by Anita Leslie
Having been felled by a Dublin cold once I returned from Interactive Digital Storytelling, I sought refuge in a volume of Nancy Mitford’s letters I’d been saving for a rainy day. Those letters led me to this biography of Randolph Churchill, son of Sir Winston Churchill.
As a rule, biographies often are written about people who did important things, occasionally about people who were simply well liked, and occasionally about people who committed notable crimes. Randolph did none of these. He very much wanted to be in Parliament, but aside from one uncontested wartime election he never could win a seat. Everyone knew him, and few liked him. He came to parties, charmed the ladies, drank too much, said and did appalling things, and left. A young Nancy Mitford says in a letter that “Randolph tried to rape me, it was funny. This is a secret.”
This chatty, anecdotal, and sympathetic portrait was written by a relative who, like Randolph, grew up in a castle but without enough money. In a circle where, by current standards, everyone drank like fish, Randolph was prodigious: his father, who started drinking with breakfast and continued throughout the day, though Randolph drank far too much. So did Evelyn Waugh, even in the years when Waugh’s criterion for friendship was wit when drunk.
Leslie argues that Randolph deeply wanted to be liked. But his mother never really liked him, and in her view Randolph recreated that relationship endlessly. A simpler interpretation is that Randolph lacked anything like empathy: he expected service and demanded an audience, and seldom care very much how other people felt about that. That, after all, was someone else’s problem.