“If some of what follows challenges what you have come to believe about Churchill and this era, may I just say that history is a lively abode, full of surprises.”
Erik Larson wrote The Devil in the White City, and so when I saw that he had written a biography of Churchill, I leapt at the chance to read it. Thanks go to Net Galley and Crown Publishing for the review copy. This book is for sale today.
I have spent most of my life dodging stories of the second world war, largely because I had grown bored, as a young woman, hearing my father’s ramblings with friends. No young person wants to hear their parent’s stories unless they involve great fame or heroism, and perhaps not always, even then. And so, when someone older than myself would speak of “the war,” my ears closed at once. Footage of Churchill’s iconic speeches sometimes popped up on the television, but all I heard was “blah blah blah,” and I would either change the channel or leave the room. And so, it is only now—after a career of teaching American history and government to teenagers—that I find myself curious about Churchill.
The book begins when King George asks Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain—who, along with his staff, had been carrying on with ordinary length work days despite the crisis at hand, and who had been contemplating a surrender to Germany—to step down, and then invites Churchill to take his place. Churchill has no intention of surrendering a single centimeter of British soil to Hitler, and soon everyone knows this. The book ends when the United States formally enters the war. By focusing on this brief period, Larson is able to include detail, the meaty anecdotes and quotes that a full length biography would limit. That said, the hard cover version of this book is still over 600 pages in length, if one includes the thorough and excellent endnotes, and if you haven’t the stamina for other books of this length, you probably won’t have the stamina for this one, either.
Since my childhood impression of Churchill was that he was dull and stodgy, I was fascinated to learn how truly unconventional he had been. He often worked 16 hour days and expected his staff to do the same, but he did so on his own terms, breaking for two baths daily (but dictating from the tub to a male secretary that sat tub side, tablet and pencil in hand), and likewise doing business from his bed, not merely over the phone, but with documents, a typist, an immense thermador to hold his two foot long cigars, and his cat, whom he called “darling.” He might be clad in a silk floral dressing gown (in America, this would be a fancy robe) and pom-pom slippers, or he might be buck naked. Today we would refer to the working baths and feet up in bed as a sort of self-care; the fact that he was able to carry it off during much more conventionally straightened times amazes me. He kept a machine gun in the trunk of his car, and he armed his family members, including the women. Invasion was a real possibility, and if it occurred, he and his family would be primary targets. He told them that if they were to be taken, possibly killed, the least they could do would be to take at least one Nazi down with them. And like so many fathers, he climbed onto the roof during Nazi bombing raids to see the action despite the risk, but made his daughter stay far away from London in the countryside lest she find herself in harm’s way.
Larson incorporates a variety of sources, but the two most frequently quoted are from Colville, who was one of his private secretaries, and Mary Churchill, his teenager. I question the amount of ink young Mary receives initially, but at the end, when I see where life took her, my objections fade. Also included are the views of top Nazi officials, primarily Joseph Goebbels, whose diary shows his dissatisfaction with Roosevelt, whose fireside chats inveighed against Fascism and in favor of the British cousins. Goebbels wishes that Hitler would take a hard line against the Americans, reflecting without an ounce of irony that “One must defend oneself sometime, after all.”
Larson’s congenial narrative draws me in almost like narrative nonfiction. Despite the death, the destruction, and the horror, it is—for me, at least—a curiously soothing read in all but one or two of the harshest spots. Perhaps it is because it was long ago and far away, and I know that—this time, at least—the Fascists will lose.
There is only one photograph in my digital review copy, and a note of a map that will be included in the finished version; I wish there were more. I came to my desktop to see images of the infamous Lord Beaverbrook, the Prof, and Pug Ismay, all of whom were Churchill’s key advisers, and I went to YouTube to listen to the Dunkirk speech and others that were so captivating and celebrated. Now that I grasped the context in which they were given, I can understand why they had an electrifying effect upon the British public and won the favor of other English-speaking nations, my own among them.
Is this the best Churchill biography? For those that want all the nitty gritty, there are many others, and Larson refers to them in his introduction, including one that is eight volumes long. For me, though, this is enough. Those that want an approachable yet professional introduction to this subject could do a lot worse; I recommend you get it and read it, and then you can decide if you want to pursue the subject further.