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Winston Churchill: An Intimate Portrait

by Violet Bonham Carter
Harcourt, Brace & World, 413 pp., $8.50

The great stories of the world flourish on repetition. In the market place at Marrakech, the storyteller holds his own against the snakecharmers and fire-eaters. He sits, surrounded by children, and tells the same stories, over and over again, in the same words, Any deviation or hint of doubt would be met with indignant cries. Legendary figures are given the same treatment. Serious historians may try to find the truth behind the legend. Most readers, it seems, prefer the story as they have been told it before. Who, for example, wants to know that the siege of Troy was really a war about trade (if it was)? Homer has survived the laborious archaeologists of prehistoric Greece. Winston Churchill was the legendary hero of the Second World War, opposed to the equally legendary Satanic figure of Hitler. His funeral had the splendor of a historic triumph, to the universal satisfaction of the British people. Now many typewriters are hammering away to present the legend in literary form.

Lady Violet Bonham Carter (recently transformed into Lady Asquith) is early in the field. As the daughter of Asquith, Liberal Prime Minister from 1908 to 1916, she saw politics during those years from inside. Her life has been largely devoted to her father’s memory, despite the crumbling of the party which he led. It is at first sight a bit awkward for her that Churchill, though a prominent member of her father’s government, became an even more stalwart supporter of Lloyd George, the man who ruined and supplanted Asquith. Her book is in part a rescue operation or take-over bid, designed to separate Churchill from Lloyd George. While both men are presented as erratic and difficult, Churchill’s eccentricities are made endearing, Lloyd George’s discreditable. The one is skillfully quoted against the other. When Lady Violet said of Lloyd George that “he never sold his soul—he sometimes pawned it,” Churchill expostulated: “Draw it mild, my dear—draw it mild,” and then added reflectively: “My father would have said it. He would not have hesitated to say it.” On the other hand, Lloyd George warmly approved someone’s description of Churchill as being “frank without being straight”—a remark which Lady Violet repeats with prim disapproval. As a matter of fact, both remarks, though not untrue, are trivial and shed little light on the two men, one of whom, Lloyd George, was certainly great and the other, Churchill, was at any rate unusual.

Lady Violet Bonham Carter’s book would be welcome if it were full of good stories, or even spiteful ones. These however are in short supply. Despite the Intimate Portrait of the subtitle and the general air of “I knew Winston Churchill” most of the book has been put together by copying passages from other books, and the better known the passage the more certain it is to appear. Lady Violet provides a few pages which only she could have written. Otherwise the words of Dr. Johnson about Ossian are appropriate—that it could have been written by “many men, many women, and many children.” Indeed it is difficult to think of anyone who could not have written this book—and most of them have. A little analysis will make this clear. The book is a life of Winston Churchill from his birth in 1874 until the summer of 1916 when Asquith was still Prime Minister and Churchill was under a cloud. For three-quarters of this time, that is until 1906, Lady Violet had not set eyes on Winston Churchill and knew virtually nothing about him. The first hundred pages therefore come from the accounts of others, the best parts from Churchill’s own memoirs. They are excellent in their way, though it is rather puzzling why one should have to read them again, and they do not improve with repetition. Churchill as a school-boy, Churchill at Sandhurst, Churchill in the army are not episodes of lasting interest, nor is it easy to find new zest in Churchill at the battle of Omdurman or in Churchill escaping from the Boers. Things become a little better when he returns to England and is elected to Parliament as a Conservative. But we are back on a pedestrian course with the Conservative split over Tariff Reform and Churchill’s transformation into a Free Trade Radical.

In 1905 the Conservative government disintegrated. The Liberal Campbell-Bannerman became Prime Minister. There was a general election, which the Liberal triumphantly won. Asquith was Chancellor of the Exchequer. Churchill a junior minister. In June 1906 Lady Violet met Churchill for the first time and established friendship with him. The friendship seems to have been mostly on her side. Churchill could hardly tell one woman from another, apart from his adored wife. He liked no doubt a glittering feminine company before whom he could display his talents, but he was unaware of them as individuals. Lady Violet herself tells how she once drew his attention to a beautiful friend of his. Churchill muttered: “A great woman—sagacious—chaste”—three adjectives, according to Lady Violet, all utterly inappropriate. Churchill may possibly have played an important part in Lady Violet’s life. It is unlikely that she occupied an important place in his. This may be checked by counting the number of entries against her name in the index of either the five volumes of The World Crisis or the six volumes of The Second World War. The lack of really intimate stories in the present book points to the same conclusion. Lady Violet heard Churchill across the dinner table or encountered him at some country house. She has made the most of her meetings. But the claim on the book jacket that the book “contains a vast amount of new material that has never been previously published” is a formidable exaggeration, unless newspaper-cuttings count as not previously published. These quotations are a great help to the book. It is always useful to learn what the Times or a contemporary journalist such as H. W. Massingham wrote about Churchill, even though this requires no great intimacy.

