Ophelia Field is author of The Favourite: The Life of Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (2018)
Hugo Vickers, The Sphinx: The Life of Gladys Deacon, Duchess of Marlborough, Hodder and Stoughton, 2020, 388 pages, £25. ISBN 978–1529390704
When Hugo Vickers concludes, towards the end of this jaw-dropping biography, that Gladys Deacon “had lived a fuller and more varied life than most,” he is guilty of extreme British understatement. This was a woman who had been a muse, an object of infatuation, or at least an object of curiosity to Auguste Rodin, Bernard Berenson, Giovanni Boldini, the Crown Prince of Prussia, Marcel Proust, Edith Wharton, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Count Hermann von Keyserling, Henri Bergson, Jean Giraudoux, Jacob Epstein, Virginia Woolf, Jean Marchand, H. G. Wells, Paul Valéry, Lytton Strachey, Arnold Bennett, George Moore, Edith Sitwell, Evelyn Waugh, Siegfried Sassoon, and many more. Events such as having lunch with Mussolini, or D. H. Lawrence entrusting her with his dirty drawings, barely even find space here for explanation.
By comparison, the ninth Duke of Marlborough seems a rather boring man for the beautiful young American heiress to fixate on marrying from the age of fourteen, a consistency of purpose at odds with the overall discontinuity of both her life and personality. Like an actress, Gladys could metamorphosise. One hostess wrote of her when she visited, “Fortunately she is a hundred people in one, and entertains herself by her own rapid changes of mood.” Read More >
David Stafford, Oblivion or Glory: 1921 and the Making of Winston Churchill, Yale University Press, 2019, 301 pages, $26/£20. ISBN 978–0300234046
John Campbell’s books include major biographies of F. E. Smith, Aneurin Bevan, Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, and Roy Jenkins.
Every time I review a book for Finest Hour I am amazed by how many new angles historians manage to find from which to write about Churchill. Some do seem to be scraping the barrel; but, by focussing closely on a single critical year in Churchill’s life, David Stafford has found a genuinely illuminating and fresh perspective. One could suggest other pivotal years, but Professor Stafford makes a compelling case for 1921 as the year in which Churchill, on the cusp of middle age at forty-six, began to bounce back from the disaster of the Dardanelles, shake off his youthful reputation for recklessness and poor judgment, and be recognised, in some quarters at least, as a potential Prime Minister.
Much of the freshness comes from the way Stafford mixes the public and political with the private and personal, with no clear boundary between the two. His book opens with Churchill at a New Year party at Philip Sassoon’s house at Port Lympne, along with Lloyd George and various other ministers and fixers, where the singing of music hall songs mingled with serious discussion; and ends with Winston and Clementine enjoying Christmas on the Riviera. In between, a constant whirl of country house weekends with aristocratic relatives and society hostesses is a reminder, often lacking in conventional political history, of the gilded social world in which the governing class of the day lived and moved. By contrast, Churchill only once visited his Dundee constituency during the year and was shocked by the poverty and barefoot children he encountered. Read More >
Erik Larson, The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family and Defiance during the Blitz, Crown, 2020, 585 pages, $32. ISBN 978–0385348713
Chris Matthews hosted Hardball on MSNBC for twenty years and is a member of the Board of Advisers to the International Churchill Society.
Erik Larson tells the story of London under the Blitz with all its sound and fury, but also its unexpected joy. The Splendid and the Vile delivers the great saga with a novelist’s touch. It is like you are watching and hearing the days and nights of 1940 as a passenger on a London double-decker bus.
“It was the dust that many Londoners remembered as being one of the most striking phenomena of this attack and others that followed,” Larson writes. “As buildings erupted, thunderheads of pulverized brick, stone, plaster, and mortar billowed from eaves and attics, roofs and chimneys, hearths and furnaces—dust from the age of Cromwell, Dickens, and Victoria.” Through that dust we meet up with our defiant hero.
“Good old Winnie,” comes a voice from the crowd. “We thought you’d come and see us. We can take it. Give it back. When are we going to bomb Berlin, Winnie?” Now we hear the answer that would make all the difference: “You leave that to me.” Read More >
Martin Gilbert and Larry P. Arnn, eds., The Churchill Documents, volume 22, Leader of the Opposition, August 1945 to October 1951, Hillsdale College Press, 2019, 2328 pages, $60. ISBN 978–0916308407
With hindsight, the years 1945–51 seem like an interlude between Winston Churchill’s two premierships, while Clement Attlee and the Labour party held power. But Churchill had a remarkable capacity for making history out of office, as well as in office. What might be termed his second wilderness years are a case in point—as this latest volume of documents vividly shows.
