Monday, May 19, 2014

Churchill: A Biography by Roy Jenkins

Winston Churchill is one of the giants of the twentieth century.  I've heard and read about him all my life.  He's always been a figure that fascinated me and whom I admired.  So it came to me that I needed to buckle down and read a good biography of him.  Where did he come from?  What made him great and how exactly did he run England's government so that they successfully, with the US and Russia, won WWII?

Jenkins biography successfully answers all of these questions and more.

I realized that I knew very little about the man other than the famous photo of him glaring out of the picture with a cigar clenched between his teeth and that he was Prime Minister during WWII. 

I think I had projected too much of my American culture on him.  I assumed he came from an ordinary family, was a self-made man who had the brilliance and daring do to get his country in and out of a war, coming out on top.

Nothing of the sort.  Churchill was born into aristocracy.  His mother was an American, Brooklyn born and raised, nee Jeanette Jerome.  Considered one of the most beautiful women of her time, she married Lord Randolph Churchill, becoming Lady Randolph Churchill.

His mother took away any notions I had that aristocracy equated noble and honorable moral standing.  According to Jenkins and other sources, she had numerous lovers while married to Lord Randolph and, after he died, she married another man who was the same age as her son, Winston.

 She had little to do with his upbringing (who has the time with an active social life?) yet he idolized her.  As an adult he kept up a faithful correspondence with her until her death in 1921.  She encouraged his  prodigious writing and the publishing of his books. 

Churchill was 66 years old when he became Prime Minister the first time and had quite the adventurous life before that.  He fought in the Boer War, became a prisoner of war, escaped and continued to fight.  No one can accuse Churchill of lacking courage.

It was that kind of strong willed and determined character that got him into Parliament where he held several different offices, ultimately becoming Prime Minister.  That and his blinding wit.  Churchill's speeches are still legendary. 

Jenkins describes his complicated relationships with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin. The descriptions of how the three of them carefully negotiated and danced around each other in order to defeat the Germans is very interesting.  It was strange to read about England's Prime Minister and America's president wining and dining such a tyrant as Stalin.  But I guess it's easy to judge through the lens of time.

Churchill's relationships with Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower were equally interesting. He worked most closely with Roosevelt, briefly with Truman during and after WWII, and as much as he could with Eisenhower-who didn't care for him- during the Cold War.  In a nutshell, he was thrilled with none of them but wasn't stupid.  He needed them and they needed him as well, although Eisenhower was fairly indifferent. This was largely due to irreconcilable differences concerning nuclear weapons and their place as a war deterrent. 

The book is forty-six chapters long broken up into six parts.  It includes his personal as well as his professional relationships.  Churchill seems not to taken after his mother.  He was a devoted husband and father until his death in 1965.  He loved to vacation in France.  He made many friends in Parliament and also enemies.  His parleys and repartees to his political adversaries are good fun to read.

He is most known for rallying the English spirit by showing the gumption and backbone Chamberlain never possessed in dealing with Hitler.  He had the foresight to see through Hitler's rhetoric of "mutual peace" and understand his real malignant intentions, unlike most of the Western world that was bent on appeasing him.

Churchill ran and won Prime Minister once more in the 1951.  He stayed involved in Parliament and public life even after a series of strokes up until his death in 1965 at the age of ninety.

Jenkins' writing is in a flowing, novelistic style.  It contains a lot of information and it took me a while to read the book because it's so jam packed with detail.  It is only in one volume and is 912 pages long.  I've seen other biographies that are in three volumes.  I'm curious what they could possible include that Jenkins didn't because his biography is so thorough.  Part of me wants to read them to see how they compare.  The other part of me doesn't feel I have the time.  It took me over a year to read this single volume biography.

One thing I didn't know before I read this book was what a prolific writer Churchill was.  I have since bought his History of the English Speaking Peoples (which is in four volumes). Now that I've finally finished Jenkins' book I plan to climb that mountain.  I'll probably have a review ready in a couple of years (insert sarcastic laugh here).

All in all, I liked this book and, though a bit of a slog to get through, it is still a worth while read for anyone who is interested in WWII history and specifically of one of the greatest Prime Ministers (according to Jenkins, the greatest) in English history.


Brian Joseph said...

I really want to read this book. Though I have never read a full fledged biography of Churchill he is fascinating character.

I read Five Days in London: May 1940 John Lukacs last year. It looks at only a snapshot of his life but a snapshot that makes me want to read a lot more.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Brian. I've never read Five Days in London, but I'm going to look it up. If you recommend it, I'm sure it's a worthwhile read. Take care!

o said...

I've recently started to collect biographies and autobiographies of former British PMs - so far I have Margaret Thatcher's two autobiographies, John Major's, and Tony Blair's, (plus The Blair Years by Campbell), and Churchill's The Second World War (a six volume set) which I'm planning on reading either later this year or next year. It's quite hefty (to say the least!) so I think I'll look out for the Jenkins biography, looks like it's a good one :)

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi O. Thanks for visiting my blog. The only PM biography I've read is Churchill, however, I'd love to read the one's you've listed. Also, I would like to read a good biography on Gladstone and Disraeli.

I also have Churchill's six volume set of "A History of the English Speaking Peoples." I haven't begun it yet, but I look forward to doing so after reading this biography. I want to see how well Churchill writes. Take care!