June 5, 2013

Finest Hour 143, Summer 2009

Page 49

Churchill as a Literary Character / WSC in Fiction(2)

The Man from St. Petersburg, by Ken Follett (Signet, 1983). Portrayal, Worth Reading

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By Michael T. McMenamin

Novels are rated one to three stars on two questions: accuracy of portrayal and reading value. Churchill was always a controversial figure and many simply didn’t like him. If a novel attempts to see Churchill though the eyes of someone who doesn’t like him, the portrait may be disagreeable to his admirers; but that doesn’t make the portrait inaccurate, unless the author ascribes to him words or actions that are inaccurate.

Two novels reviewed in the first column in this series (FH 141:48) portrayed Churchill in a relatively positive and accurate light, through characters who viewed him benignly. The two novels reviewed here do not.

No library of any Finest Hour subscriber should be without Ken Follett’s historical thrillers (Eye of the Needle, etc.), the best of which are set in World War II. Follett is an excellent writer and all of his books, including this one, are still in print in paperback and available.

The Man from St. Petersburg is unusual for a thriller in that it takes place in the days before World War I and features Churchill as a major player in a conspiracy to conclude a secret naval alliance between Britain and Russia in the spring and summer of 1914. Churchill is seen through the eyes of the Earl of Walden, a Conservative Party stalwart and general good guy who has been a “semi-official diplomat” for Lord Salisbury and Arthur Balfour. He can’t stand Churchill. In those days, few Tories could.

Churchill is an archetypal character, the one who sets the plot in motion and keeps it moving, with several appearances from time to time. While the hero Walden obviously dislikes WSC, he doesn’t let it show. Bad form y’know. And he relishes the role Winston has given him to lead, at the Czar’s request, British negotiations with the young Russian Admiral Orlov, head of the Russian team and, not coincidentally, nephew to both the Czar and to Walden’s attractive Russian-born wife Lydia. That way, the young admiral’s visit can be passed off as a holiday in England with family.

Alack! Felix, the assassin sent by Russian anarchists to kill Orlov (“the man from St. Petersburg”) was once Walden’s wife’s lover, and he is not fooled. As with most Follett villains, Felix has sympathetic human traits which help explain why he and Lydia were lovers when they were young.

Let’s just say things get complicated after that for Walden, Lydia, her idealistic teenage daughter Charlotte and Felix who, between attempts to kill Orlov, seeks out Charlotte, whom he believes to be his daughter. Vintage Follett, the pace rarely lets up. If Orlov is killed, the Czar won’t sign the treaty. That’s the reason for the three stars under “Worth Reading.”

Three stars also go for the portrayal of Churchill, because anything negative about him comes from the viewpoint of the biased Walden. But it’s all historically accurate: Tories of his age and class did think Churchill was an impulsive demagogue. Yet Follett, in portraying Churchill, has him do or say nothing that rings false. WSC is, in turn, shown by Follett to be charming, manipulative and ruthless. There’s one scene where he is impulsive, but Walden’s restraint prevails. In a final twist, where all seems lost and the bad guys have won, Churchill comes up with the (somewhat cold-blooded) solution that saves the day. Read it; you won’t be disappointed.

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