March 15, 2015

Finest Hour 159, Summer 2013

Page 51

Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill, by Michael Shelden. Simon & Schuster, hardbound, illus., 384 pp., $30, member price $24.

The first fifteen years of the 20th century are the focus in this new study of well-trodden ground. Starting with Churchill’s initial election to Parliament, and ending with the bitter aftermath of Gallipoli, the author examines the public politician and private man during his formative political years.

Seasoned readers know of numerous studies of Churchill’s pre-1916 career, notably four “partial lives.” Peter de Mendelssohn’s The Age of Churchill: Heritage and Adventure, 1874-1911 (1961) took the story to Churchill’s arrival at the Admiralty, the only volume of an intended trilogy. Violet Bonham Carter’s Winston Churchill: An Intimate Portrait (1966) covers 1906-16, as seen by a prime minister’s daughter, who knew her subject well (and is a major figure in Shelden’s account). Ted Morgan’s Churchill: Young Man in a Hurry, 1874-1915 (1982) offers a well-written and -documented work. The Earl of Birkenhead’s Churchill 1874-1922 (1989) is based on the memories of Churchill’s godson.

Shelden was able to build on these and previous authors. An English professor at Indiana State University, he melds these and other published materials with some archival sources, dwelling heavily on the class-driven British society of the period. But given what already exists, is there anything new? Here and there, yes. And it’s engagingly and even breezily written.

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Shelden suggests that Violet Asquith was much closer to Churchill in 1907-08 than other sources (including both principals) have suggested—and that in despair a week after Churchill married Clementine Hozier, Violet may have tried to take her own life (Datelines, FH 158).  She took a walk along a high rocky cliff overlooking crashing waves— a path she and WSC had walked just weeks earlier—and went missing, later claiming to have fallen and hit her head on a rock. But when found on soft ground, she showed no signs of injury.

Just two endnotes provide references for this event and both cite unpublished sources: Margot Asquith’s personal diary and letters between Violet and her close friend Venetia Stanley, all now held in the Bodleian Library. Without taking a trip to Oxford to examine these documents, it’s impossible to say for sure what Shelden is reading: solid evidence or surmises between the lines. He never overtly says she tried to kill herself, and the suggestion appears in no other published source. (See sidebar at right.)

Shelden also concludes that Churchill initially led (or pushed) Lloyd George (not the other way round as is often presumed, given their age difference) to radical social legislation concerning employment and working conditions. Churchill always claimed he was Lloyd George’s “faithful lieutenant,” but Shelden argues that Lloyd George became radical in response to Churchill’s rising political star.  By the time of the famous budget battle of 1909-10, Lloyd George was leading the fight against the House of Lords.

At the famous Sidney Street shootout in 1911, when Churchill was widely criticized—even ridiculed—for showing up in his top hat amid the confrontation, he turned out to be one of the few leaders present experienced with the rapid-fire Mauser guns the cornered anarchists were using. Here as elsewhere, Shelden’s endnotes comment that other historians have glossed over such details.

The book ends as Churchill moves to the Admiralty in late 1911 and war breaks out in 1914.  The Dardanelles disaster and Churchill’s ouster is dispatched in fewer than ten pages. Almost no one stood by Churchill, even Asquith and Lloyd George, whose political fortunes he had saved earlier. Seemingly, Churchill’s career was over; of course this wasn’t the case.

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