Magazine | February 11, 2019, Issue

Destiny in Retrospect

Winston Churchill at his seat in the Cabinet Room at No 10 Downing Street, London (Cecil Beaton )
Churchill: Walking with Destiny, by Andrew Roberts (Viking, 1,152 pp., $40)

We might ask ourselves which is worse — disdain for Winston Churchill or simple ignorance of this colossal figure and his place in history. Ignorance may be unsurprising in a period when, as a recent poll shows, many young people think Churchill a character from fiction. But the disdain can come only from minds corrupted by propaganda and laced with ingratitude for Western civilization and, just as much, for those who have sacrificed for its defense in those darker days before our own brilliantly flabby, righteous age arrived. The fact that astronaut Scott Kelly can be slapped down for tweeting a quote by Churchill (“In victory, magnanimity”) on grounds that the great man was so clearly a “racist” is regrettable enough. That the ill-schooled Kelly so quickly apologized to trolls tells us much about the desperately low tone of our culture these days.

So perhaps yet another biography of Churchill, one of the most written-up men of the last century — this is the 1,010th biography, Roberts notes — doesn’t need to justify itself after all. This is true most especially when the British historian Andrew Roberts writes it. Churchill’s world and its environs have been so richly and perspicaciously documented by Roberts for decades that the real oddity would be his reaching the end of a fruitful career as a historian of vast events and great men with no such tome to his credit.

And a tome any proper biography of Churchill must be. Little else can do justice to a man whose stupendous political journey lasted over 60 years and who died just past his 90th birthday. With nearly a thousand pages of chiseled prose, Roberts allows himself the room to lay out all the highlights and not a few sidelights of his subject’s long and varied life, following him from a benighted childhood and on to Harrow and Sandhurst, through military and journalistic triumphs and misadventures from Cuba to Sudan, India, and South Africa, and then by the age of 25 to Parliament, from which point the rest would be history. The result is a tour de force of scrupulous selection and astute appraisal, perhaps the best full-scale biography to date in a field where the competition has been crowded and stiff.

Roberts affords us the benefit of new material from archives closed to previous authors and researchers — including war-cabinet minutes and, perhaps most significant, the private diary (compliments of Her Majesty the Queen) kept by George VI during World War II, which gives more than a glimpse of the tenor of relations between the harried king and his embattled prime minister during those months and years of maximum stress from May 1940 until V-E Day and the general election in 1945.

Roberts does not offer a bland rehash of all that’s been known — and assumed — for the past 50-odd years since Churchill’s death. The novice to Churchill’s life certainly gets the full story of the man’s rollickingly dramatic life, filled as it was with a round complement of beguiling and reprehensible actors, but that reader also gets a critical reassessment of a man and the world he changed and, in no small measure, saved. Additionally, Roberts counters some of the misconceptions growing around Churchill that have become so well-inked into the fabric of our thinking that they are washed out only with strenuous scrubbing.

The Churchills hailed from the aristocracy — Winston would be born in 1874 at Blenheim Palace, built for the duke of Marlborough, his most illustrious ancestor — though, as with many aristocratic families, the honors and riches did not percolate down sufficiently to all strata of kin. Randolph, Winston’s father, was a rising politician on the make, devoting all his energies, he hoped, to becoming prime minister one day. Jennie Jerome, Churchill’s mother, was the striking daughter of a prosperous American businessman. Although Churchill would never tire of boasting that he was half-American, the larger Churchill family held the Jeromes in suspicion as “speculators”; not only did Jennie come from a country of upstarts, she also was not of the proper social class. Here was a match sure to produce mongrel offspring. Still, as Roberts points out, Churchill’s peculiar mixture of strains probably helped create a kind of man who — equipped with a sense of history, prodigious energy, and political savvy — would likely have been impossible had he risen from either all-British or all-American stock. He carried within himself the best of both worlds.

Churchill’s was a childhood legendary for its unhappiness, and Roberts unearths nothing to dull the sharp edges of what anybody must concede to be a sad story of neglect. Randolph was usually away plying his trade of political intrigue while Jennie quickly became a catch of a guest at every fashionable town and country house. Neither distracted parent had much time to spare for Winston and his younger brother, and so their care was handed over to a nanny so beloved by Churchill that for many years after her death he kept her grave tended — a typical and genuine form of Victorian piety. For whatever reasons, the awkward boy became a bitter disappointment to his father and maybe a bit more than a mild embarrassment to his mother. And they showed it. Today we assume such a childhood to be a blueprint for a failed life, but this reckoning, reasonable enough, doesn’t take account of character.

Roberts sheds special light on Winston’s schooldays with an eye to pushing back on the idea, advanced by none other than Churchill himself and many others, that he had been something of a dunce. In fact he wished only to seem stupid and unaccomplished; the boy also developed a photographic memory and was able to quote scads of poetry by heart, a knack that served him well for the rest of his life. Churchill later needled himself for having been unable to achieve a classical training and having to hone the use of his native language as a consolation prize. Yet we learn here that young Winston, in order to gain entry into Harrow, had to work through the Latin of the Aeneid, Book II, a feat that the better students of Latin can still find to be a trial. The fact is that he was a boy who worked best at what interested him most, but that doesn’t mean he was doomed to fail at everything else. It wasn’t intellect that he lacked as a child; it was will. He was and would always be something of a dreamer.

