Finest Hour 157, Winter 2012-13
By David Freeman
Since 1905, when Alexander MacCallum Scott produced his account of an exciting 30-year-old Liberal MP named Winston Churchill, biographies of Britain’s greatest statesman have proliferated. One bibliographer cataloged twenty-six biographies published in Churchill’s lifetime; another, thirty-six between Churchill’s death in 1965 and the end of the 20th century. And that is just counting the ones written in English.
The 21st century has seen no diminution. Churchill loved a good race and might appreciate the steady efforts made by his chroniclers to overtake major historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Napoleon Bonaparte in the multiple-biography sweepstakes. But where should readers begin?
I am often asked to recommend a good Churchill biography. Before answering, I consider the potential reader’s background and ask questions about what sort of book is sought. More information is required than simply whether the reader seeks an introductory work or a serious academic study. Probably the most important question has to do with length.
Broadly speaking, Churchill biographies come in five different categories of length: brief, short, medium, long (but still single-volume) and multi-volume. Additionally, there are two special cases. Mentally, I regularly update what I consider the best book in each category so as to have good answers at the ready.
Before running down the list, one thing needs to be made clear. I am discussing only traditional biographies and not critical or specialized studies, of which there are also many both good and bad. That said, here is my current survey of Churchill biographies:
Brief works (100-200 pages) were all the rage at the turn of the century. Often now they are published as part of a series with themes such as “prime ministers,” “world leaders” or “great lives.” Few people know that Sir Martin Gilbert’s first book about Churchill was such a book published in 1966.
At this time, the best in this class is by Paul Addison, longtime Finest Hour contributor. Entitled simply Winston
Churchill , it was written for the current Dictionary of National Biography, which can be found in large libraries but is also available online by subscription. In 2007, Oxford University Press published Addison’s entry on Churchill as a separate volume in a series called “VIP: Very Interesting People.” Sadly, this book is now out of print, but can easily be found in the second-hand market (see bookfinder.com).
Short works (200-300 pages) are fewer than you might think. Former Keeper of the Churchill Archives Centre Piers Brendon published one in 1984, but the best at present is also by Paul Addison. Churchill the Unexpected Hero is an expanded version (about twice as long) of Addison’s entry for the Dictionary of National Biography. The late John Ramsden, author of the acclaimed specialty work on the Churchill legend and the official history of the Conservative Party in the 20th century, described Addison’s book in these pages as the best of the short biographies “by a long way.” This too is now out of print but also readily available from second-hand book dealers.
Medium works (300-500 pages) until recently were led in my opinion by Norman Rose’s 1994 biography, Churchill: An Unruly Giant. However, there is a new champion: Ashley Jackson’s 2011 work entitled simply Churchill (reviewed FH 154: 59). As with Addison’s books in the above categories, Jackson’s work far outdistances any others of comparable length. Still, honorable mention must go to Robert Lewis Taylor’s classic Winston Churchill: An Informal Study of Greatness (1952), which is beautifully written and common in the used-book market.
Long works (500+ pages) include a lot of old standards, such as those by Henry Pelling (1974) and Roy Jenkins (2001). Without doubt, though, the best is by none other than Martin Gilbert. Published in 1991, Churchill: A Life is not, as many wrongly believe, a condensed version of the official biography. It is an entirely original work. Especially important are the early chapters covering the years written about in the official biography by Churchill’s son Randolph. Time and distance from his subject, along with the discovery of new information, enabled Gilbert to write about Churchill’s youth with more detail and accuracy than can be found in any other biography.
“Juveniles” (books for young readers) divide on the basis of the age level they are pitched to: What is good for a 10-year-old may not be good for a 14-year-old, and vice versa. This makes them difficult to compare. My favorite is a comic book—or “graphic novel” in the jargon of today’s youth. The Happy Warrior first appeared as a serial during the 1950s in the pages of the Eagle, a comic magazine for boys published in England by the Rev. Marcus Morris, with a story by Clifford Makins, and splendid illustrations by Frank Bellamy. In its new Levenger edition, with an introduction by Richard Langworth and much finer production quality, The Happy Warrior is a remarkably accurate account of Churchill’s life up to his retirement as Prime Minister in 1955.
Multi-volume works were pioneered by Lewis Broad when Churchill was still very much alive. Unquestionably the best entry so far is The Last Lion, the lyrical three-volume work started by the late William Manchester with volume 1 in 1983 and volume 2 in 1988; the final volume is now published with the pen of Paul Reid (see page 6).
Manchester described his absorbing work as a “literary biography,” which meant he occasionally preferred a good story to the actual facts. Nevertheless, he was a master stylist and this is probably the most popular Churchill biography ever published—and rightly so.
I call the next work “Olympian” because it stands alone: the eight-volume Official Biography started by Randolph Churchill (volumes 1 and 2) and completed by Martin Gilbert (volumes 3-8). The Companion Volumes to this work (see below) are still being produced. This is the Churchill biography par excellence and the one I would take to any desert island. Most people, perhaps, see it as primarily for academics, but Gilbert’s you-are-there style takes the reader fully into Churchill’s life, which was never dull, and is frequently electrifying.
For the ultimate Churchill junkie, there are the Official Biography Companion Volumes (sixteen and counting), containing thousands upon thousands of documents related to Churchill’s life. They offer supreme pleasure. I have dipped into them many times for research purposes and always end up making new and fascinating discoveries. Did you know that Churchill recommended his personal speech therapist to the Prince of Wales in 1929 soon after the Prince’s younger brother began seeing the therapist Lionel Logue in the story now made famous by the Oscar-winning film The King’s Speech? Or that soon after becoming Prime Minister in 1940, Churchill sent an offer of asylum (politely declined) to the ex-Kaiser, who was still living in the Netherlands as that country was overrun by Hitler’s armies?
Hillsdale College Press has brought all of these masterfully compiled treasures of history back into print. Get them while they last.
Professor Freeman teaches History at California State University Fullerton.