen him in his prime, and as I had read about him in his brief year of triumph. He was small and slim, with the big moustache I was just painting, and all his bright, captivating, jaunty air. His eyes twinkled and shone. He was evidently in the best of tempers. He was engaged in filling his amber cigarette-holder with a little pad of cotton-wool before putting in the cigarette. This was in order to stop the nicotine, which used to be thought deleterious. He was so exactly like my memories of him in his most charming moods that I could hardly believe my eyes. I felt no alarm, but I thought I would stand where I was and go no nearer.
“Papa!” I said.
“What are you doing, Winston?”
“I am trying to copy your portrait, the one you had done when you went over to Ulster in 1886.”
“I should never have thought it,” he said.
“I only do it for amusement,” I replied.
“Yes, I am sure you could never earn your living that way.”
There was a pause.
“Tell me,” he asked, “what year is it?”
“Of the Christian era, I presume?”
“Yes, that all goes on. At least, they still count that way.”
“I don’t remember anything after ninety-four. I was very confused that year…. So more than fifty years have passed. A lot must have happened.”
“It has indeed, Papa.”
“Tell me about it.”
“I really don’t know where to begin,” I said.
“Does the Monarchy go on?” he asked.
“Yes, stronger than in the days of Queen Victoria.”
“Who is King?”
“What! Two more Georges?”
“But, Papa, you remember the death of the Duke of Clarence.”
“Quite true; that settled the name. They must have been clever to keep the Throne.”
‘They took the advice of the Ministers who had majorities in the House of Commons.”
“Does the Carlton Club go on?”
“Yes, they are going to rebuild it.”
“I thought it would have lasted longer, the structure seemed quite solid. What about the Turf Club?”
“How do you mean, OK?”
“It’s an American expression, Papa. Nowadays they use initials for all sorts of things, like they used to say RSPCA and HMG.”
“What does it mean?”
“It means all right.”
“What about racing? Does that go on?”
“You mean horse-racing?”
“Of course,” he said. “What other should there be?”
“It all goes on.”
“They have never missed a year.”
“And the Primrose League?”
“They have never had more members.”
He seemed to be pleased at this.
“I always believed in Dizzy, that old Jew. He saw into the future. He had to bring the British working man into the centre of the picture.” And here he glanced at my canvas.
“Perhaps I am trespassing on your art?” he said, with that curious, quizzical smile of his, which at once disarmed and disconcerted.
Palette in hand, I made a slight bow.
“And the Church of England?”
“You made a very fine speech about it in eighty-four.” I quoted, “‘And standing out like a lighthouse over a stormy ocean, it marks the entrance to a port wherein the millions and masses of those who at times are wearied with the woes of the world and tired of the trials of existence may seek for, and may find, that peace which passeth all understanding.’”
“What a memory you have got! But you always had one. I remember Dr. Welldon telling me how you recited the twelve hundred lines of Macaulay without a single mistake.”
After a pause, “You are still a Protestant?” he said.
“Do the Bishops still sit in the House of Lords?”
“They do indeed, and make a lot of speeches.”
“Are they better than they used to be?”
“I never heard the ones they made in the old days.”
“What party is in power now? Liberals or Tories?”
“Neither, Papa. We have a Socialist Government, with a very large majority. They have been in office for two years, and will probably stay for two more. You know we have changed the Septennial Act to five years.”
“Socialist!” he exclaimed. “But I thought you said we still have a Monarchy.”
“The Socialists are quite in favour of the Monarchy, and make generous provisions for it.”
“You mean in regard to Royal grants, the Civil List, and so forth? How can they get those through the Commons?”
“Of course they have a few rebels, but the old Republicanism of Dilke and Labby is dead as mutton. The Labour men and the trade unions look upon the Monarchy not only as a national but a nationalised institution. They even go to the parties at Buckingham Palace. Those who have very extreme principles wear sweaters.”
“How very sensible. I am glad all that dressing up has been done away with.”
“I am sorry, Papa,” I said, “I like the glitter of the past.”
“Lord Salisbury leads the Conservative party in the House of Lords.”
“What!” he said. “He must be a Methuselah!”
“No. It is his grandson.”
“Ah, and Arthur Balfour? Did he ever become Prime Minister?”
“Oh, yes. He was Prime Minister, and came an awful electoral cropper. Afterwards he was Foreign Secretary and held other high posts. He was well in the eighties when he died.”
“Did he make a great mark?”
“Well, Ramsay MacDonald, the Prime Minister of the first Socialist Government, which was in office at his death, said he ‘saw a great deal of life from afar.’”
“How true! But who was Ramsay MacDonald?”
“He was the leader of the first and second Labour-Socialist Governments, in a minority.”
“The first Socialist Government? There has been more than one?”
