Winston Churchill was an old-fashioned hero — majestic, eloquent, effusive, addicted to drama. He had an enormous personality but a simplistic outlook: He saw the past as a collection of heroic tales immune to analysis. The latest biography of Churchill has much in common with the man himself. “The Last Lion” is a majestic saga in the Victorian style — vivid, articulate, beautifully composed, grand in scope but thin on introspection. The similarity goes further: Rather like Churchill, this book is very fat. How strange, then, that such a corpulent tome has so much missing.
“The Last Lion,” the third installment of William Manchester’s biography of Churchill, starts in 1940, when he became prime minister, and ends with his death in 1965. In truth, however, it’s a book about Churchill’s war. Manchester had essentially completed the research by 1998, but then ill health made writing impossible. Before he died in 2004, he handed the book over to his friend Paul Reid, a journalist. At the time, only a tenth of the more than 1,000 pages had been written.
Reid has done a superb job of creating a book that reads like Manchester. As he writes, his mentor “was not an academic. He was a storyteller who made history accessible by masterful use of the dramatist’s tools.” “The Last Lion” fits that mold: This biography has the dramatic punch of a great novel. Yet it is strange to find a new book that seems so old — rather like an ancient butterfly sealed in amber. This is because it was researched in the 1980s but written decades later. Unfortunately, much has been discovered in the interim, by historians such as Paul Addison, Peter Hennessey, Angus Calder, Roy Jenkins, Max Hastings and others. Reid claims that he updated the research he inherited from Manchester, but there’s little evidence of that.
“The Last Lion” is very good on Churchill the hero. His heroic phase came when England stood alone against Hitler, a period that lasted until mid-June 1941. This was the “supreme chapter in his life” — roughly 400 days that he called “the most splendid . . . year in our long . . . English story.” There was an element of serendipity to that period, perfectly summarized by the psychiatrist Anthony Storr in an article first published in 1973. According to Storr, at that time, Churchill’s “inner world of make believe . . . coincided with the facts of external reality in a way that rarely happens to any man.” In other words, Churchill got to be the hero he had always dreamed of being but also precisely the hero that the British demanded. He was able to guide Britain through its darkest hour because he was steeped in English myth. A more rational man might have decided that all was lost.
After the Soviet Union and the United States entered the war, the context changed radically, and singular valor diminished in importance. Victory for the Allied powers became inevitable, the only uncertainty being the element of time. During this period, political issues (domestic and foreign) became more important than simple courageous leadership. As a result, Churchill’s knightly armor grew tarnished because he was ill-equipped to deal with the political complexity of that world. He did not, for instance, really understand the relationship with the United States, wrongly assuming that the Americans would keep British best interests in mind. Nor did he remotely understand how the atom bomb changed not only warfare but international relations.