Sir Winston Churchill’s four-volume History of the English-Speaking Peoples may not be on many lists of must-read books anymore, but those of us who spent rainy afternoons and quiet evenings making our way through that formidable work were led to it, often as adolescents, entirely by the author’s fame as one of the saviors of those very peoples during the darker days of World War II. To us, he was the bulldog wartime prime minister who, along with all his gritty rhetoric and never-say-die fortitude, also had an impressive talent for writing. After we waded through some of the bland, turgid history textbooks forced on us at school, reading him felt like a treat, like auditing a course the grand old man had agreed to teach off the top of his head. His words marched along easily, the style seemed conversational, the asides were instructive and often edifying. Churchill had a sense of the pageantry of history, populated with the noble as well as the base, and he could tell the story imposingly, pointing out the mountains rising above the foothills. In all, this made for a friendly yet heady way to take in one’s history lessons on the sly.
That sense of impromptu prose emerging from a feisty savant, though, was a carefully manicured illusion. For Churchill’s sideline was politics, not writing; his profession, his chief means of income, had been that of journalist and author ever since his twenties. Before World War II, in fact, that’s how most Americans knew him, if at all: as a famous author and lecturer. If they read the international pages of the newspaper, they also knew he served as a member of Parliament, was saddled with a spotty political record, and popped up once in a while in the cabinet. Time had not yet unveiled the war hero. This Churchill wrote books and wrote them exceedingly well. When Kipling had written to Churchill in 1934 to compliment him on the first volume of his feverishly packed history of an ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, he did so “as from craftsman to craftsman,” from one member of the fraternity to another.
Peter Clarke has confined his illuminating book simply to this man, to Churchill the Writer, a man “continually in the throes of authorship.” But Clarke’s aim is even more precise — to tell the story of how Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples came to be written and suggest what that book reveals about its author and its subject alike, describing while doing so how Churchill lived and worked during the stormy, interrupted years of its composition. This isn’t a biography, but it reads like one.
Churchill liked to paint history with a wide brush, but the brush had to have fine bristles. Not for him the merely inspiriting yarns with guns and glory; he had a historian’s bent, and he would be satisfied in his studies of events and characters with nothing short of a mass of detail that could tax his most devoted readers. Back in 1906 he had published a biography of his politician father (who hadn’t thought much of his son) and this labor of loyalty had to take, in proper Victorian fashion, two volumes. By the early 1930s, he was best known for two works: The World Crisis, a five-volume account of World War I replete with the map-weighted arcana of strategies, campaigns, and cabled messages that could tire a military historian, and, in contrast, My Early Life, a brisk, digestible memoir that enjoyed surprising sales. He would release his four-volume Marlborough: His Life and Times to steady acclaim between 1933 and 1938, but even while deeply enmeshed in the first book of this project, he had already taken on another one that was just as ambitious.
That other project, originally contracted in 1932 to be a three-volume work of around 400,000 words, was to be a survey not of all Western or “free” peoples, but of “English-speaking peoples” — a label that had existed for at least a couple of generations and been batted about liberally after the Great War to mark the affinities peculiar to the U.K. and the U.S. — in other words, the basis for the “special relationship” between the two nations. So during his time in the political wilderness, seven years before Germany invaded Poland and nine years before America, too, took up arms, Churchill had already set himself to telling our story as two peoples united by more than a common language.
#page#Much of Clarke’s account involves descriptions of Churchill’s finances, a fatiguing exercise in esoterica for anybody not conversant with British tax law and publishing practices of the day (and perhaps even for those who are). More invigorating is his portrayal of Churchill’s work habits, which were both extravagantly admirable and — for most of us — utterly unthinkable. Despite sporadic trips abroad for lecturing or painting that might have made his life look more leisurely than it was, Churchill had to keep an unforgiving schedule when home at Chartwell just to meet his minimum pledges to produce. A typical day of this period would mean rising at 8 or so, breakfasting in bed over newspapers and page proofs, then going off to London to fulfill his obligations as a member of Parliament; home in the evenings, when he and any guests would dine at 8 and linger long over brandy and cigars; after which he would retreat to his study with secretaries and any research assistants hanging about and manufacture prose from around 11 or midnight until 2 or 3 in the morning (he called Chartwell his “word factory”). Not the worst way to work, though not, we’re tempted to add, the best. Still, the work got done and the pages accumulated.
Talk of assistants also reminds us that Churchill did not work alone, nor could he have produced so much without expert help. His aides made an impressive roll of academic notables that included, over the years, Maurice Ashley, Keith Feiling, William Deakin, G. M. Young, J. H. Plumb, A. L. Rowse, and Denis Brogan. Clarke tells us how Churchill rashly took on the English-speaking-peoples project just as he was in the thick of the first volume of Marlborough. His native optimism convinced him that he could meet both contracts easily enough and, oddly, concurrently, but he soon found otherwise, and the dark clouds gathering over Europe in the 1930s did not make his literary work smoother. He gave priority to Marlborough, which each new volume made ever more successful, but his accepting a bulky advance from his publishers for the other project focused his resolve. When Marlborough was finished in 1938, Churchill launched zealously into the History without missing a beat.
There wasn’t much time left, but Churchill used what he had capitally. After a thrusting start on volume one — and maybe seeing the tea leaves after Neville Chamberlain’s return from Munich — he picked up the pace. During most of 1938–39, as Europe moved inexorably toward war, Churchill was dashing down an average of 1,500 words per day, a staggering clip for a man with so many other irons in the fire. Pressure to complete the work often generated bloated, undisciplined prose because, as Clarke puts it succinctly, “there was simply no time to make the History shorter.” And Churchill had a few good-natured jostles with his more scholarly advisers; “I parted rather ruefully with some of my tidbits, but I bow to knowledge,” he wrote to one as he conceded a point of fact. Yet the writing seemed to calm and steady the author. “It has been a comfort to me in these anxious days,” Churchill said in 1938, “to put a thousand years between my thoughts and the twentieth century.” We find the pages still stacking after September 1939; he was determined to finish, even after returning to the cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty.
But time and tide caught up with Churchill and the project got shelved as events carried him to May 1940, when he became prime minister on the eve of the Battle of Britain. Indeed the History of the English-Speaking Peoples would not be published until the mid and late 1950s — well after he had published the last installment of his six-volume memoir narrative, The Second World War, which incidentally earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. The History might never have seen daylight, but, perhaps knowing this to be his last work, Churchill drove through to the end.
The result is still in print. But is it still worth reading? Is it a mere curiosity, or does it retain a value beyond its illustrious authorship? Every reader makes a separate judgment, of course, and Clarke believes it is and does, but for my money the writing alone pays its freight, for it was written at a time when works of history were produced to be read, and history stood as a branch of literature, rather than a second-class province within social studies, and thus was composed with imagination and care. Few better examples of History as Story could be found. Yet it won respectful praise from the quarters of professional historians, one of whom summed up its delicate balance between “the historian telling us what happened and the moralist distilling the lessons.” For some of us, the best history requires both, and here we get it, still, and abundantly.
– Mr. Simmons is the author of Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin. He is working on a book about Thomas Jefferson.