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…

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