Review: A Wonderful Biography of Winston Churchill

One of the best biographies I have read is William Manchester’s Winston Spencer Churchill – The Last Lion: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932, the first volume of a three volume biography. The second volume covers 1932-1940. The final volume, covering World War II and the post-war years, will be published this fall.

But three volumes? Really? Yes. A reader with Wikipedia-type knowledge of Churchill (prime minister, “never have so many owed so much to so few. . . “, “never give up, never, never, never. . .”, cigars, etc) knows very little of the man. Manchester must have agreed or he would have considerably trimmed a three volume biography.

If this work set the stage for current cement-block sized biographies, then Manchester has much to answer for. But in his defense, Manchester’s subject occupies that rare position in history of being intimately involved in world-shaking events at the highest governmental levels of the then pre-eminent world power – Great Britain. And not just any events but those encompassing 1914-1955.

Born in Victorian England and having served in Queen Victoria’s military, Churchill came of age in a time many of us cannot relate to – an age of greater formality, specified roles in society and where Great Britain was THE world empire. The grandson of the Duke of Marlborough, Churchill inherited entree into the ruling class of Britain, but not financial security. While his grandfather had been a duke and so would his cousin, Churchill was the son of a second son, so he had to make his way best he could, including serving in the “last great English cavalry charge” during his time in India, serving as the First Lord of the Admiralty during World War I, writing numerous well-received books and articles, and running (usually successfully) for Parliament. Writing was how Winston Churchill paid the bills.

Although brilliant, Churchill was an indifferent student who had “trouble with authority” and did not attend “important schools.” He excelled in the military, although there too he managed to aggravate quite a few of his superiors. But Churchill had many talents at his disposal: a keen eye for what was important in geopolitics and an ability to extrapolate from current events to possible futures, both tied to an acute sense of history, an extraordinary ability to write and speak, and utter conviction when fully engaged in something he regarded as of paramount importance.

Churchill was old-school nobility. He expected deference for his abilities but held himself completely responsible for anything given into his charge, fearlessly stating what he believed and acting on those beliefs whether in or out of official power, political parties notwithstanding. Churchill’s devotion to his country, his incredible mind and the relentlessness with which he pursued what he thought was in Great Britain’s best interests drew attention from all corners. Even when he was out of power, a “backbencher” (a member of Parliament without government responsibilities), Churchill was “marked” by the powerful, whether the local variety, such as members of the opposition, or the not-so-local, such as Hitler and FDR, both of whom were well aware of Churchill long before he became Prime Minister.

But only reading of Churchill’s most important contributions overlooks nearly everything. His engagement with the political events of his time was unrelenting. His writing output was prodigious and he spoke, served in Parliament and in a variety of offices, including Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary, First Lord of the Admiralty and colonial under secretary – all major positions in Britain’s government and all before 1930.

The casual reader may find Manchester’s use of detail overwhelming, but it is necessary. Churchill simply did so much and his influence accreted in such a way that he was the obvious choice for Prime Minister when England finally realized Hitler was an existential threat to the nation and possibly the world. WIthout the details, one may think Churchill was simply in the right place at the right time with the right quip. Hardly. Manchester deftly shows this by beginning in the middle.

The first volume begins with a seemingly ponderous preamble – “The Lion at Bay” – describing events just before Churchill became Prime Minister. The first time I read that, I thought it was nice and well done. But the further I read into the biography, the more I went back to that section and saw how Manchester so carefully set the table.

“England’s new leader, were he to prevail, would have to stand for everything England’s decent, civilized Establishment had rejected. [That establishment] viewed Adolf Hitler as the product of complex social and historical forces. Their successor would have to be a passionate Manichaean who saw the world as a medieval struggle to the death between the powers of good and the powers of evil, who held that individuals are responsible for their actions and that the German dictator was therefore wicked.. . . . Such a man, if he existed, would be England’s last chance.

In London there was such a man.

Now at last, at last, his hour had struck. He had been waiting in Parliament for forty years, had grown bald and gray in his nation’s service, had endured slander and calumny only to be summoned when the situation seemed hopeless to everyone except him.”

With this kind of opening, the author sets extraordinary expectations. Can he justify such a description of Winston Churchill? Well, I am convinced. And the details matter. After the preamble, Manchester goes back to the very beginning so the reader can appreciate how Churchill became the man of 1939. Having finished the first book (and I am well into the second), I appreciate how full that preamble really is.  The reader will find the details (thus the length) substantially enrich what initially seems the author’s quick and over-the-top description of Winston Churchill in 1939.

Churchill served Great Britain for over forty years before becoming the legendary Prime MInister. Those forty years are critical if one wants to understand how Churchill came to be such a proficient warlord (Manchester’s term, and absolutely correct) when he was desperately needed. The Last Lion: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932 is an excellent study of how Churchill became the man Hitler marked as a dangerous opponent long before the Nazi onslaught that became World War II.

Winston Spencer Churchill – The Last Lion: Visions of Glory, 1974-1932, by WIlliam Manchester, published by Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing, 1983.

2 thoughts on “Review: A Wonderful Biography of Winston Churchill

  1. Wow!! I’m not much for big book biographies, but I love history. And you’ve convinced me this a must read. My knowledge of Churchill is woefully limited. But one of my all time favorite, motto-for-life kind of quotes is from him.
    “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

  2. This bio is soooo history rich – you really get a sense of the times along with the man himself. Thanks for such a nice comment!

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