Far from being the “anti-climax” Churchill initially dreaded, he used the time to prodigious effect. Aided by his “Syndicate” of assistants and financed in style by his publishers, he completed five of the eventual six volumes of war memoirs. We can read his progress reports to Clementine, his queries about delicate issues such as the Dieppe Raid or the bombing of Dresden, his unconcealed pride when telling his King that 250,000 copies of Their Finest Hour had been sold in a single day, and his regular complaints about the workload: “Volume IV is a worse tyrant than Attlee.” Read More >
Adrian Phillips, Fighting Churchill, Appeasing Hitler: Neville Chamberlain, Sir Horace Wilson, and Britain’s Plight of Appeasement, 1937–1939, Pegasus Books, 2019, 368 pages, $29.95. ISBN 978–1643132211
Mark Klobas teaches history at Scottsdale College.
The eightieth anniversary of the start of the Second World War was accompanied by a predictable flurry of works about British efforts to appease Germany up to September 1939. Adrian Phillips’ book is the latest of this kind and follows close upon similar studies by Tim Bouverie (reviewed FH 187) and Robert Crowcroft (reviewed FH 184). Whereas Bouverie and Crowcroft summarized broadly the efforts to avert war by accommodating Adolf Hitler’s demands, Phillips focuses more specifically on the role of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s chief advisor Sir Horace Wilson in promoting appeasement.
Phillips’s focus is welcome, since Wilson remains one of the most understudied figures of the period. A child of lower-middle class parents, he rose rapidly from the Second Class of the British Civil Service to its heights by virtue of hard work and ability. Chosen as Permanent Secretary of the nascent Ministry of Labour, Wilson showed skill in resolving industrial disputes, making him an indispensable figure for the governments of the interwar period. Read More >
The Crown, Netflix’s hit series dramatizing the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, is back for its third season, which premiered on Sunday, November 17. Gone after the first two seasons is the bulk of the cast, including Claire Foy (Elizabeth) and Matt Smith (the Duke of Edinburgh), who are replaced by Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies respectively. Cast rotation is intended to be every two seasons, with seasons three and four set to cover the Queen’s reign from Harold Wilson through Margaret Thatcher.
A familiar face, however, does return to start season three: John Lithgow as Winston Churchill. Improbable casting, at least in this writer’s eyes when first announced, Lithgow’s Churchill was one of the many strong points of the first two seasons. Putting aside the American actor’s towering height (at times he appeared to be leaning over Foy), Lithgow performed admirably within a heavily-dramatized script: from crying over the death of a girl in a London “Pea-Souper” fog to his gruff treatment of the young Queen. His Churchill “accent” is one of the best ever performed on screen, and Lithgow epitomizes Churchill’s natural intellect and magnetism without veering into parody.
Winston Churchill loved movies, and for about fifty years now movies have loved Winston Churchill. He has been portrayed by many of the cinema’s biggest stars on both film and television. John Lithgow’s portrayal in season one of The Crown proved so popular that he has now been brought back by popular demand to reprise the role in the first episode of season three, even though this has required some ahistorical contrivance to accomplish.
How appropriate, then, that a British filmmaker has finally made a documentary about the entirely true story of Churchill’s friendship with the founder of the British film industry! Alexander Korda was a Hungarian immigrant who fled the persecution of the Jewish people in his homeland during the 1920s. He embraced his adopted nation with panache, naming his company London Films and using Big Ben as the studio’s calling card. He also took to smoking Churchill-size cigars.
Korda’s first box-office smash, The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), won an Oscar for Charles Laughton and the praise of Churchill, who stirred to the King’s call for tripling the size of the fleet: “To do this will cost us money, Sire,” says the King’s counseor. “To leave it undone will cost us England!” rejoins the King. Against the backdrop of the Nazis coming to power in Germany only a few months before, the tone of the film explains why Korda and Churchill became fast friends.
Tim Bouverie, Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill, and the Road to War, Tim Duggan Books, 2019, 496 pages, £14.90/$30.00. ISBN 978–0451499844
W. Mark Hamilton is author of The Nation and the Navy: Methods and Organization of British Navalist Propaganda, 1889–1914 (1986).
It is impossible to overstate the devastating impact the First World War had on the British nation and people. The loss of lives and treasure was immense, with 20,000 British soldiers killed on the first day alone of the Battle of the Somme. This enduring impact is front and center in Tim Bouverie’s Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill, and the Road to War. King George V, whose reign spanned the Great War, once shouted late in his life, “I will not have another war. I will not!” It is against this backdrop that journalist and historian Bouverie provides a fascinating narrative history of the policy of appeasement and its ultimate ramifications in 1939 for Great Britain, Europe, and the world.