Since Lady Violet has little new to tell about Churchill, her book turns into a narrative of the Asquith administration, with occasional references to Churchill’s part in it. The narrative is remarkable only for its complacency. It might have served as an election tract for the remaining Asquithians in the 1920s. It has endless faults of omission now that serious historians have begun to work on some of the central episodes. Asquith is presented as always serene, always unshaken, always effective. There is nothing about the way in which he failed to show a firm front against the defiance of army officers early in 1914; nothing of the lethargy and muddle which preceded the landing at Gallipoli; nothing about Asquith’s hesitations over conscription; nothing about his feeble handling of the Irish question in 1916, which threw away the last great chance for Home Rule. No one could understand from this book why British newspapers, from the most responsible to the most sensational, were all, with one exception, demanding at the end of 1916 that Asquith should cease to direct the war. Lady Violet refers only to “the squalid clamor of the gutter press, led by Lord Northcliffe and Lord Beaverbrook”—at a time when Lord Beaverbrook did not in fact control any newspaper at all. A daughter cannot be expected to write critically about her father. That being the case, she should not come forward as a historian.

Her stories often lose their poignancy when compared with other accounts. For instance, she describes how Asquith entrusted her with the secret that the British government possessed the German naval code. This appears a high confidence. We learn however from Roy Jenkins’s recent biography of Asquith that he entrusted this, and many more secrets besides, to his current girl-friend, Venetia Stanley. Lady Violet also tells how in May 1915, when she was preparing to leave for Egypt, she found a note on her pillow from her father: “Don’t go from me now—I need you,” and she implies that Asquith needed her for the approaching political crisis. Once more Mr. Jenkins comes to our aid. Venetia Stanley had provoked the crisis in Asquith’s life by announcing that she was about to marry Edwin Montagu, and, according to Mr. Jenkins, it was the loss of his girl-friend which weighed on Asquith during the days when the last Liberal government was tumbling to pieces.

Churchill did not have troubles of this sort. His troubles were all political, and sometimes of his own making. Even Lady Violet Bonham Carter’s admiring account points to his great and persistent failing: a lack of consistency. Churchill always practiced the doctrine: whatever you do, do it with all your might. This gave him an impact of greatness. He rarely concerned himself about whether what he was doing today was in tune with what he had done the day before. As the grandson of a duke, he rhapsodized about British traditions. As a Radical, he denounced the dukes. As a Conservative later, he swung round again and defended them. Before the First World War, he campaigned against the House of Lords; during the Second World War, he resisted any attempt to curtail its powers. He gave self-government to the Boers and advocated Home Rule for Ireland, even at the risk of civil war. Later he went into solitary opposition against similar concessions to India. He launched the wars of intervention against Soviet Russia; later embraced Stalin as his wartime comrade; and later still helped to initiate the cold war. Before the First World War he championed social reform for the benefit of the working class. During the general strike he demanded “unconditional surrender” from the trade unions; then later, switching this demand against Germany, took as his closest associate Ernest Bevin, a leader of the general strike. Lady Violet tells how Churchill was driven from the Admiralty largely by the impossible behavior of Lord Fisher, the First Sea Lord. Yet a year afterwards, Churchill, wanting a stick to beat the government with, was demanding that Fisher should be recalled. Lloyd George was also a man of expedients, none more so. With him, the expedients were subordinated to a larger purpose. Churchill took up expedients for their own sake, with no thought beyond the glamor of the moment.

Observers are often misled by the fact that Churchill was a historian, or at any rate an amateur writer of history. They therefore suppose that he had a sense of tradition and continuity. In reality, Churchill used tradition only as an ornamental backcloth, and often gave the impression that he was an American tourist in England—not unnaturally since he had an American grandfather. Churchill claimed to set before himself the example of his father, Lord Randolph. The central point of Lord Randolph’s career was a catastrophic error of judgment, and in this Churchill was true to his example. No experienced politician has been wrong more often. In the end this worked to his good. Before the Second World War, all English people had been wrong one way or another. In 1940 they wanted someone who was wholeheartedly for war. Churchill was the man, and no one worried about his past mistakes. They expected him to make new ones, and he did: against one Gallipoli in the first war, there were half a dozen in the second. None of this counted: Churchill incorporated the obstinate determination of the nation. The British had no illusions about Churchill. Though he had far more general support in the second war than Lloyd George had had in the first, he was defeated afterwards when Lloyd George had won. Lady Violet may try to turn Churchill into a legendary hero. For most people, he remains a man more often wrong than right, but right on the one occasion that mattered.

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