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The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor, by Jonathan Rose, Yale University Press, RRP£25m, 506 pages
In 1953 the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to the serving British prime minister. This was, of course, Winston Churchill. As an author, Churchill was responsible for between 30 and 40 volumes, depending on which editions we count.
Some of these were the sort of books that predictably come from politicians: collections of their own self-serving speeches. Likewise, others were the sort of books that predictably come from statesmen (that is, retired politicians): volumes of memoirs of their time in office, usually more apologia than apology. Churchill was guilty of all of the above, indeed a serial offender, notably in five fat volumes defending his own record in the first world war, and in six championing his role in the second.
But there was more. Churchill was the only British prime minister since Disraeli to publish a novel. Admittedly, Savrola (1899) was a youthful work, and the exercise was never repeated. Churchill found his real métier at 30 in writing a two-volume biography of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill. Nor did this exhaust his family piety; at 60 he was to be hard at work on a multi-volume biography of his ancestor, the first Duke of Marlborough. Among a wider readership, he is best remembered for his four-volume History of the English-Speaking Peoples, published in the 1950s.
Here is an oeuvre to be reckoned with. In The Literary Churchill, Jonathan Rose, professor of history at Drew University, New Jersey, examines the books that Churchill read and wrote. This is no incidental postscript to the hundreds of volumes already published about Churchill, but a painstaking study building a formidable case for taking him seriously not just in political history but in literary history too.
Rose is generous in his acknowledgment of previous historians’ work in showing how Churchill operated as an author. This was no mere spin-off from his political career but an activity that he practised in a highly professional way.
However, “author” is not the only sense in which Rose wants us to understand “the literary Churchill”. In an erudite exploration of his development as “reader”, we are deftly shown the very wide range of literary influences that helped him to form his own style, both consciously and unconsciously. “The business of tracking down literary influences is often dismissed as a purely academic exercise,” writes Rose, “but sometimes the lives of millions depend on what their rulers read.”
At any rate, it is interesting to have the story so meticulously documented, for example in showing the origins of some of Churchill’s most famous phrases. We all know that, in May 1940, he declared: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” Yet, as Rose shows, Churchill was not plucking his words out of thin air but adapting them from Giuseppe Garibaldi (whose biography he had once thought of writing). In 1849, while rallying his forces, Garibaldi said: “I offer hunger, thirst, forced marches, battle, and death.”
As a prisoner of the Boers in 1899, Churchill had invoked “blood and tears”; three decades later, in writing about the armies on the Eastern Front, he wrote of “their sweat, their tears, their blood”; a few years afterwards, composing his Marlborough biography, it was “blood and toil” again; and in 1939 Churchill mourned the conclusion of the Spanish civil war for its “blood, sweat and tears” – anticipating the truncated form in which his famous phrase now survives.
The sense of Churchill as both reader and author in shaping the words of the statesman is nicely brought out. But Rose also adds “actor” in a way that seems more challenging. Yes, Churchill enjoyed the theatre, and his own performances in the House of Commons were nothing if not histrionic. “He is just like an actor,” Lloyd George observed in 1907. “He likes the limelight and the approbation of the pit.”
Rose wants to say rather more, for example in his assertion that, “Churchill grasped an insight that would govern his entire career as a war leader: he recognized that all successful warfare is theatre.” Rose himself grasps, perhaps sometimes too anxiously, at virtually any contemporary reference to “drama” or “tragedy” or even “part” as clinching his case.
This is a subtle study of a complex man who has too often been portrayed, especially through American eyes, as a stock figure, locked into a belligerent stereotype. It is refreshing to have an alternative US view, albeit one that calls him “congenitally ornery”. Churchill’s rhetoric deployed emotion with a shrewd appreciation of an orator’s relation to an audience, as he acknowledged: “Before he can inspire them with any emotion he must be swayed by it himself.”
Churchill had to learn all this the hard way, conscious that he lacked the formal education of most other aristocratic politicians among his contemporaries. Rose made his reputation as the historian of working-class autodidacts in Britain. Now he has consolidated it by writing about an upper-class autodidact, whose intellectual life he captures well.
Peter Clarke is author of ‘Mr Churchill’s Profession: Statesman, Orator, Writer’ (Bloomsbury)