The scope of the book runs from when Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933 to the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. In their dealings with a revitalized Germany under Nazi control, both Britain and France pursued appeasement—a foreign policy of making concessions to avoid armed conflict—believing that Germany had been unfairly punished under the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Underscoring Britain’s deep reluctance to fight another war, the Oxford Union approved in early 1933 the motion: “This House will under no circumstances fight for its King and Country.” In response, Winston Churchill, who was emerging with a small group of supporters as the archenemy of the appeasement policy, called the Oxford Union motion a “disquieting and disgusting symptom” of the times. Bouverie notes that because of Churchill’s aristocratic connections and high social standing, he had access throughout the 1930s to classified information about German motives that was not available to the general public. As a result, Churchill never doubted Germany’s aim to dominate Europe. Read More >
Kevin Ruane is author of Churchill and the Bomb (2016) and teaches history at Canterbury Christ Church Univeristy.
David Cohen, Churchill and Attlee: the Unlikely Allies Who Won the War, Biteback Publishing, 2018, 356 pages, £22. ISBN: 978–1785903175
As a cursory internet search will confirm, the popular perception of the Winston Churchill-Clement Attlee relationship is largely shaped by two purportedly Churchillian remarks. The first—the wording alters marginally depending on where one looks— goes thus: “An empty taxi drew up outside Number 10 Downing Street and out stepped Mr Attlee.” The second has Churchill dismissing Attlee “as a sheep in sheep’s clothing.” From these quotes, it is reasonable to infer that Churchill regarded Attlee, the Labour Party leader (1935–55) and his deputy as Prime Minister during the Second World War, as a vacuous non-entity. There is, though, a problem with such an inference: Churchill did not actually utter the remarks upon which it rests. Indeed, when apprised of the barbs he was supposed to have shot in Attlee’s direction, Churchill became angry and upset.
Popular perceptions are quick to set but slow to shift. In 2002, the BBC commissioned a public television poll to determine the “Greatest Britons” of all time. Churchill came top. Attlee did not even make the top 100. In contrast, David Cohen reminds us in his new book Churchill and Attlee that in 2004 British historians were polled on the most successful UK Prime Minister of the twentieth century. Attlee came first, Churchill second. Historians, then, as opposed to the public, have never lost sight of Attlee and his importance.
Nigel Hamilton is Senior Fellow in the McCormack Graduate School, University of Massachusetts Boston. War and Peace, the final volume of his “FDR at War” trilogy, will be published in May 2019.
David Reynolds and Vladimir Pechatnov, eds., The Kremlin Letters: Stalin’s Wartime Correspondence with Churchill and Roosevelt, Yale University Press, 2018, 660 pages, $35. 978–0300226829
At first glance The Kremlin Letters: Stalin’s Wartime Correspondence with Churchill and Roosevelt promises to be the book we—those of us still deeply interested in the history of the Second World War—were waiting for. David Reynolds is a distinguished historian of Anglo-American relations and Vladimir Pechatnov a leading scholar of Soviet relations with the West, having access to significant new primary sources.
The good news for readers is that the seventeen-page introduction—clearly penned by Professor Reynolds—is worth the price of the book alone: a wonderful, essayistic tour d’horizon of the three great leaders of the Allied coalition in the Second World War: their different personalities, their political aims, and their strengths and weaknesses, spiced with wonderful quotations. Told in 1944 that they resembled the Holy Trinity, Marshal Stalin—who had studied for six years at the Tiflis Russian Orthodox seminary—quipped: “If that is so, Churchill must be the Holy Ghost. He flies around so much.”
Writing in his famous essay Painting as a Pastime, Winston Churchill said of his favorite hobby: “I know of nothing which, without exhausting the body, more entirely absorbs the mind.”
There have been several good books that gather together examples of Churchill’s paintings. This is the first book, however, that gathers together all of Churchill’s speeches and writings about painting. It is worth reading.
Sir David Cannadine writes and speaks frequently about Churchill. As a professional historian, his resume is unsurpassed. So it is notable that he does not underestimate the importance of painting in Churchill’s life. He has never been alone. Included in this book are essays by six people from the professional art world during Churchill’s time showing their appreciation for the statesman’s passion.
Allen Packwood, How Churchill Waged War, Frontline, 2018, 260 pages, £25/$34.95. ISBN 978–1473893894
Reflecting on his reputation after the war, Churchill noted: “People say my speeches after Dunkirk were the thing. That was only a part, not the chief part. They forget that I made all the main military decisions.” Indeed, Churchill did not just lead by inspiration; he waged war—exactly what he said he would do in his first speech to Parliament as Prime Minister. How Churchill went about it is the subject of this gripping new study by Allen Packwood.
