It was in my reading of Ian McEwan’s Black Dogs that I first came across the image/metaphor of the black dog and depression. Turns out that the association goes further back than Winston Churchill. But in Rebecca Hunt’s Mr. Chartwell, the association gets the full historical fiction treatment.
We immediately meet Winston Churchill and the black dog on the cusp of Churchill’s retirement from public life at 89. In the second chapter (there are 40 short chapters in this short novel, spanning six days in July of 1964) a black dog calling himself Mr. Chartwell (aka Black Pat – Chartwell is the name of Churchill’s residence) comes to the flat of Esther Hammerhans to answer an advertisement for living space. . She is astounded by the dog who talks, stands upright, but otherwise is a dog in all respects – albeit a rather large and ugly one. Pressed to understand what this dog does for a living, he tells her he is assigned to “depress” people. Later we learn that only those to whom he has been assigned can see or hear him. Ominous, since Esther can see and hear him just fine.
Esther is still coping with the loss of her husband nearly two years before. We only learn later that he committed suicide and that he himself had been a “client” of the black dog.
Churchill’s depression (his “crushing torment”) is portrayed mostly by himself, and frequently in conversation with the dog. He tells Black Pat that “each time you come here I am again thrown to the jaws of the past.”
The dog’s guts rumbled. An embarrassing noise came from his stomach.
Churchill said, “Eheu! Fugaces labuntur anni“
“Is that Greek?”
“Latin you bastard. It means, ‘Alas, the fleeting years glide by’”
Churchill tells the dog that this time it’s different. Especially cruel.
“…because I don’t have the opportunity to assuage the fears you bring with you anymore. I’m about to retire, my work is over. I don’t have future work to look to, something I’ve always relied on to carry me through – the promise that I will do better; that I will mend mistakes; that I will eventually defeat you. Not any longer. This time I am out of time. It is surely a savage thing to do to a man.”
Hunt draws a compassionate picture of Churchill, and thus of the depression that many people suffer. She also rounds out her portrait of Churchill with an engagingly sweet and tender look into the love of his life, his wife Clementine. There is a moment when Esther has been called to the home of Churchill to take down his retirement speech (she’s a government worker in the parliamentary library). And just before the meeting, Clementine, who has never acknowledged the black dogs presence, seeks him out for the one and only time. She has seen his presence all these years (an exception to the general rule). Clementine asks the dog to “release” her husband, but he claims that this is beyond his powers. The conversation between Churchill and Esther is extraordinary, skirting around the thing they have in common as Black Pat looks on.
Depression had run in Churchill’s family, and his life certainly has its tragedies: the death of one of their children at only three years, and the suicide of another daughter. This is quite a different novel than I thought it would be. I had not read anything about it, but there was some buzz, and the cover was intriguing. Not the whimsical novel that I had imagined, but a sobering and heartfelt look at the affliction. A quick read, and a worthwhile one.