Students of political history still marvel at Churchill’s swift rise in Parliament within the Tory party and his abrupt switch to the Liberals (before he eventually switched back, calling into public question his judgment); his quick ascent into the cabinet; his taking on the mantle of first lord of the Admiralty before the age of 40, just in time for the Great War; his fall from favor after the debacle in the Dardanelles Strait in 1915 (British and Commonwealth casualties totaled an appalling 114,743); his demoting himself to the trenches afterward, with the Royal Scots Fusiliers, to see action himself; his slow rise through electoral disappointments and back into Parliament and power in the cabinet by the end of the 1920s, a tour of duty culminating in his appointment as chancellor of the exchequer under the Stanley Baldwin government; finally, his prolonged exile from power during the 1930s. Churchill’s life between 1900 and 1930 would make a riveting miniseries were it not so implausibly melodramatic. Yet it all happened.

But most readers will come to this book eager to plow headlong into those years between 1935 and 1945 when Churchill’s actions elevated him from mercurially successful politician and best-selling author, historian, and journalist to national savior.

We’re walked methodically through every documented move marking Churchill’s emergence as a prophet crying in his own wilderness to warn of the threat that Hitler’s rise to power and hegemonic intentions posed to Europe. And with each move, he met greater derision — derision made all the more vigorous by his already compromised reputation for hyperbole, bluster, and bad judgment. Yet he persisted; Churchill knew how and when to shamelessly promote himself, but when his country’s fate was at stake, it was country first and only.

Half the book traces his lonely road with the resistant likes of Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain and back into power as he returned to the Admiralty, followed by his call to 10 Downing Street in May 1940, the Battle of Britain, the American alliance, the touchy relations within a coalition government, and the rest of the long slog of danger, dash, and privation the war imposed on the United Kingdom and her allies — and with it all, the courage he instilled among a bedraggled people by, as President Kennedy later put it, “mobilizing the English language and sending it into battle.” A salient point to make about 1940, Roberts says penetratingly, is not that Churchill stopped a German invasion but that he prevented the British government from negotiating an ignoble peace.

Nonetheless, we’re not presented with hagiography. Roberts dwells fairly but critically on Churchill’s many flagrant mistakes of kinds that would have been career-ending for lesser men. Churchill was not one to deny his mistakes or to shift blame to others. (He once told his wife, Clementine, that he would have made nothing in the world if he hadn’t made mistakes.) And on some matters he was wrong enough for his judgments to be tagged outright blunders: his early opposition to women’s suffrage and Home Rule for India; returning the country to the gold standard during the Twenties as chancellor of the exchequer; standing by Edward VIII with undiscriminating devotion during the abdication crisis of 1936; and, most notoriously, headstrong directives that led to the disaster of Gallipoli during World War I — from which, at least, he learned.

Churchill seemed in his public life to follow the theatrical admonition to the effect that if you’re to fall, try to fall from a high ladder. He died several public deaths. There are lots of lessons in his bumpy life about the value of prudent and seemly political comportment. Fortunately, he was practically impervious to public opinion. And “when it came to all three of the mortal threats posed to Western civilization,” Roberts reminds us, “by the Prussian militarists in 1914, the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s and Soviet Communism after the Second World War, Churchill’s judgment stood far above that of the people who had sneered at his.” He didn’t win every battle, just the ones that really had to be won.

Then there are those stubborn misconceptions that Roberts is keen to dispel, despite the romantic patina carried by some of them. One has it that Churchill was most certainly a depressive in our more serious, clinical sense. The man surely got depressed from time to time, as does anybody so emotionally high-strung, but Roberts pushes against the “Black Dog” school that assumes Churchill to have been debilitated by depression so severe that he had to turn to bricklaying and painting to chase it away. His happy competence in the one and extravagant, still-underrated talent in the other were too singular to support their attribution to melancholy alone.

Nor was he a drunk. His drinking may have been constant, with some measure of alcohol sloshing about in his veins 24 hours a day, but the doses were, we might say, soberly administered. One former secretary said that the glasses of Scotch always at his elbow were so diluted as to constitute a mouthwash. Like the child content with letting others think him stupid, the man rather enjoyed his reputation for profligate drinking. It was another way of striking a blow for liberty. Also, for what it’s worth, Roberts believes that Churchill didn’t really quite inhale from the 160,000 cigars he’s estimated to have smoked over his lifetime.

Most of this massive book, though, Roberts devotes to piecing out meticulously just what Churchill meant by his adamant belief in his “destiny.” This was not a poetic fancy but a rock-hard conviction he had held from the age of 16, when he told a school friend he believed deeply that it would fall to him one day to save London and the British Empire in a time of supreme trial. All his life ought to be seen in light of this peculiarly vivid sense of destiny he strode with every day. Little could he have known that the need of London and the empire would become that of his entire civilization. Yet this faith, nursed and bolstered throughout a turbulent life of victories and disasters, allowed him to take long chances; it buffered the defeats and tempered the triumphs. It might also have made Winston Churchill the last great man.

Tracy Lee Simmons — Mr. Simmons is the author of Climbing Parnassus. He teaches humanities in the Westover Honors Program at Lynchburg College in Virginia.

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