Nasty, Brutish, and Great

Winston Churchill at a procession, Lille, France, October 1918
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Winston Churchill, then secretary of state for war, at a procession of the 47th Division of the British army, Lille, France, October 1918

Other colossi crumble or are dragged off their pedestals by angry students and dismissive dons, or you don’t notice them anymore because they are so sadly weathered. But Winston Churchill is still up there, if anything more firmly anchored as the years go by, glaring out at posterity with unquenched pugnacity.

This miraculous preservation has not been an entirely natural process. Churchill laid the foundations of his own monument: five volumes on the Great War, then another six volumes on World War II, making good on his threat to the House of Commons in 1948 that it was “much better…to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history myself.” He confided to William Deakin, one of the many brilliant research assistants he plucked from academe, “This is not history, this is my case.”

By and large, the case still stands. Even the more thoughtful critiques, such as Robert Rhodes James’s Churchill: A Study in Failure 1900–1939 (1970) and John Charmley’s Churchill: The End of Glory (1993), have not left much of a dent. Any cracks in the façade were sedulously repaired by the eight-volume official biography (1966–1988), the first two volumes by Churchill’s son, Randolph, the remainder by Sir Martin Gilbert, which is simultaneously scrupulous, awestruck, and forgiving.

Now comes Andrew Roberts’s Churchill: Walking with Destiny. No biographer could have a more intimate, even sensuous grasp of the whole Churchillian milieu, from his birth in Blenheim Palace to his state funeral in St. Paul’s ninety years later. Roberts intends the book as an ultimate act of homage, but the material is so abundant and so candidly presented that you can come away, certainly from the first five hundred pages, with rather different conclusions from his. Only rarely do we find him glossing over or omitting examples of Churchill’s brutish and vindictive side.

The book is necessarily huge, with a narrative that skims along yet has the self-confidence to dally on every endearing detail: the old music-hall songs that Churchill sings, tunelessly, at moments of stress, his velvet boiler suits and square-crowned bowler hats, his intense application to duty while giving the impression that he was always doing exactly what he wanted, his long and mostly happy marriage to a wife he didn’t go on holiday with, the four children whom he adored, three of whom came to sad ends, his insatiable money-grubbing, his inexhaustible delight in each new pastime—polo, fencing, butterfly-collecting, painting, flying aircraft (often over the Channel in wartime, though never a fully qualified pilot as far as I can see), foxhunting, poetry, which he learned large chunks of, despite his patchy education.

One of Roberts’s great…

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