“Yes, several. But this is the first that had a majority.”
“What have they done?”
“Not much. They have nationalised the mines and railways and a few other services, paying full compensation. You know, Papa, though stupid, they are quite respectable, and increasingly bourgeois. They are not nearly so fierce as the old Radicals, though of course they are wedded to economic fallacies.”
“What is the franchise?”
“Universal,” I replied. “Even the women have votes.”
“Good gracious!” he exclaimed.
“They are a strong prop to the Tories.”
“Arthur was always in favour of female suffrage.”
“It did not turn out as badly as I thought,” I said.
“You don’t allow them in the House of Commons?” he inquired.
“Oh, yes. Some of them have even been Ministers. There are not many of them. They have found their level.”
“So Female Suffrage has not made much difference?”
“Well, it has made politicians more mealy-mouthed than in your day. And public meetings are much less fun. You can’t say the things you used to.”
“What happened to Ireland? Did they get Home Rule?”
“The South got it, but Ulster stayed with us.”
“Are the South a republic?”
“No one knows what they are. They are neither in nor out of the Empire. But they are much more friendly to us than they used to be. They have built up a cultured Roman Catholic system in the South. There has been no anarchy or confusion. They are getting more happy and prosperous. The bitter past is fading.”
“Ah,” he said, “how vexed the Tories were with me when I observed that there was no English statesman who had not had his hour of Home Rule.” Then, after a pause, “What about the Home Rule meaning ‘Rome Rule’?”
“It certainly does, but they like it. And the Catholic Church has now become a great champion of individual liberty.”
“You must be living in a very happy age. A Golden Age, it seems.”
His eye wandered round the studio, which is entirely panelled with scores of my pictures. I followed his travelling eye as it rested now on this one and on that. After a while: “Do you live in this cottage?”
“No,” I said, “I have a house up on the hill, but you cannot see it for the fog.”
“How do you get a living?” he asked. “Not, surely, by these?” indicating the pictures.
“No, indeed, Papa. I write books and articles for the Press.”
“Ah, a reporter. There is nothing discreditable in that. I myself wrote articles for the Daily Graphic when I went to South Africa. And well I was paid for them. A hundred pounds an article!”
Before I could reply: “What has happened to Blenheim? Blandford (his brother) always said it could only become a museum for Oxford.”
“The Duke and Duchess of Marlborough are still living there.”
He paused again for a while, and then: “I always said ‘Trust the people.’ Tory democracy alone could link the past with the future.”
“They are only living in a wing of the Palace,” I said. “The rest is occupied by M.I.5.”
“What does that mean?”
“A Government department formed in the war.”
“War?” he said, sitting up with a startled air. “War, do you say? Has there been a war?”
“We have had nothing else but wars since democracy took charge.”
“You mean real wars, not just frontier expeditions? Wars where tens of thousands of men lose their lives?”
“Yes, indeed, Papa,” I said. “That’s what has happened all the time. Wars and rumours of war ever since you died.”
“Tell me about them.”
“Well, first there was the Boer War.”
“Ah, I would have stopped that. I never agreed with ‘Avenge Majuba.’ Never avenge anything, especially if you have the power to do so. I always mistrusted Joe.”
“You mean Mr. Chamberlain?”
“Yes. There is only one Joe, or only one I ever heard of. A Radical turned Jingo is an ugly and dangerous thing. But what happened in the Boer War?”
“We conquered the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.”
“England should never have done that. To strike down two independent republics must have lowered our whole position in the world. It must have stirred up all sorts of things. I am sure the Boers made a good fight. When I was there I saw lots of them. Men of the wild, with rifles, on horseback. It must have taken a lot of soldiers. How many? Forty thousand?”
“No, over a quarter of a million.”
“Good God! What a shocking drain on the Exchequer!”
“It was,” I said. “The Income Tax went up to one and threepence.” He was visibly disturbed. So I said that they got it down to eightpence afterwards.”
“Who was the General who beat the Boers?” he asked.
“Lord Roberts,” I answered.
“I always believed in him. I appointed him Commander-in-Chief in India when I was Secretary of State. That was the year I annexed Burma. The place was in utter anarchy. They were just butchering one another. We had to step in, and very soon there was an ordered, civilised Government under the vigilant control of the House of Commons.” There was a sort of glare in his eyes as he said “House of Commons.”
“I have always been a strong supporter of the House of Commons, Papa. I am still very much in favour of it.”
“You had better be, Winston, because the will of the people must prevail. Give me a fair arrangement of the constituencies, a wide franchise, and free elections—say what you like, and one part of Britain will correct and balance the other.”
“Yes, you brought me up to that.”
