Author Andrew Roberts has the industry of a worker bee mixed with the allure of a rare butterfly. He turns out historical biographies like lava from an active volcano. His one volume biography of Churchill, a very big one volume comprising 1152 pages, was published in 2018 and is the definitive account of the great man’s incredible life – at least for the layman.
Roberts method is direct and straight forward. He starts with Churchill’s birth in Blenheim Palace and ends with his death 90 years later in London on January 24 the 70th anniversary of his father’s death. The date he had predicted all his life would be the day he would die. The book concludes with a summary of Churchill’s achievement, both pro and con. Roberts had access to all of the papers germane to Churchill’s life including the notes, hitherto unavailable, that King George VI made following his weekly meetings with the Prime Minister.
Churchill’s life so filled with action, near death experiences, good fortune, misadventure, scholarship, speeches, and writings – so prolific and profound that he won a Nobel Prize for literature – that he seems a creature of myth rather than reality. The production of a fraction of what he did defies belief; the whole is beyond fantasy. Robert’s use of Destiny seems almost inadequate to describe a life that could not be invented.
He doesn’t spend a lot of time on Churchill’s unhappy childhood. Largely ignored by both his parents; he hero worshiped his politician father who thought little of him. Lord Randolph is remembered today almost entirely because he was Winston’s father. He didn’t do well in school, didn’t have a university degree. He was only accepted by the Royal Military Academy after being rejected twice. Following graduation he joined the cavalry. Posted to India, after a stint in Cuba where his career in journalism began, he began a period of self study that included the works of Gibbon and Macaulay. An autodidact, his knowledge of history, literature, and science became encyclopedic which combined with an extraordinary memory formed the basis for his prose style (close to that of Gibbon) and his oratorical skill which was unmatched in his time. His general knowledge was so wide and deep that none of his contemporaries could match him. He anticipated much of 20th and 21st century scientific advances decades before they became reality.
After participating in the last major cavalry charge in wartime history, escaping as a prisoner of war in South Africa – he decided to enter politics. He made his living, however, from his writings which only stopped when the frailties of age forced its cessation.
Churchill was convinced that he would share his family’s history of premature death and was hence in a hurry to make his mark which may partly explain the rapidity with which he embraced so many projects that turned out differently from what he expected. A controversial figure almost his entire life, his brilliance and obvious talent in excess of that of his colleagues was sure to guarantee of envy on their part. Much of the criticism directed at him throughout his career was so formed.
He was also lucky in his failures. Had he not been excluded from the conservative governments headed by Baldwin and Chamberlain during the 1930s – the appeasers of Hitler whom he inveighed against – he would have had to be silent as a member of the government. His almost solitary campaign against the policy of appeasement embraced by both government and the people was what gave him the stature to lead the country after events had prove him right. His Years in the Wilderness turned out to be the pillars of his wartime success. He didn’t know this was to be true when he stood alone; it was his character and conviction that saw him through.
After he assumed the leadership of his country, it took over two years before the hinge of fate turned in his direction. 1942 was a particularly trying year as both Singapore and Tobruk fell to forces greatly outnumbered by the defenders. Imagine if someone else had been Prime Minister – say, Lord Halifax. A negotiated peace with Germany on not unfavorable terms could, and probably would, have been made perhaps as early as 1940. This settlement would have allowed Hitler to concentrate all his resources on Russia. After finishing off the Soviets, the Nazis would have returned to Britain with undiminished determination and almost certainly would have successfully invaded the country or found local Quislings who would have turned effective control over to the German Reich. The United States would have been left alone to face the hostile German and Japanese regimes. A dreadful prospect entirely avoided through the sole effort of a single unique personality. Arguably, Churchill saved not only his country – but the world.
Robert’s prose is spare and crystalline. He has such a great story to tell that no embellishment or flourish is needed. Probably the best way to experience the biography is to listen to it as an audio book as it is full of long quotations from Churchill’s speeches and writings. Narrator Stephen Thorne captures the Churchillian eloquence that pervades these passages. The 60 hours of narration pass with fluid ease. About the only omission I can think of is the almost total neglect of the American half of his family. Other than mentioning his mother’s American birth, there is nothing about the Jerome half of his family. There was no need for a lot about the Jerome’s, but a few paragraphs would have added some context. Churchill may have been an aristocrat, but he was a hybrid of the species, a condition of which he was well aware.
As mentioned above, Robert’s access to previously unavailable material greatly adds to the depth of his account of one of humanity’s unique personages. In English history I can think of only two other men whose accomplishments are on a par with Churchill’s – William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton. And neither of these two functioned at such a high level in so many diverse endeavors. A man of the greatest personal courage and honor, he joined his regiment in the trenches after leaving office following the Dardanelles disaster in 1915. He spent six months exposed to all the dangers that trench warfare entailed.
There are over 1,000 biographies of Churchill. Before too long there will likely be another thousand. His life spanned such a large and variegated arc that it will continue to attract biographers like flies to sugar. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine that a subsequent one will be as enthralling as Robert’s entry or add much to his depiction of Churchill’s life, at least in the space of one, albeit very large, volume.
Churchill often appeared in uniform wearing a chestful of ribbons. He earned everyone of them. A man of spectacular failings, his virtues and accomplishments overwhelmed the demerits.