For many years Packwood has served as Director of the Churchill Archives Centre at Cambridge. His deep familiarity with the papers of Winston Churchill has resulted in this his first (and, I hope, far from last) book. Every page illustrates his extensive knowledge of the primary documents, for this book uses citations at the bottom of each page and not endnotes following the chapters or buried in the back. A quick glance down shows that Packwood is supporting his arguments with original archival documents. Even his secondary sources are mostly the published versions of primary materials, such as diaries, letters, and memoirs.
Armed with this formidable knowledge, Packwood does not attempt to provide a comprehensive account of Churchill as warlord. Instead he has chosen ten subject areas that interested him in particular as he set out “to try and answer the question what did Churchill do? How did he wage war?” Each chapter is a thoughtful but fast- paced and self-contained study. The chapters give a good chronological spread of the war years, starting in 1940 with Churchill’s decision as Prime Minister to serve also as Minister of Defence and concluding with his determination to run an aggressive campaign in the general election of 1945.
Zoe Colbeck is the General Manager for the National Trust at Chartwell.
David Lough, ed., My Darling Winston: The Letters Between Winston Churchill and His Mother, Pegasus Books, 2018, 598 pages, $35. ISBN 978–1681778822
This is the first time that the letters between Lady Randolph Churchill and her son Winston have been gathered into a book. Mother and son are said to have corresponded more than a thousand times. David Lough, whose previous book No More Champagne (2015) provided a meticulous examination of Winston Churchill’s finances, has unearthed and transcribed nearly 800 of these letters and selected 450 for inclusion in this fascinating book. The result not only tells us about the relationship between Winston and the former Jennie Jerome over the course of their shared lives and how it changed; it also illustrates the upper class life which they lived.
Lough observes that Winston’s letters have “great passages of self-analysis that make his correspondence with his mother such a valuable source of insight into his character.” It is fascinating to be able to see into Churchill’s mind this way, and I was really surprised by some of what I read. He realised that his education had been utilitarian: focused on getting him into the army. To reach his goal of becoming a politician, Lt. Churchill would have to increase his knowledge and read the books he would have learnt from had he gone to university. To this end he had his mother send him many books, as well as the records of the House of Commons, so that he could learn more about how Parliament worked.
Raymond Callahan is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Delaware.
Larry P. Arnn and Martin Gilbert, The Churchill Documents, Volume 21, The Shadows of Victory: January–July 1945, Hillsdale College Press, 2018, 2149 pages, $60. ISBN 978–0916308391
Churchill entitled the final volume of his war memoirs Triumph and Tragedy. The final volume of the Churchill War Papers underscores that dual theme. The astounding war effort that, under his leadership, the British people produced made victory possible. Without the British decision in May-June 1940 to fight on—a decision Churchill both organized and embodied—it is all too easy to imagine the war ending in a very different way, leading to a very different world. But, as this volume opens, victory had become certain. As that victory came in sight, however, so did the enormous cost. The Britain that would celebrate victory would be a very different country from the one that went reluctantly to war in 1939—much poorer and much reduced in power. In Corelli Barnett’s striking words, Britain ended the war “a warrior satellite of the United States.” It was also a country on the brink of epochal change. Looming ahead was the end of the coalition, a general election (the first since 1935 and involving an entire new cohort of voters), and the need to adjust to a new global configuration in which the United States and the Soviet Union would dominate, the British Empire would unravel and British society undergo the most dramatic, far-reaching revolution in its long history. Not all of this is reflected equally in the 2000 pages of documents in this volume, but all of it is there.
Stephen Roskill, Admiral of the Fleet Earl Beatty: The Last Naval Hero— An Intimate Biography, Seaforth Publishing, 1980 (reprint, with a new introduction by Eric Grove, 2018), 430 pages, £16.99/$29.95. ISBN 978-1526706553
W. Mark Hamilton is author of The Nation and the Navy: Methods and Organization of British Naval Propaganda, 1889–1914 (1986).
Seaforth Publishing and British naval historian Eric Grove are to be congratulated for reprinting Stephen Roskill’s Admiral of the Fleet Earl Beatty. The timing is especially appropriate as the world observes the centennial of the First World War and the historic Battle of Jutland.
Grove’s new introduction is informative and interesting: he comments on recent scholarship since the original publication of Roskill’s biography in 1980 as well as on the contents of the book. He gives special attention to the controversy surrounding the Royal Navy’s substantial losses at Jutland and Roskill’s erroneous conclusion that the primary blame be accorded to defects in ship design, as opposed to the current scholarship ascribing the losses to poor handling of ammunition.
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The International Churchill Society (ICS), founded in 1968 shortly after Churchill's death, is the world’s preeminent member organisation dedicated to preserving the historic legacy of Sir Winston Churchill.
At a time when leadership is challenged at every turn, that legacy looms larger and remains more relevant than ever.