Review: “The Splendid and the Vile:” Churchill, his Family & the Blitz
Reviewing a book about Churchill is a challenge under any circumstances. I begin with a slight bias because I was born when he was Prime Minister and grew up hearing his voice on the BBC and listening to my mother sing his praises (My father was born in Ireland but that’s another story).
The man saved the British Isles from the Nazi threat, had the patience and the diplomatic chops to win over a reluctant President Roosevelt and to assemble a smart and ruthless industrial team, led by Lord Beaverbrook who transformed almost overnight British industrial production of aircraft for the RAF. The latter was especially timely because, as of September 1939, there was every reason to believe that the Luftwaffe would dominate the skies over London and the rest of the country. Germany came very close to doing just that.
I am writing this with the country at least three months into the Covid-19 pandemic. I have friends and family in NYC that are infected or have died. While we deal with this sorrow, I am reminded that VE Day was just celebrated, an important date for my family now scattered throughout the globe. And for me, it is also a reminder of how important character, intelligence, and truth are in a leader, especially when death is close at hand.
That is the end of my editorializing. While “The Splendid and the Vile” shows Churchill’s genius and the familiar pluck of the British people, it also shows his warts and offers an inside view of his family that at times seems dysfunctional. The structure of the book is a kind of counterpoint, often contrasting Churchill dictating notes to his stenographer while taking a bath with scenes of the Prime Minister at his official retreat at Chequers, assuming a familiar role as life of the party. The man’s joy of living during these most dangerous times seems quite remarkable.
Church had five children. A daughter died when she was three. His son Randolph, something of a profligate and certainly a gambler, moves in and out of the narrative, mainly in search of women and for someone to pay his gambling debts. Churchill’s daughter Mary and daughter-in -law Pamela, both more consequential than brother Randolph, assume a central part of the book’s narrative, as does the prime minister’s wife, Clementine. Two other daughters are rarely mentioned.
This is a fast-paced, heavily documented book. It consists of more than one hundred chapters and around six-hundred pages. The chapters often unfold like scenes in a movie. I’ve told friends that the book at times reads like a novel in that it is breezy, episodic, and contrapuntal with major themes in blistering relief as author Erik Larson explores the massive damage inflicted on London and other cities and the anguish, suffering and joy experienced by the British people. Churchill serves as interlocutor.
Of course, Churchill and the “Battle of Britain” has been well-studied and documented. One abiding strength of this book is the author’s access to many diaries recorded during the war and made available more recently. These were written by public figures, aides to Churchill, and also his daughter Mary who is reaching adulthood as the war begins. Her voice provides a fascinating counterpoint to the brutality of the war. We learn perhaps a little too much about her love life but we do see her sign up to be an anti-aircraft gunner at Hyde Park.
The central theme of “The Splendid and the Vile” is the familiar story of the critical months between May 1940 and 1941 when Churchill led the British people in absorbing Germany’s punishing air campaign and preparing them for what seemed to be the inevitable German invasion. This narrative is enriched because it is seen through a family and social filter that captures Churchill’s humanity and idiosyncrasies. Moreover, Larson structures the book in such a way that the prime minister’s adversaries, including Hitler, Goring and Goebbels, are featured in contrasting chapters as protagonists as if they are “reading” each other’s minds. This feature seems especially compelling when the Battle of Britain is underway and Goring and Goebbels in particular, boastful about Germany’s superior fighter aircraft, were convinced that Churchill would quickly beg for peace. Germany’s failure to understand Churchill and the British people is a consistent theme.
Churchill always played the long game, realizing early on that Britain didn’t have the resources and capabilities to win the war against Germany and her increasing number of allies. His plan from day one was to drag the U.S. into the war. His insistent courting of President Roosevelt during this vital year makes for magnificent reading, as do the sexual shenanigans on the part of some in the prime minister’s inner circle. In Larsen’s splendid tale the war seemed to have markedly increased the libido of the British people, especially those who could afford champagne and whatever other contraband smuggled from abroad. There was apparently a run on condoms at London’s proper High Street stores during some of the fiercest bombing. These tales of high-street snobbery and indulgence are worth the read themselves.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of this book is its freshness, humanity, and ground-level view of the Battle of Britain. The Churchill we know is present. But a Churchill I am less familiar with shows his delightful self when with his family and friends at Chequers. The intimate diary entries from daughter Mary and others are contemporaneous but intimate private accounts that would not come to light until years after the war. These accounts temper the action in a way but makes that action more compelling and psychologically convincing. There are many battles going on during the Battle of Britain, some small and trivial, some more substantial. All provide an intriguing embroidery that knits this book together in ways that are human and compelling. The war is still there. The bomb damage is vast. The death and damage seem endless. But a rich human narrative is also there, led by a charming, defiant, bombastic Churchill who seems to be rendered in his full complexity. After all, he had time to watch Charlie Chaplain’s movie “The Great Dictator” during the some of the darkest days during the Battle of Britain.
“The Splendid and the Vile” has lots of both, all laid out in a sumptuous, readable form, providing accounts of the horror and humanity associated with a most decisive year in human history.