Finest Hour 181, Summer 2018
Review by James W. Muller
Antoine Capet, Churchill: Le Dictionnaire, Perrin, 2018, 862 pages, €29. ISBN 978-2262065355
James W. Muller is Professor of Political Science at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, and chairman of the ICS Board of Academic Advisers
In the eighteenth century, the French Société des Gens de Lettres, led by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert, compiled their famous encyclopedia, announced as a “Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers” and written to offer a conspectus of all human knowledge. Composed in the same ambitious spirit is this exceptional work by Antoine Capet, Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, who was head of British studies at the University of Rouen until he retired in 2014. For the last decade he has been working on Churchill, and this dictionary is the fruit of his labor.
No one should suppose that he has simply compiled a long book full of explanatory entries related to Churchill and put them in alphabetical order. Churchill’s French biographer François Kersaudy points out in the foreword that Capet groups material into sixteen chapters by subject, many of them with further subdivisions, with entries listed chronologically. In My Early Life, Churchill recommends chronology as “the key to easy narrative,” and it serves Capet well.
Many chapters offer masterful summaries of important parts of Churchill’s life—his political career, relations with the external world, and people who were important to him. Capet’s dictionary is not just a handy reference book for looking up specific entries. His chapters provide the whole picture, leaving out nothing important. They are comprehensive and well-written enough to be read straight through, like short books. The dictionary is not organized like a biography, but readers who master it will learn more than they could from most biographies.
Capet has an eye for an amusing story. Readers of My Early Life know that Churchill discovered, as a young man, a homonymous older American who also had political aspirations and wrote books. Dining together in Boston, the two agreed to distinguish “Winston Churchill the American” from the English “Winston S. Churchill,” who would use his middle initial. Capet points out drily that WSC was happy to avoid the initials “WC,” which already had “another usage” (23).
The reader will notice Capet’s judicious tendency to unfold both sides of a controversy in his entries. Sometimes, as in the case of the wasting disease that cut short the life of Churchill’s father, he reports both the long-standing belief that Lord Randolph died of syphilis and the recent insistence by the Churchill Centre that it was more likely to have been a brain tumor, concluding that the question remains open. On the same page he balances Lord Randolph’s distracted and neglectful parenting and his harsh judgments on Winston, which have given rise to incessant psychological explanations of the significance of his father’s absence, with the fact that never once in his long life did the son show the slightest bitterness toward his father. “Each,” remarks Capet, “will accord them the importance he judges to be good” (28).
As this example suggests, Capet does not shrink from examining Churchill’s private life in his dictionary. Short biographies of the young women Churchill courted before his marriage to Clementine, in a section called “Idylls and Loves of Youth” (33–36), are followed by brutally frank accounts of the lives of his children (40–46). Capet reports Churchill’s weight as well as his height (59) and writes several pages about the depressive state the statesman called his “black dog” (63–65). In a lengthy section Capet explores Churchill’s “tastes and leisure activities” (101–46). While it would scarcely be fair to fault a Frenchman for caring about Churchill’s tastes in food and drink, Capet is as curious as Balzac about personal questions that Churchill would not have mentioned, for instance, in his life of his father.
He devotes a chapter to Churchill’s “convictions, mental outlines, and prejudices” (69–100). It is all here: his doubts about religion, his defense of British imperial rule, his views on race and eugenics, his hostility towards Islam and his “philosemitism,” his anti-communism, and his role in the Cold War. Another chapter catalogues Churchill’s “political controversies and quarrels” (281–305), including the people’s budget, reform of the House of Lords, women’s suffrage, Tonypandy, the siege of Sidney Street, the Dardanelles, Chanak, the general strike, appeasement, the Bengal famine, the welfare state, and the Mau-Mau rebellion. Scholars may have varying views of Capet’s conclusions about Churchill’s opinions and actions, but again, each will accord them the importance he judges to be good.
Capet’s long chapters on Churchill’s political career (187–280) and his “circles” (“political friends and adversaries,” 527–604; “other circles,” including British sovereigns, diplomats, and others in and out of politics, 605–727; and “military milieu,” 729–812) remind us how long he was at the center of British politics and how wide-ranging his interests and acquaintances were. Capet treats us to accounts of Churchill’s relations not only with sovereigns and diplomats but also with newspaper owners, scientists, fellow painters, society hostesses, and even David Low, whose striking cartoon of Churchill’s many faces and costumes, drawn for the statesman’s eightieth birthday, wraps around the covers of the dictionary.
Another long chapter on “Churchill and the external world” (307–480) reminds us how his tentacles stretched all round the globe. As Churchill’s great-grandson Randolph points out in his English-language preface, translated into French on the following page, “Churchill spent more time in France than in any other foreign country—including his mother’s native United States, which he visited on so many occasions” (1). Capet’s enumeration and explanation of Churchill’s French friends, acquaintances, and connections,just across the Channel, is particularly valuable to readers in the English-speaking world, who may be less familiar with them than with their counterparts in their own countries.
Churchill’s life as a man of letters, which began before his political career and earned him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953, is reflected in a brief discussion of each of his books, followed by information about the first edition and the most recent editions in English and French (if any) of each. These little essays, although interesting and provocative, hardly capture all that Churchill learned and hoped to convey to readers by writing his books. More sustained attention to those works would reveal aspects of Churchill’s thought and statesmanship that do not appear in Capet’s book.
This review can only hint at all the discoveries that await its readers, who will be as charmed by Capet’s puckish, knowing humor as they are impressed with the diligence and exhaustiveness of his research. Even if some of its contents, such as the enumeration of houses where he lived or hotels he liked, qualify as “Churchill trivia,” the dictionary will show the reader the scope of Churchill’s interests and the mark he made on those he met and on the world.
Therefore this new book should be on anyone’s short list of books to read for a fuller understanding of Churchill. We must now accept that one of the best books ever written about this great Englishman is in French. Yet how awkward this is for English readers, who are not known for their mastery of other tongues! Their consolation is that, in time, it may be translated—as it certainly deserves to be. In the meantime, reading it offers delightful exercise for English readers who do know some French.