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Churchill: A Study in Greatness
Geoffrey Best
London: Penguin, 2002.
£8.99, xii-370 pages, ISBN 014101122X.

Antoine Capet
Université de Rouen


There 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 Churchill—and that will be the determining factor for many readers.

The absolute reference, with an almost day-by-day account of Churchill’s 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 Documents—which 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 Manchester’s 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 Keegan’s Churchill: A Life (9), Keith Robbins’ Churchill (10) and Lord Blake’s Pocket Biography (11).

At some 382 pages (12), Geoffrey Best’s 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 Churchill’s action, and above all on Churchill’s 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 scholar’—he 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 Churchill’s 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 biography—his own curiosity, but also that of younger inquisitive generations:

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’ pap—as can be expected from a historian of Professor Best’s generation—and 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 uninteresting—and 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 Churchill’s 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 ‘Charmley’s determined iconoclasm’, arguing—indeed like most ‘Churchill scholars’—that there was no rational alternative to Churchill’s 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’ league.

(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, 2002).

(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 Books, 1998).

(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 Anne’s 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 Alexander’s villa by Lake Como in August 1945’ (p.320). But in Never Despair, 1945-1965, Martin Gilbert describes Churchill’s 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 day’s 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 1945.

(19) ‘The literature of power’ and ‘the literature of knowledge’, as De Quincey put it.

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