When Andrew Roberts was promoting his recent doorstop of a book, Churchill: Walking with Destiny, he invariably informed audiences that it was the “1,010th biography” about his subject, Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill.
What Roberts had written — all 1,105 pages — quickly and justifiably became a bestseller, proving that readers on both sides of the Atlantic continue to find the “British Bulldog” as fascinating — and as heroic — as he’s been since becoming prime minister of the United Kingdom on May 10, 1940.
That date, which will live in the opposite of infamy (to invert Franklin Roosevelt’s memorable phrase after Pearl Harbor), is Erik Larson’s starting point in The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family and Defiance During the Blitz.
Author of The Devil in the White City, Dead Wake and In the Garden of Beasts, Larson writes about the past with the skill one admires in the most talented creators of fiction. His nonfiction works become difficult to classify. They’re part history, part thriller, part romance, part sociological study and part psychological portrait. His characters come to life on the page — and they’re all real.
The principal focus of The Splendid and the Vile is Churchill’s first — and most consequential — year as prime minister. During the 12 months until May 10, 1941, Britain faced a life-or-death struggle, and Larson’s narrative explains in engrossing detail how a singular person instilled the fortitude in others to confront that struggle with determination and without despair.
Detailed stories about Churchill’s wartime leadership abound throughout the volume, but Larson’s approach is panoramic, capturing the contextual circumstances of the time and depicting key figures with a connection to this “indomitable Englishman.”
Churchill’s family, particularly wife Clementine, youngest daughter Mary and son Randolph, play important roles in the “saga,” as do Randolph’s wife, Pamela, minister of aircraft production Lord Beaverbrook, private secretary John Colville, American emissaries Harry Hopkins and W. Averell Harriman and German leaders Rudolf Hess, Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler loom off in the shadows, calling their shots.
Larson dramatizes Churchill’s indisputable bravery with example after example of the titanium spine in his somewhat rotund physique. Like a daredevil, he flies over to France on a mission to try to help the French fight off the Nazi threat. He climbs to the rooftops of London to survey enemy bombing attacks. He carries a cyanide capsule “in the cap of his fountain pen” to make sure he’ll never be captured alive.
What’s amazing is Churchill’s inexhaustible energy and multi-directional ability to lead his nation when the “sceptered isle” fought all alone for survival. As Larson reports in the first paragraph of “A Note to Readers,” the British endured “fifty-seven consecutive nights of bombing, followed by an intensifying series of nighttime raids over the next six months.”
Churchill, who served simultaneously as minister of defense and prime minister, took charge of the military, deciding how to respond to the relentless assaults and to what seemed like the imminence of a Nazi invasion from across the English Channel.
In addition, he oversaw the entire government, wrote every word of his still-quotable speeches and visited neighborhoods or cities suffering from night-before onslaughts.
“Churchill understood the power of symbolic acts,” Larson writes in describing the aftermath of one bombing of London’s East End. He goes on to quote the shouts of people affected: “Good old Winnie! We thought you’d come and see us. We can take it.”
The paragraph where this scene occurs concludes with the author quoting from the diary of an eyewitness: “‘He looked invincible, which he is. Tough, bulldogged, piercing.’”
To say Larson takes a reader close to significant episodes would state the obvious, but what’s also clear is the enormous amount of research and organization behind one passage — and the book as a whole. He mines diaries to extract much more than minutiae.
One of the strongest and most sustained themes in The Splendid and the Vile is Churchill’s tenacious pursuit of American assistance and involvement in the war. Though he knew Roosevelt was constrained from doing much before the 1940 election, when FDR sought an unprecedented third White House term, that doesn’t mean the prime minister didn’t try.
Larson quotes a telling statement Churchill made several years after leaving office to illustrate how vital he considered the US-UK relationship: “No lover ever studied every whim of his mistress as I did those of President Roosevelt.”
Winning America to Britain’s side took time and extended well beyond the numerous telegrams and letters the two leaders exchanged before the United States formally entered World War II on December 8, 1941. There was even deliberate strategy to the shaping of speeches.
Not even a month in office, Churchill famously told the House of Commons, “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills, we shall never surrender.”
Less famously, Larson reports that Churchill “muttered to a colleague, ‘And . . . we will fight them with the butt end of broken bottles, because that’s bloody well all we’ve got.’”
Difficult as it might be to imagine, the reaction to this call to arms was mixed in Britain. But Larson goes on to observe that “the audience Churchill had mainly in mind when he’d crafted his speech was, once again, America, and there it was viewed as an unequivocal success, as might be expected, since the hills and beaches to be fought upon were four thousand miles away.”
Eventually, with Roosevelt reelected, worries about Nazi imperialism growing and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 18 months after Churchill assumed power, the U.S. joined the U.K. as a full-fledged fighting ally.
Getting there, however, is a story of valor and terror, of language and action, of love won and love lost — all told with factual precision and poetic suspense by Larson. During the one year chronicled in the book, 44,652 British civilians were killed and 52,370 more people suffered injuries. The penultimate chapter concludes with this short, poignant sentence: “Of the dead, 5,626 were children.”
The Splendid and the Vile creates an enduring portrait of its protagonist, and that portrait comes into sharper focus with the depiction of the family members and co-workers who intersect with Churchill.
At one point during the bombing blitz, a friend complimented Churchill on his ability to give people courage. Always more showboat than shrinking violet, the prime minister demurred. “I never gave them courage,” he remarked. “I was able to focus theirs.”
Precisely how he accomplished that — and how he did so much more — deserves at least another thousand biographies.
Bob Schmuhl is the Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Professor Emeritus of American studies and journalism at Notre Dame. He is the author or editor of 15 books, most recently The Glory and the Burden: The American Presidency from FDR to Trump, published by Notre Dame Press. His current book project is tentatively titled Mr. Churchill in the White House, a study of Churchill’s relationships with Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower.