Monday, February 6, 2017

Book Review: The Literary Churchill by Jonathan Rose



I went to an all-girls secondary school, where ideas of a suitable education for young ladies were very traditional. This included the history syllabus. We diligently studied British and European history all the way up to 1914, and then skipped to the Treaty of Versailles. In the same way, the years 1939-45 somehow mysteriously disappeared. Which is to say, that although I have a good general knowledge of modern British history, and Winston Churchill, I have never delved into these two crucial periods of his life. Thus, The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor by Jonathan Rose made my Christmas list.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. Since my degrees are in English, I have a pretty good knowledge of British literature, so the references were good hooks for me to hang new information on, as well as a way to connect historical dots (to mix my metaphors). I particularly enjoyed the chapter that explores Churchill's relationship with the person and writings of T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), a new(ish) obsession of my own.

One thing this book is not is a straight biography of Churchill. The book is ostensibly linear, in that the beginning of each chapter forms a progression through Churchill's life, but since each is thematic, it then jumps backwards and forwards, following the threads of the topic, such as melodrama or empire.You need a reasonable knowledge of the era to follow events. For example, notorious episodes such as the Dreyfuss affair are mentioned without comment, not even explained in the end notes; important biographical events such as Churchill's marriage do not even merit one sentence.

Rose has a basic narrative arc that Churchill was a man of letters, and his politics was shaped by the literature he read and wrote. He bursts on the late Victorian political scene with a florid rhetoric that endures his success, becomes somewhat of a dinosaur in the first decades of the twentieth century, but comes into his own again when Britain desperately needs a charismatic leader to carry the country to victory in World War II. Always looking for the theatrical or historical moment, Churchill is sometimes devastatingly wrong, sometimes spectacularly right, sometimes chillingly prophetic, but never a conventional career politician.

I did think the book floundered a little between the idea of being an academic study and a commercial biography. I also think that the many references to current people and affairs, presumably included for the mass market, will make it date more quickly. And I have to admit I was disappointed with the final chapter, which became more about John F. Kennedy, a Churchill admirer, than Churchill himself. Granted, Churchill did not die until a few years after Kennedy's assassination, but I felt that it took the focus away from the subject of the book. And, sigh, I do wish that professional copy editors still existed. There were more errors than I should expect from Yale University Press.

All in all, I would call this a satisfying read, which is my definition of a good book. It was challenging, interesting, and has made me want to add more of Churchill's own writings to my reading list. I think I'll start easy with My Early Life :)


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