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A Study in Greatness
London: Penguin, 2002.
£8.99, xii-370 pages, ISBN 014101122X.
Université de Rouen
are so many excellent biographies of Winston Churchill on the market,
with that by Roy Jenkins receiving an indirect boost because of his
death, that the buyer/consumer/borrower/scholar/reader is at a loss
to decide which to begin with. To the question, If I must read
only one, which one would you recommend?, there can be no simple
answer. In his very useful classified, annotated Bibliography, Professor
Best indicates the number of pages of the principal general biographies
of Churchilland that will be the determining factor for many
The absolute reference, with an almost day-by-day account of Churchills
life, naturally remains Winston S. Churchill, the monumental
undertaking by Randolph Churchill (volumes 1 & 2, to 1914) and
Martin Gilbert (volumes 3 to 8). On top of the narrative
proper (1), this edition offers a massive series of Companion Volumes
with Documentswhich so far (2003) only reaches December 1940.
Only real Churchill devotees with plenty of time will not be overwhelmed
by this embarras de richesse: clearly, most people will not
read through the volumes, contenting themselves with searching the
Indices for the detail which they need to check. One major reproach
is that this official Biography shows very little critical
distance: the authors evidently understood their task as a fact-finding
exercise rather than a judgmental analysis.
In the 1,000-page league, one finds Martin Gilbert again, with an
abridgment of his magnum opus, Churchill: A Life
(2) and Roy Jenkins, with Churchill: A Biography (3)Clive
Ponting running a close third with the 900 pages of his highly critical
Churchill (4). The 750-page league has two close contenders
(though with a radically different approach): John Charmley, with
Churchill: The End of Glory - A Political Biography (5), and
Henry Pelling with Winston Churchill (6).
An outsider is provided by William Manchesters The Last Lion:
Winston Spencer Churchill, originally planned as a trilogy.
Two fat volumes have appeared, covering the period up to the Second
World War (7), but Volume III, planned and announced as Defender
of the Realm, 1940-1965 has been abandoned by its author, who
explains that he did not feel equal to the task (8). At the other
extreme, at less than 200 pages, we have John Keegans Churchill:
A Life (9), Keith Robbins Churchill (10) and Lord
Blakes Pocket Biography (11).
At some 382 pages (12), Geoffrey Bests book belongs with the
more reasonably sized category. This does not enable him
to give arcane details, but he has enough space to include all important
facts and give comments and judgments on the many points of controversy
which will always remain on Churchills action, and above all
on Churchills character. In this category, he is in competition
with the slightly bigger Churchill: An Unruly Life by Norman
Rose (13), and the smaller Winston Churchill: A Brief Life
by Piers Brendon (14).
Professor Best is not what is conventionally called a Churchill
scholarhe says himself that he was engaged in the social
history of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain until the early
1970s (15) and his Prologue explains why he embarked on this Biography
of Churchill. Born in 1928, he was a schoolboy during the war, when
he acquired the conviction that he was a great man and an extraordinary
character. His interest for Churchill lay dormant until it was
revived by the study of modern warfare (16), and he was intrigued
by the many aspects of Churchills life which have become
matters of controversy, from his period as First Lord of the
Admiralty to his belief in summitry in the 1950s. Curiosity
is thus given as the central argument for writing yet another Churchill
biographyhis own curiosity, but also that of younger inquisitive
I hope that my book will convey a fair all-round impression of this
extraordinary human being. Writing it has satisfied my curiosity about
him, and I trust it will satisfy the curiosity of readers of the generation
younger than my own; too young to have been aware of the living Churchill,
but old enough to be interested to find out why he has been called
with justification the greatest Englishman of the twentieth century,
and why he is certainly one of the most interesting.
The book is extremely well written, with no pseudo-psychoanalytical
jargon or half-digested structuralist papas can
be expected from a historian of Professor Bests generationand
the reader follows the linear argument for what it is: a good story,
a story whose hero goes through situations, adventures, perils which
lesser mortals will never experience, with the crowning epic of His
Finest Hour (17) and its enduring glory. All the familiar episodes
are here, and (critical) admirers of Churchill like this reviewer
never tire of reading about them. His life is like a great symphony
or a complex play: even poor performers cannot really make them uninterestingand
when one has a virtuoso historian like Geoffrey Best, the connoisseur
thoroughly enjoys himself. Each author puts a different emphasis on
a different aspect of Churchills life: in this particular book,
the author does not disguise the fact that 1940 is the epitome of
the narrative in his eyes.
Professor Best has scant regard for provocative revisionists, and
he summarily dismisses Charmleys determined iconoclasm,
arguingindeed like most Churchill scholarsthat
there was no rational alternative to Churchills refusal to negotiate
in 1940. It seems that his ideal evaluation of Churchill is that made
by his old political opponent, Clement Attlee, in the obituary which
he contributed in 1965, notably when he wrote Energy and poetry,
in my view, really sums him up.
There is a lot of poetry in that biography, in the sense
that a great literary warmth always impregnates the meticulously researched
narrative (18): this is perhaps what makes it so pleasant to read.
