Winston Churchill’s Improbable Life

Review of The Last Lion, Volume 1 by William Manchester

The life of Winston Churchill is enough to make one believe in Providence. His life was so charmed, so unlikely, yet, ultimately, so necessary for the survival of a just and free world that the easiest explanation is that the Higher Power custom-made him for the purpose.  Churchill, one suspects, would have agreed.  “We are all worms,” goes one of his famous Churchillian aphorisms, “but I do believe I am a glow worm.”

William Manchester inaugurated a massive three-volume biography of the man, The Last Lion, with a first installment in 1983, the sort of project for which the word “magisterial” is reserved.  Volume three was finally completed, posthumously, in 2012 with the help of co-author Paul Reid, recruited after Machester’s death in 2004. The trilogy, much like Edmund Morris’ work on Theodore Roosevelt, is likely to be the definitive work for decades. Its completion finally persuaded me to pick up and start muscling my way through the entire massive work.

Churchill did not have the sort of early life calculated to inspire empathy. He was not an everyman, born into poverty or triumphing over circumstance. No, Churchill was a scion of the British aristocracy at the height of its imperial glory. He was born into wealth, connections, and privilege.

Yet even he struggled. His parents, preoccupied with royal gossip, parliament, and syphilis, ignored him. Schools of the era taught regimentation and memorization: he, a creative genius and autodidact, did miserably. It wasn’t until his twenties that Churchill, now in the Army, began to flourish.

In these years of early adulthood Churchill pulled a stunt that should have gotten him relieved from duty: he doubled as a soldier and a war correspondent for newspapers back home. That wasn’t strictly allowed, but Churchill, by dint of privilege, connections, and prose, pulled it off. After exciting campaigns in Pakistan, Sudan, and South Africa–including action at the battle of Omdurman and a daring escape from imprisonment by the Boers–Churchill rode his fame as a published author and a national hero to parliament in 1900. He was twenty-six.

This is the part of the book at which I started to feel inadequate–and resentful of his privilege. But it is hard to resent an aristocrat who worked so hard and risked so much to earn his place in power.

At this point, the book slows down. Unlike Teddy Roosevelt, who continued to live a boisterous and exciting life, Churchill’s settled down upon his election. He would serve in parliament almost uninterrupted for more than a half-century. He switched parties, twice; served in the cabinet in a half-dozen positions; fell from grace after accusations that he mismanaged the Dardanelles campaign in World War I; returned to the Army and served in the trenches; went back to parliament; was on the cusp of the Prime Ministership a couple of times–but ultimately seemed to peter out in the early 1930s.  He was nearing 60 years old and was apparently finished.

Manchester’s is a good biographer: meticulous, quoting extensively from primary sources, drawing colorful portraits of early 20th century Britain.  He is good, but not great.  This is largely a biography of Churchill’s political career. In nearly 1,000 pages there are a few scant paragraphs of Churchill as father of five children and a single sentence about his religion. He had the same religion as every real gentleman, Churchill claimed.  Real gentlemen, he explained, don’t say. What a pity.

Instead of insight into Churchill’s inner life, we get exhaustive accounts of Irish politics and the conduct of World War I, both of which occupied large swaths of Churchill’s career. The former bored me; the latter held more interest. I especially noted that Churchill never took criticism about the Dardanelles campaign lying down; he was dogged and vociferous in his defense, and was ultimately vindicated by a parliamentary inquiry and, much more so, by later historians. Without his defense, he might have been permanently blackened by unjust charges and thus prevented from assuming the mantle of wartime leadership in 1940.

That seems to be one of the lessons we might learn from Churchill’s life. While humility is a virtue, remaining silent in the face of damaging lies and injustice is not. Jesus’ silence at his trial was necessary for the unique purpose of his crucifixion; perhaps it is not an example that those working for justice in the public sphere are supposed to follow.

The biography was certainly good enough to merit a crack at Volume 2 in the near future. Recommended for fans of biography and students of British history, military history, and World War I.


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