The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson. New York: Crown, 2020.
Summary: A day to day narrative of the first year as prime minister of Winston Churchill, focusing on the circle around him as well as how he inspired a nation fighting alone under the Blitz.
There are a number of biographies of Winston Churchill and studies of his leadership as prime minister during World War 2. What distinguishes this one is that Larson takes us into the intimate circle around Churchill, bringing the great man to life out of the pages of history. We become observers on the edge of an intimate circle rather than removed readers of history from eighty years ago during Churchill’s first year as prime minister.
We are with Churchill as he speaks in parliament or over radio broadcasts, not so much giving the people courage as helping them summon the courage and resolve that was in them. They would need it. Almost at once the bombings began, taking a frightful toll. We walk with Churchill among the ruins as people try to recover and go about their lives.
We get to know Churchill with his closest leadership, particularly the asthmatic but effective Max Beaverbrook who takes over aircraft production and doubles it. Beaverbrook had a genius for cutting through red tape and making enemies, but he got things done–between his resignations, which Churchill refused. The wisdom of Churchill was having someone so close who never told Churchill what he wanted to hear, but only the unvarnished truth, with no reverence for any institutions.
Larson takes us into the family circle: the reserved and opinionated Clementine, the dissolute Randolph, constantly mired in debt and affairs, to the distress of young Pamela, wife and mother, and Mary, the spirited youngest daughter discovering the world, love, and living with courage amid the restraints of her parents. She ends up heading up an anti-aircraft battery and recognizing her parents wisdom in rejecting her first love. John Colville rounds out the circle as Churchill’s secretary. His “intended” doesn’t return his affection, he wants to enter the air corps, but apart from a few sorties, serves with Churchill, in the process keeping a diary that is a treasure trove for historians like Larson.
We are acquainted with the ever-present dangers of the bombing, almost always at night, rendering the RAF ineffective, except in its own nighttime bombing of Germany. We learn of underground shelters for 10 Downing Street, the special hideaway of Churchill at Ditchley, rather than Checquers on the nights around the full moon. We glimpse the tragedy of the bombing of a nightclub that would have been Mary’s next stop on a night out. And we walk with and observe with Churchill, oblivious to dangers to his own person.
Another theme is Churchill’s clear perception of the vital importance the United States would play, and his vital role in maintaining the spirits and fight of the nation until it became politically possible for the U.S. to fully join the fight. As a career politician, he grasped Roosevelt’s challenges, working incrementally through the exchange of bases for materials and the passage of Lend-Lease. Of great fortune was the recall of Joseph Kennedy and the presence of Harry Hopkins and later Averill Harriman, both of whom Churchill welcomed into his inner circle and who became Churchill’s advocates with Roosevelt in consequence. It would cost Randolph’s marriage, already on the rocks, when Harriman and Pamela take up an affair.
Through it all is Churchill himself. I don’t think it is possible to write a bad book about Churchill because he is so interesting, even if sometimes exasperating! Larson gives us the man in full, from his demand to bathe twice daily wherever he went, dictating letters in bath and bed, to his prodigious alcohol consumption, the cigar which made him incomprehensible to his inspiring speeches and presence that made it clear to both his own country and Germany, that unlike the countries of the European mainland, there would be no surrender. This, too, was critical to the hoped for alliance with America.
What Larson has done is not just given us another biography or war history. He has helped us imagine being with Churchill during this first year from May 1940 to May 1941. Perhaps this is a good book for our time, when we are fighting a different, but it appears, no less protracted, combat. When life cannot be normal, we see what it is to live with day to day courage, resolve, and determination without losing heart.