Combining poetry with scholarship (19): would many appreciative amateurs
not argue that this is the biographical genre at its best? This makes
the book a strong contender for priority reading in the medium-size
(1) Vol. 1: Youth, 1874-1900. By Randolph Randolph
Churchill. London: Heinemann, 1966. xxxvi, 608 p.
Vol. 2: Young Statesman, 1901-1914. By Randolph Randolph Churchill.
London: Heinemann, 1967. xxix, 775 p.
Vol. 3: The Challenge of War, 1914-1916. By Martin Gilbert.
London: Heinemann, 1971. xxxvii, 988 p.
Vol. 4: World in Torment, 1917-1922. By Martin Gilbert. London:
Heinemann, 1975. xvi, 967 p.
Vol. 5: Prophet of Truth, 1922-1939. By Martin Gilbert. London:
Heinemann, 1976. xxvii, 1167 p.
Vol. 6: Finest Hour, 1939-1941. By Martin Gilbert. London:
Heinemann, 1983. xx, 1308 p. (Revised, 1984).
Vol. 7: Road to Victory, 1941-1945. By Martin Gilbert. London:
Heinemann, 1986. xx, 1417 p.
Vol. 8: Never Despair, 1945-1965. By Martin Gilbert. London:
Heinemann, 1988. xxvii, 1438 p.
(all with paperback reprints. London: Minerva/Mandarin, 1969-1990)
(2) Gilbert, Martin. Churchill: A Life. London: Heinemann,
1991. xxii, 1066 p. (Paperback reprint. London: Pimlico, 2000).
(3) Jenkins, Roy. Churchill: A Biography. London: Macmillan,
2001. xxi, 1001 p. (Paperback reprint. London: Pan Books,
(4) Ponting, Clive. Churchill. London: Sinclair-Stevenson,
1994. xii, 900 p.
(5) Charmley, John. Churchill: The End of Glory A Political
Biography. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1993. x, 742 p. (Paperback
reprint. Dunton Green: Sceptre, 1995).
(6) Pelling, Henry. Winston Churchill. London: Macmillan, 1974.
v, 724 p. (Paperback reprint. Wordsworth Military Library. Ware, Hertfordshire:
Wordsworth Editions, 1999).
(7) Manchester, William. The Last Lion: Winston Spencer
Churchill. Volume 1: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932. London:
Michael Joseph, 1983. xiii, 973 p. Volume 2: The caged Lion, 1932-1940.
London: Michael Joseph, 1988. xxiv, 754 p. (Paperback reprints. London:
Cardinal, 1989) [Original American Edition, Boston: Little, Brown,
1983-88, has a different title for Volume 2: Alone, 1932-1940].
(8) Finest Hour Journal of the Churchill Center and Societies
109 (Winter 2000-2001): 17.
(9) Keegan, John. Churchil: A Life. London: Weidenfeld &
Nicolson, 2002. 181 p.
(10) Robbins, Keith. Churchill. Profiles in Power Series.
London: Longman, 1992. viii, 186 p.
(11) Blake, Robert. Winston Churchill. Pocket Biographies Series.
Stroud: Sutton, 1997. xi, 110 p.
(12) The paperback reprint under review is derived from a hardback
with the same number of pages. London: Hambledon and London, 2001.
xii, 370 p.
(13) Rose, Norman. Churchill: An unruly Life. London: Simon
& Schuster, 1994. x, 435 p. (Paperback reprint. London: Touchstone
(14) Brendon, Piers. Winston Churchill: A Brief Life. London:
Secker & Warburg, 1984. xvii, 233 p. (Paperback reprint.
London: Pimlico, 2001).
(15) Most readers will be familiar with Mid-Victorian Britain,
1851-1875. The History of British Society Series. London: Weidenfeld
and Nicolson, 1971, and one of his first publications was on Temporal
Pillars: Queen Annes Bounty, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners,
and the Church of England. Cambridge University Press, 1964.
(16) On top of writing War and Society in revolutionary Europe,
1770-1870 (Fontana History of European War and Society. Leicester
University Press in association with Fontana, 1982), Geoffrey
Best has edited the Series since its creation by Fontana (now taken
over by Sutton).
(17) This is the title of Chapter 14.
(18) Only one minor factual error was found. The author writes that
Only once during the war had he found time to put brush to canvas:
when convalescing at Marrakesh in January 1944. His first post-war
painting was done at Alexanders villa by Lake Como in August
1945 (p.320). But in Never Despair, 1945-1965, Martin
Gilbert describes Churchills stay (on his way to Potsdam in
July 1945) at Bordaberry, near St Jean de Luz, where he set
up his easel, prepared the palette, and began painting until
after dinner on 8 July. His painting was interrupted by a thunderstorm
on the 9th, and, Gilbert continues, On July 10 Churchill
again returned to St Jean de Luz, to complete the painting which had
been interrupted by the previous days thunderstorm. Again,
on the 11th, he spent the rest of the afternoon and
evening painting a house near the river. So, according to the
Official Biography, Churchill produced at least two paintings in July
(19) The literature of power and the literature
of knowledge, as De Quincey put it.
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