Like Abraham Lincoln, the greatest statesman of the 19th century, Winston Churchill, the greatest of the 20th, had a genius for language. But unlike Lincoln, Churchill made a lucrative living as an author, inflating both his bank balance and his reputation with prodigious (and shrewdly self-promoting) feats of literary craftsmanship. In this sometimes speculative but immensely enjoyable biography, Jonathan Rose shows that Churchill’s authorial and political careers were entwined and inseparable. And he convincingly argues that while “tracking down literary influences is often dismissed as a purely academic exercise . . . sometimes the lives of millions depend on what their rulers read.”
According to Rose, Churchill was principally driven in life by “the desire to frame a thrilling story” for himself, and “once we understand that as his life goal, then Churchill’s impulsive courtship of danger becomes predictable, explicable, and eminently reasonable.” To Rose, his performance on the world stage was influenced in part by the theater, especially the Victorian melodrama of his youth. This sense of life as a drama, with him in the starring role, prompted both rash judgments and acts of dazzling courage. While a more prosaic outlook might have helped him avoid misadventures, it would have deprived Britain of its “finest hour” in 1940.
When Churchill was born at Blenheim Palace, seat of the dukes of Marlborough, all was splendid on the surface. His father, Randolph, was one of the most popular politicians of the age, and young Winston seemed assured of a bright future. But there were cracks in the glittering firmament: The Marlborough line had fallen into some disrepute, and Randolph was as erratic as he was brilliant. Half-American, Churchill stood out from his aristocratic contemporaries; he never attended university and disdained the classics, preferring contemporary literature. Deprived as a child of parental love, he resolved to distinguish himself through politics. He struck upon the idea of throwing himself into imperial conflicts around the world and rendering them in vivid prose for readers back home. After adventures abroad and good reviews at home, he burst into Parliament in 1900, having wielded both sword and pen to electrifying effect.
According to Rose, Churchill’s “impressionistic” accounts of his exploits in India and Sudan revealed him as “an aesthete of war,” but though a champion of empire, he rarely flinched from its dark side. Readers who thrilled to the cavalry charge at Omdurman also learned of the butchery inflicted on the defeated Mahdi by British troops. But in later works, especially his multi-volume memoir of World War II (which contributed to his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953), political constraints shaped the narrative. He could hardly unburden himself in print about fellow leaders — there was yet more history to be made.
Churchill laced even bureaucratic memoranda with style and color, to the bemusement of his colleagues. As a contemporary observed of him at the colonial office, he “exaggerated the importance of everything he touched. Every speck on the horizon, he assumed, would turn out to be a Cunarder, not a cockleshell.” But such was his zest for life that “nobody ever contrived to get so much fun out of official business as Churchill.”
In one of his more imaginative leaps, Rose discerns in Churchill’s writing a secret affinity for Oscar Wilde, the Irish aesthete, playwright and man of letters brought down by scandal. He even surmises that Churchill’s early essay “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric” was a coded homage to Wilde. According to Rose, both presumed “that ‘acting naturally’ is either impossible or a bore: the human personality must be consciously constructed as a work of dramatic art.” And like Wilde, Churchill was a keen aesthete (not merely of war); he exclaimed after exploring the slums of Manchester: “Fancy living in one of these streets — never seeing anything beautiful — never eating anything savoury — never saying anything clever!”
Churchill made many mistakes, both literary and political, and Rose is no hagiographer. He deems Churchill’s novel, “Savrola,” “among the worst . . . of the nineteenth century” (which, considering the competition for that dubious honor, is rather harsh). And his survey of Churchill’s political life prompts him to reflect: “When we engage in politics, are we thinking rationally, or are we performing some story, remembered or forgotten, that we read long ago?” The man later deemed “the saviour of his country” nearly wrecked his career in the 1930s with quixotic stands against Indian independence and, inspired more by literary sensibility than political reality, in favor of the wayward Edward VIII.
Sometimes in tracing the theatrical roots of Churchill’s statesmanship, Rose stretches a point. It was history more than the stage that inspired the great man. But then perhaps Rose is on to something. Ronald Reagan once wondered, “How can a president not be an actor?” And George Washington put down a mutiny with a calculated bit of theater, fumbling for his glasses and telling his restive officers that he had “not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.” His audience dissolved into tears. Similarly, Churchill was both leader and showman; throughout his life, but especially during World War II, he dazzled the world.
It is a mighty challenge to comprehend so vast a life and find something new to say about it. And like most who tackle the subject, Rose is heavily and openly reliant upon the official biography by Sir Martin Gilbert. But he has used this and other sources to marvelous effect. This gracefully written book is an original and textured study of Churchill’s imagination.
THE LITERARY CHURCHILL
Author, Reader, Actor
By Jonathan Rose
Yale Univ. 516 pp. $35