Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm by William Manchester and Paul Reid (biography)

In 1984 The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory was published, the first volume of William Manchester's biography of Winston Churchill. Volume 2 (Alone) followed in 1989. Manchester stepped aside from Churchill to write A World Lit Only By Fire, then intended to return to and finish Churchill. But his health began to decline and it became clear he was not going to be able to finish. Fortunately he turned the project over to Paul Reid before his death, and Reid has completed the work. While it doesn't quite live up to two decades of anticipation, it's nonetheless a fine book.

These volumes are both history and biography, and it would be fair to call them a history of the British Empire as lived by Winston Churchill. It covers the Empire from its peak to its essential dissolution, focusing on how Churchill lived through and influenced huge swathes of it. In the first two volumes Churchill grows up, aims high, stumbles and falls, and recovers admirably. Volume 2 closes with Churchill returning from the political wilderness to become Prime Minister just as Hitler begins to move against Britain.

Defender of the Realm shows Churchill to be the right man at the right time. His public face inspired Britain to hang on during the years they held the western front alone. His private one was more pragmatic and realistic, but we come to understand there was less difference between them than it seemed at first. Churchill knew instinctively that to hold out would require convincing the population that the war could and would be won, but that doing so would be a horribly difficult, painful and prolonged task. Once one see the forces arrayed against them, his classic "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat" becomes almost an understatement. The common man would have to bear the brunt of suffering and fighting, and Churchill understood that. In spite of being an aristocrat to the bone, he managed to cross the class divide and make a direct connection with the working-class public. The authors present him heroically in this, and that's as it should be.

The book is not a paean to Churchill. He was often rude, sometimes treated staff and family with casual cruelty or volcanic anger, and never apologized. He bubbled over with ideas, most of them impractical. He wasted huge amounts of his and his staffs time with details that should have been left to others. He was at his worst after a success, flying off on new projects that would prevent the consolidation of a success. One of his aides later published a quite damning memoir of his dealings with Churchill. That publication (which the authors quote from frequently) included both an apology to and an appreciation of Churchill obtained in retrospect. The assessment of Churchill at the time is accurate, as is the appreciation in retrospect. Churchill was a flawed and complex man, and the biography reflects that honestly.

One particularly enjoyable point is the wit. Churchill was famous for some of his comments, and they were broadly displayed in the first two volumes. They are not as prominent here, but that's largely because there was less time for repartee and fewer British opponents to spend it on. In volume three the authors spend more time on the words of others, and they manage to slip in a few of their own. A couple of my favorites:
  • The authors on Averell Harriman, US Ambassador to England: “. . . [Churchill's daughter-in-law] was certainly taken with him, and within a few weeks, taken by him.”
  • Evelyn Waugh on Randolph Churchill having a biopsy for suspected lung cancer: “It was a typical triumph of modern science to find the one part of Randolph which was not malignant and remove it.”
There are plenty more, but I'll leave them for your enjoyment.

On a personal level, I wanted deeply to love this book. The first two volumes were wonderful, and by comparison this one seems a bit flat to me. There are two reasons for this, neither of which is the fault of the authors.

The first is Churchill himself. By 1940, Churchill is in his 60s and fully formed in both his virtues and his flaws. Both are fully displayed here, but we don't see the growth that was so interesting in the first two volumes. This is to be expected, but it makes him a bit less interesting as a person.

The other is the reader (me). All three of these volumes are both history and biography. The first two covered periods I wasn't particularly familiar with, and as such were of interest on both fronts. By the time Defender of the Realm was published I was already very familiar with World War II in Europe, and didn't learn much from the book that I didn't already know. Fortunately, seeing the war by looking over Churchill's shoulder was a fine new viewpoint, and it gave me a better appreciation of the whys of the political and military events. I read the 1050+ pages in about a week, and it wasn't an effort.

Overall I recommend this book, but with warnings. You should definitely read the first two volumes before this one. And if you're already up to speed on World War II in Europe, be prepared for a lot of material you're already familiar with, but presented from a different and interesting point of view. Still, though, strongly recommended -- especially if you start from the beginning.

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