Winston Churchill emerged from a rather murky gene pool. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, a brilliant but erratic younger son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough, wrecked an initially promising political career through a mixture of bad luck and bad judgment. He died at the early age of 45, debt-ridden and syphilitic. Winston’s mother, Jennie Jerome, was a bright, charming, more-than-a-little louche American heiress. One of the great society beauties of her day, she flirted, danced, and sometimes slept her way through many of England’s stateliest homes. Not the least of her conquests was Bertie, Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII. In middle and old age Jennie would twice remarry, each time to a younger man. She remained vivacious—and slightly disreputable—to the end.
Miraculously, although he started life as a shy, awkward child and a dull pupil, young Winston seems to have inherited most of his parents’ strengths and few of their weaknesses. Unfortunately, the bad genes would recur with vengeance a generation later in the person of Churchill’s only son, also—and perhaps prophetically—named Randolph. The rotten apple of his father’s eye, he was a mean drunk, an unmitigated cad, and an all-around loser. Toward the end of his life, when word reached the bar at White’s Club that Randolph had undergone surgery to remove a growth, and that the growth was benign, Evelyn Waugh, who knew him all too well, observed that it was a pity that the surgeon had removed the only part of Randolph that wasn’t malignant.
By contrast, in Winston Churchill, his father’s eloquence and political daring and his mother’s indomitable will and ability to charm (when she wanted to) combined to form a man of iron determination, ruthless ambition, and formidable talents. It is important to remember, however, that these qualities were always harnessed to Winston’s exalted Victorian conviction that men of his class were born to lead, that the empire they led was a noble, civilizing enterprise, and that the pursuit of glory in defense of that enterprise was selfless rather than selfish. That this lofty conviction was more than a little deluded should in no way detract from its remarkable positive achievements. Even today, much of what is best in countries as different as India and Canada, Singapore and Ghana, can be traced to the educating and modernizing influence of the Victorians, their dedication to the rule of law, and—at least theoretically—their respect for individuals, property, tolerance, and due process.
Churchill was a true son of this imperial vision. Thus it is the supreme irony of his life that while he is rightly credited with being one of the greatest wartime leaders in history, the empire he thought he was saving in the darkest days of World War II was already doomed for reasons having little or nothing to do with the war. Britain had carried out her “civilizing mission” all too well. Succeeding generations of British-educated colonial subjects raised on concepts of British law, liberty, and representative government were heading—slowly but inexorably—toward independence long before the world first heard of Adolf Hitler. World War II, its ruinous cost, and the sacrifices it exacted from Britons and colonial subjects alike merely accelerated a process already well underway both at home and abroad. This helps to explain why Churchill and his Tory party were overwhelmingly defeated in the July 1945 parliamentary elections, fresh from victory in Europe. As Churchill himself put it, the British public had awarded him “the Order of the Boot” for his wartime service.
He did return to power a few years later, in time to participate in the coronation of a popular young queen and the false dawn of what many English traditionalists hoped would be a “Second Elizabethan Age.” But it was not to be. The empire was on its way out for good and all. Winston Churchill had played a key role in saving England, but the England he saved was not the England he thought it was.
YET, FOR ALL HIS QUIRKS—and his underlying anachronism—what a remarkable and admirable character he was. Few great men are also great authors…and, God knows, few great authors are also great men. But Winston Churchill was both. In the 1970s and early 1980s, during frequent visits to London, I had the pleasure of becoming friends with two of his literary collaborators, Maurice Ashley and Alan Hodge. Ashley, who went on to become a respected authority on 17th-century English history, had worked with Churchill on his monumental biography of John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, between the wars. Hodge, one of the two founding editors of History Today magazine (for which Churchill had suggested the title), had collaborated on A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, which Churchill completed after World War II. As a frequent contributor of articles to History Today, I spent more than one pleasant afternoon in pubs along the Strand listening to Alan describe the maddening but highly amusing working conditions that Churchill collaborators had to put up with. Alas, poor Alan, who had also collaborated on books with the famous poet and novelist Robert Graves (who returned the favor by stealing Alan’s wife), was such a dedicated but diffident editor of other people’s work that he never bothered to write his own memoirs, a great loss.
Ashley, whom I usually encountered at the Reform Club on Pall Mall in a slightly tiddly state (him, not me), also remembered Churchill as a severe taskmaster who loved his own creature comforts and didn’t care much about other peoples’. But, while he disagreed with Churchill’s politics, he was an unabashed admirer of the great man’s brilliance as a writer and his instinctive gift for narrative history. It is precisely because Churchill was such an inspired practitioner of the historian’s art himself that I believe he would welcome the long-awaited completion of his biography by William Manchester. I suspect he would also be amused by some of the sniper fire it has received from supposedly learned critics.
Hell hath no fury like a professor scorned. There is nothing that arid, overly specialized academicians—who usually attain tenure without ever writing a readable work of interest to the cultivated general reader—hate more than well-written popular history. Hence the academic world’s reception, ranging from tepid to vindictive, of the final installment of this sometimes florid but always highly readable three-volume biography. Neither Manchester, who died in 2004, nor Paul Reid, the able journalist and friend whom he chose to complete the project after strokes rendered him unable to continue, ever claimed to be an academic historian. Far from aspiring to write an arcane revisionist tract for a small circle of professional colleagues, they set out to write a monumental account of a monumental life. They have succeeded admirably. Most of the credit—for this final volume—is due to Mr. Reid, who is responsible for more than 90 percent of the finished text.
Inevitably, a few errors have crept into a volume that is over a thousand pages long. For example, I couldn’t help noticing that the German port city of Bremen is misspelled as “Breman” in an account of wartime bombing. Bard College professor Richard Aldous, in his New York Times review, points out that the Winchester University referred to in the book is actually Winchester College, and that “Stanley Baldwin, not Neville Chamberlain…appointed Anthony Eden as foreign secretary in 1935.” And in hisWashington Post review, St. Andrew’s University professor Gerard DeGroot bemoans the omission of academic psychobabble, such as the late Anthony Storr’s theory that, in the days when England stood alone against Hitler, Churchill’s “inner world of make believe…coincided with the facts of external reality in a way that rarely happens to any man.” But if Churchill’s inner world really did coincide with external reality, surely it wasn’t that “make believe” after all. Professor DeGroot at least gives Manchester and Reid credit for producing a book which, while not his idea of scholarly biography, is “superb” as an “adventure story,” only to dourly add that “we need to move beyond the shining deeds of extraordinary heroes.”
That is precisely the kind of thing that the smart young things of the 1920s and ’30s were saying as the world hurtled toward the abyss. But when push came to shove, it was the “extraordinary heroes”—inspired and inspiring leaders like Churchill, Eisenhower, and, for that matter, de Gaulle—who saved us from falling in. Mr. Manchester and, even more so, Mr. Reid, have done a splendid job echoing the last lion’s roar.