In July 1903 Winston Churchill, who was then 28 years old, dined in London with Beatrice and Sidney Webb, ardently leftist social reformers. Afterward Beatrice wrote in her diary: “First impression: Restless, almost intolerably so, without capacity for sustained and unexcited labour, egotistical, bumptious, shallow-minded and reactionary, but with a certain personal magnetism, great pluck and some originality, not of intellect but of character. . . . Talked exclusively about himself. . . . No notion of scientific research. . . . But his pluck, courage, resourcefulness and great tradition may carry him far.”

Considering that this judgment was formed in the course of only a single evening, it was remarkably astute and, as later events made resoundingly clear, prophetic. To be sure, even by his 25th birthday Churchill had made his mark through “the adventures of a storybook character — fighting with the Bengal Lancers on the Indian frontier; scouting for rebels with the Spanish army in Cuba; traveling along the Nile to take part in what was to prove the last great cavalry charge of the British Army in the nineteenth century; and, most dramatic of all, surviving capture by the Boers in South Africa, and then making his escape across hundreds of miles of unfriendly territory.” Yes, he had done all that, but now he was merely a Tory backbencher in Parliament, almost obscenely ambitious politically but with not much to show for his efforts beyond a reasonably well-known name and a considerable body of well-placed people whose opinions of him ranged from admiration to contempt, with any number of stops in between.

As another older woman told the man who became Churchill’s private secretary, “The first time you meet Winston, you see all his faults, and the rest of your life you spend in discovering his virtues.” That remark could (though it doesn’t) serve as epigraph for “Young Titan,” Michael Shelden’s perceptive and entertaining account of Churchill’s life between the ages of 25 and 40. Sheldon is an American professor of English at Indiana State University who, between 1995 and 2007, served as a feature writer for the Daily Telegraph in London. Before taking on that assignment he published well-regarded biographies of George Orwell and Graham Greene, the latter not merely a solid biography but an unsparing portrait of Greene’s dark side, “the debauched connoisseur of brothels, the impassioned adulterer, the spy, the deceiver, the enemy of order.”

Churchill harbored no such demons — he was, if anything, a “romantic at heart,” especially where women were concerned — but he was a spectacularly complicated man whose early career proves the wisdom of the quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson that Shelden does use as an epigraph: “The force of character is cumulative.” From 1900 to 1915 (he was born in November 1874), Churchill was very much a work in progress. He achieved a great deal, held several important posts in the British government, married the great love of his life after unsuccessfully courting other women, then closed out these years of apprenticeship with a disastrous military failure that seemed to destroy his hopes for a brilliant future.

He had, indeed, to undergo fully a quarter-century before he was at last called to the prime ministership and the greatness that awaited him there. This is a twice-told tale, though none the less stirring for its familiarity. But the years about which Shelden writes have their own importance and their own color, and they tend to get lost in conventional Churchill biographies, particularly the overwrought ones (William Manchester does come to mind) that zero in on the heroic World War II years. As Shelden writes: “History likes winners, and the image of the older, victorious Churchill has long overshadowed the story of the eager younger man who soared to prominence only to find he had overreached, and who left office with his reputation in tatters. Yet in many ways the early period is the most colorful of his career and the key to his character. It was an exhilarating time full of high drama, political intrigue, personal courage, and grave miscalculations,” at the end of which he was in “a state of shock” from which it took him years to recover.

’Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill’ by Michael Shelden (Simon & Schuster)

Churchill came from an aristocratic family through which ran decidedly blue blood but not an inordinate amount of money, especially by contrast with others in the elevated circles in which he moved. His ambition may have been fueled by a desire to compensate for the disappointments in his father Randolph’s life, which began boldly but ended in failure and premature death, but he was also spurred on by the energy and determination imparted to him by his American-born mother, Jennie. He seems to have known almost ab ovo that he was destined for politics and, upon his return from his military adventures, threw himself into it with characteristic gusto.

Simultaneously, he was courting numerous beauties, the most celebrated of whom was the actress Ethel Barrymore, to whom he proposed marriage, as indeed he did to others. Not until Clementine Hozier accepted him in 1908 did he achieve the marriage he had so passionately longed for, and of course it proved to be one of the great marriages of the 20th century.

He entered politics as a Conservative but broke with the party over free trade, which he strongly supported but also saw as “a big issue to drive his career forward.” In May 1904, he took his seat in Parliament with the Liberals, who didn’t know quite what to do with him but finally made him undersecretary in the Colonial Office, from which he attempted “to make the imperial system work without resorting to the crude methods of violence and coercion.” He had some success in this — Sheldon says his service was “enlightened and farsighted” — but then and thereafter he was a ferocious defender of the British Empire, the “dismemberment” of which he fought right up to his death in 1965 at the age of 90.

From the Colonial Office he marched steadily upward: president of the Board of Trade in 1908, secretary of the Home Office two years later, then First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911. He was “no expert on naval tactics,” but he “did know a lot about fighting and understood a basic truth that others often overlooked,” namely that “the only punch worth throwing was a knockout punch.” The Royal Navy possessed “more than five hundred ships and 130,000 men,” making it “the strongest naval force in the world,” but Churchill understood that it faced a daunting threat from an increasingly aggressive Germany. His efforts to beef it up were impressive, but early in World War I he over-reached himself, launching an attack on Turkey, Germany’s ally, in the Dardanelles that resulted in a catastrophic defeat at Gallipoli in March and April of 1915. He was removed from office in disgrace.

“Now forty, he suddenly looked older than his years,” Shelden writes. “He walked with a more pronounced stoop, and his eyes grew dull. . . . ‘I had to watch the casting away of great opportunities,’ he would recall, ‘and the feeble execution of plans which I had launched, and in which I heartily believed. One dwelt in a sort of cataleptic trance, unable to intervene, yet bound by the result.’ ”

He soldiered on, though, rejoining the Conservative Party in 1925 when the Liberals fell into decline; his “boyish innocence and earnestness” were gradually replaced by a “harder, much less exuberant character” who turned out to be the man Britain needed in those terrible years from 1940 to 1945. If the child is father to the man, in this instance the dashing but erratic young man was father to the great old man.


The Making of Winston Churchill

By Michael Shelden

Simon & Schuster. 383 pp. $30