“I never brought you up to anything. I was not going to talk politics with a boy like you ever. Bottom of the school! Never passed any examinations, except into the Cavalry! Wrote me stilted letters. I could not see how you would make your living on the little I could leave you and Jack, and that only after your mother. I once thought of the Bar for you but you were not clever enough. Then I thought you might go to South Africa. But of course you were very young, and I loved you dearly. Old people are always very impatient with young ones. Fathers always expect their sons to have their virtues without their faults. You were very fond of playing soldiers, so I settled for the Army. I hope you had a successful military career.”
“I was a Major in the Yeomanry.”
He did not seem impressed.
“However, here you are. You must be over seventy. You have a roof over your head. You seem to have plenty of time on your hands to mess about with paints. You have evidently been able to keep yourself going. Married?”
“I am so glad. But tell me more about these other wars.”
“They were the wars of nations, caused by demagogues and tyrants.”
“Did we win?”
“Yes, we won all our wars. All our enemies were beaten down. We even made them surrender unconditionally.”
“No one should be made to do that. Great people forget sufferings, but not humiliations.”
“Well, that was the way it happened, Papa.”
“How did we stand after it all? Are we still at the summit of the world, as we were under Queen Victoria?”
“No, the world grew much bigger all around us.”
“Which is the leading world-power?”
“The United States.”
“I don’t mind that. You are half American yourself. Your mother was the most beautiful woman ever born. The Jeromes were a deep-rooted American family.”
“I have always,” I said, “worked for friendship with the United States, and indeed throughout the English-speaking world.”
“English-speaking world,” he repeated, weighing the phrase. “You mean, with Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and all that?”
“Yes, all that.”
“Are they still loyal?”
“They are our brothers.”
“And India, is that all right? And Burma?”
“Alas! They have gone down the drain.”
He gave a groan. So far he had not attempted to light the cigarette he had fixed in the amber holder. He now took his matchbox from his watch-chain, which was the same as I was wearing. For the first time I felt a sense of awe. I rubbed my brush in the paint on the palette to make sure that everything was real. All the same I shivered. To relieve his consternation I said:
“But perhaps they will come back and join the English-speaking world. Also, we are trying to make a world organisation in which we and America will be quite important.”
But he remained sunk in gloom, and huddled back in the chair. Presently: “About these wars, the ones after the Boer War, I mean. What happened to the great States of Europe? Is Russia still the danger?”
“We are all very worried about her.”
“We always were in my day, and in Dizzy’s before me. Is there still a Tsar?”
“Yes, but he is not a Romanoff. It’s another family. He is much more powerful, and much more despotic.”
“What of Germany? What of France?”
“They are both shattered. Their only hope is to rise together.”
“I remember,” he said, “taking you through the Place de la Concorde when you were only nine years old, and you asked me about the Strasbourg monument. You wanted to know why this one was covered in flowers and crape. I told you about the lost provinces of France. What flag flies in Strasbourg now?”
“The Tricolor flies there.”
“Ah, so they won. They had their revanche. That must have been a great triumph for them.”
“It cost them their life blood,” I said.
“But wars like these must have cost a million lives. They must have been as bloody as the American Civil War.”
“Papa,” I said, ‘in each of them about thirty million men were killed in battle. In the last one seven million were murdered in cold blood, mainly by the Germans. They made human slaughter-pens like the Chicago stockyards. Europe is a ruin. Many of her cities have been blown to pieces by bombs. Ten capitals in Eastern Europe are in Russian hands. They are Communists now, you know—Karl Marx and all that. It may well be that an even worse war is drawing near. A war of the East against the West. A war of liberal civilisation against the Mongol hordes. Far gone are the days of Queen Victoria and a settled world order. But, having gone through so much, we do not despair.”
He seemed stupefied, and fumbled with his matchbox for what seemed a minute or more. Then he said:
“Winston, you have told me a terrible tale. I would never have believed that such things could happen. I am glad I did not live to see them. As I listened to you unfolding these fearful facts you seemed to know a great deal about them. I never expected that you would develop so far and so fully. Of course you are too old now to think about such things, but when I hear you talk I really wonder you didn’t go into politics. You might have done a lot to help. You might even have made a name for yourself.”
He gave me a benignant smile. He then took the match to light his cigarette and struck it. There was a tiny flash. He vanished. The chair was empty. The illusion had passed. I rubbed my brush again in my paint, and turned to finish the moustache. But so vivid had my fancy been that I felt too tired to go on. Also my cigar had gone out, and the ash had fallen among all the paints.
About The Dream
Churchill’s “private article” is reprinted from the official biography, Winston S. Churchill, by Martin Gilbert, vol. 8 Never Despair 1945-1965 (Hillsdale College Press, 2013), pages 365-72. See also Katherine Davenport, “Churchill Fiction: Contemplating The Dream.”