How can a writer address a life such as Winston Churchill’s – a life so full of incident and happening, a life of early fame, deep failure, and finally international apotheosis?
Hundreds have tried to navigate one of the modern world’s fullest lives and most famous wartime figures.
Andrew Roberts is not unused to producing large books about monumental lives. His biography of Napoleon captured and advocated for the French emperor in a new and persuasive way.
With Churchill, one cannot escape the feeling that Roberts has had this book in preparation, or at least in mind, for a long time. Roberts's first foray into history was a biography of Lord Halifax, Britain's foreign secretary at the outbreak of the Second World War and a candidate, alongside Churchill, to succeed Neville Chamberlain in 1940. Roberts also authored Eminent Churchillians, an exercise in profiling an age, dominated and united by the personage and image of Churchill.
This mental preparation is supplemented by the actual. Roberts has left little to chance; virtually nothing of all the libraries of writing dedicated to Churchill escapes his notice. As biography and as history, this legwork pays off. Little of Churchill’s titanic life remains unexamined. Churchill’s family and upbringing not only shaped his character, but set the stage upon which his life and its dramas would be played. They are well caught here. The same goes for his travelling the globe in his youth, seeking glory and fame and putting himself in danger.
Roberts dedicates much to Churchill’s wartime leadership – and this is right and necessary. Hundreds of pages are required to discuss with any seriousness the complexity and hardness of the war’s middle period, and of Churchill’s task in those lean and dangerous years.
Roberts makes good use of the official documentation and unofficial accounts that record the events in those years. He takes readers into innumerable meetings where the future of the free world was not only under discussion but under mortal threat. Roberts enjoys the small detail as well as the grand narrative; and this willingness near-constantly to provide the times, dates and exact locations of events, not merely who was present and what was said, gives the book pleasing precision. But this precision can only do so much in service of revealing biography.
On writing, something by which Churchill consistently made his living and for which he won prizes and acclaim, Roberts is on less sure ground. He accounts for the leader's reading, including impressive self-educative habits while a young subaltern in India, but gives Churchill's most autobiographical writing, his memoir My Early Life, which was also his most lyrical, a surprisingly literal gloss. The memoir is a partial account of its author's first few decades, written when he was out of office and facing irrelevance. It contains some recapitulation of other books, each written to describe incidents or phases of Churchill's life as a war correspondent and solider. Roberts notes the book's stated intention: to galvanise the young, including those who might elsewhere be termed the Lost Generation, to "fill the gap of a generation shorn by the War", to strive to "Enter upon your inheritance, accept your responsibilities".
Amid this exhortation, though, is fine self-revealing writing which Roberts chooses not to discuss. Churchill’s prose is heavily ironic. His description of his own childhood is sweet and charming – he hints at the unattainable energy of his father, Lord Randolph, and the beauty and stately distance of his mother, Jennie, nee Jerome. Churchill suggests that, after less than successful schooling, he found meaning and excitement in the army and in conflict. He shows traces of what theorists would call political romanticism. But in this pseudo-psychology lies an important point: Churchill’s writing is vital and illustrative not only in what it documents or gives away about its author, but also what it amounts to as literature.
A story of Churchill's, posthumously titled The Dream, serves as evidence. Written in 1947 and promptly locked away, it depicts Churchill the painter, sitting in his studio at Chartwell, attempting to copy a portrait of his father, which he tries despite his being "very shy of painting human faces". As he paints, Churchill feels an "odd sensation"; his father materialises in a red armchair opposite his son.
The two discuss the years that followed Lord Randolph’s death matter-of-factly. Churchill makes ironic allusion to Stalinism, described as a tsar in the model of the Romanovs, but of “another family”; he does not mention his political career.
Even Churchill's military success – as Roberts notes, he omits his lieutenant-colonelcy in the trenches of the First World War in favour of highlighting his being a major of the Yeomanry – meets with a perceived lack of approval. But the centrepiece of the story comes when Lord Randolph asks about Churchill's family. When the latter responds that he is married and has four children and four grandchildren, his father responds, "I am so glad". Note the weighting of that sentence. Imagine the son's pleasure at hearing those words. This is understated, but it is affecting. I have been repeatedly moved by The Dream. Roberts's telling of the story, though it is thorough, misses its quiet beauty.
This biography is an achievement and a faithful, dogged description of a life that though studied as much as any other of our age, rewards further examination. It is as good a single-volume life of Churchill as any. But with a talent like Roberts, and a subject like Churchill, one can be forgiven for feeling that a little more could have been possible, if only the magnetism of events could be induced to lessen the force of its attraction.