The last thing George Orwell published was a May 1949 review of Volume Two of Winston Churchill’s memoirs of the Second World War, Their Finest Hour. You might expect him to have been allergic to its chest-thumping patriotism, its flights of empurpled rhetoric; but not a bit of it. Churchill’s writings, Orwell observed, bestowing the most meaningful accolade he could manage, were “more like those of a human being than of a public figure.” Though in 1939 Orwell had been suspicious of Churchill’s belligerent rhetoric and ominous potential for a personality cult of his own, by the time he came to write 1984, it was not Big Brother who would be baptized Winston but the doomed renegade, “the last man.”
Churchill may have been born in Blenheim Palace but Orwell was right to grant him the gift of the common touch. When the prime minister toured the scorched and shattered remains of Bristol after a particularly hellish air raid in April 1941, a woman who had lost everything and was awash with raging tears, on seeing the jowly face and cigar, stopped crying and waved her hanky, shouting her-self hoarse, “Hooray, hooray!” Along with the millions of his compatriots, Orwell believed that, more than any political, or military, gifts, it had been Winston’s exuberant humanity—egotistical, erratic, histrionic—as well as his long career as a word-warrior, that had taken a people, shaking with trepidation, and made of them comrades in arms.
Of a piece with that humanity was Churchill’s large capacity for self-mockery. Orwell also recycled the story that Churchill followed up “we will fight on the beaches” with “we’ll throw bottles at the b——s, it’s about all we’ve got left,” but that the candid addition was buzzed out by the quick hand of the BBC censor just in time. The story was apocryphal, but the point was that such Churchilliana existed at all. No leader who made jokes against himself was in much danger of turning dictator. In the same vein, Clement Attlee, the Labour Party leader who served in his War Cabinet and who could, at times, be a fierce critic, commented not long after Churchill’s death that he was “a supremely fortunate mortal” but that “the most warming thing about him was that he never ceased to say so.”
But the comedian and the tragedian lived within the same surprisingly delicate skin. The challenge facing any biography added to the groaning shelves of Churchill histories is somehow to do full justice to the Promethean character of its subject, the richly lived (not to say gluttonously engorged) career, without ever being a slave to its mystique. Mere character delineation—easy enough in Churchill’s case—won’t suffice. The hard work is to demonstrate exactly how the outsize Churchillian personality, so truculent, so impulsive, so often profoundly wrongheaded, became, in the dark spring of 1940, just what was needed for national survival. There’s no …