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Churchill the Writer: His Life as a Man of Letters

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Churchill the Writer: His Life as a Man of Letters
By Keith Alldritt
(London: Hutchinson, 1992)

Reviewed in Finest Hour 77 by James W. Muller


Churchill’s biographers have never over­looked his books, finding in them a source as indispensable as it is irresistible. Yet they are apter to plunder them for an incident or a turn of phrase than to reflect on his life as a writer. Churchill’s deeds have eclipsed the shelf full of books he wrote, which most biographers treat simply as a lucrative diversion from politics. Though William Manchester begins his second volume of biography (“The Last Lion,” 1988) with an evocative description of Churchill’s manner of writing at Chartwell in the 1930s, and the official biography (particularly in its companion volumes) affords glimpses of Churchill’s literary life that are nowhere else available, fuller accounts are few. Maurice Ashley’s Churchill as Historian (1968) and Manfred Weidhorn’s Sword and Pen: A Survey of the Writings of Sir Winston Churchill (1974) are the best general studies, which have now been joined by Frederick Woods’ Artillery of Words: The Writings of Sir Winston Churchill (1992) and this fine new book by Keith Alldritt.

Alldritt is a professor of English at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver who has written critical studies of Orwell, Lawrence, Eliot, and modernism, and three novels as well. He brings to this study both a scholarly acquaintance with recent English literature and a writer’s practical appreciation for English prose. His book is a literary life of Churchill, written to recount “the career of a professional writer which lasted some sixty years and which predated and facilitated his other career in politics.”

Alldritt’s claim that “the two careers stand in a creative, dialectical relationship with each other” (viii) corrects the usual treatment of Churchill’s writings by biographers and justifies the more careful scrutiny that he offers in Churchill the Writer. Setting aside his speeches as a separate subject, Alldritt provides an assessment of Churchill’s books from The Story of the Malakand Field Force to A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, beginning with Churchill’s literary debt to his father and ending with his letter to Bernard Baruch in 1957 announcing that he had “retired from literature” (161).

Though Alldritt judges Churchill’s prose to be “of an outstanding literary quality which belongs unquestionably in the canon of English literature in this century,” he considers WSC’s work uneven. He finds fault with what he calls “Churchillese, a grand but pretentious language made up of ringing phrases and sentences that at times have little relationship with the known realities of experience” (vii). Nor does he shrink from taxing Churchill with prolixity in his final works, which he frankly calls “turgid” and worse (viii). Some of these failings were due to Churchill’s reliance on what he called “the Syndicate” of assistants who helped to put these books together.

But Alldritt praises the works that appeared before the 1940s for their “prose marked by wit, subtle human insights, pace, drama and a poetic richness and allusiveness” (viii), beginning with the Malakand, which marked “the debut of a considerable literary talent” (13-14). He calls Churchill’s second book, The River War, “a classic of historical writing” (22), discerning in it “some of the qualities of epic” (16). While acknowledging the “very obvious limitations” of the novel Savrola, which Churchill himself disparaged, Alldritt points out the complicated character of the eponymous hero of the book, “who concerns the author far, far more” than the other characters (27-28), and the philosophical ruminations that most commentators have ignored. Churchill’s “startlingly energetic literary debut” ended with the two books on the Boer War, tales of adventure that “constitute a genuine literary achievement” (38).

One of the merits of Alldritt’s book is his steady eye on Churchill’s reading, beginning with his self-education in India; on Churchill’s enthusiasm for earlier writers from Gibbon to Defoe, who served as models for his prose; and on his wide-ranging literary acquaintances. Alldritt’s account, though not exhaustive, is the more illuminating for his perceptive contrasts between Churchill’s treatment of war and the emerging fashion of the twentieth century. Unlike the poet Wilfred Owen, who appeals to our “senses and feeling” by showing us all the “terrible visual and palpable detail” of war, Churchill remains “factual and dispassionate” (9). Yet his prose becomes poetic “quite unselfconsciously” when he writes about war: an “unashamed atavism” on the part of a man who must be called a “warrior” (100-101).

While critics have often remarked on Churchill’s old- fashioned fondness for war, Alldritt hardly finds in his writings an uncritical celebration of it. He draws our attention to Churchill’s regrets at the disappearance of nobility from modern mechanized warfare. This theme is prominent in Thoughts and Adventures, Churchill’s neglected book of essays from the early 1930s, and it figures also in his life of Marlborough. It accounts for his urgency in looking for a second front in the First World War. As The World Crisis shows, the Dardanelles campaign arose from Churchill’s search for an alternative to the mass carnage on the western front. Later, his admiration for the poems of Siegfried Sassoon, who was hardly a favorite among Churchill’s brother officers at the front, evinced his refusal to countenance a senseless slaughter.

Among the works that followed Churchill’s precocious early years as a writer, Alldritt admires the great biographies of Lord Randolph Churchill and of Marlborough, and he praises the early volumes of The World Crisis. Yet he avers that Churchill’s excellence as a writer “is often best seen in the smaller, more modest prose forms, in his essays and character portraits” (161). In Thoughts and Adventures, and again in Great Contemporaries, which Alldritt neatly dubs Churchill’s “brief lives” (136), one sees Churchill’s “special abilities with words”: “his delicately insinuating humour, his sense of drama, his fine ironies, his generous understanding, his humanity” (161). Alldritt himself peppers his book with telling observations.  He remarks, for instance, that writing a biography “is in some ways like reliving the life of the subject” (42). To write Churchill’s life in letters is to live with the example of Churchill’s prose. As his assistant Dennis Kelly remarked after watching the master prune his draft, the experience was “a free lesson in writing English” (155). No doubt Alldritt’s considerable talents as a prose writer have been bur­nished by so much reading of Churchill.

Not that his book is without flaws. Scholars may rue his gentlemanly disdain for footnotes. He stumbles over names, and sometimes over spelling. For example, Churchill saw the Parthenon in Athens, not the Pantheon (65); Marlborough’s secret sign was OO rather than 00 (129); Kitchener’s Christian names were Horatio Herbert, not Herbert Horatio (82; cf. 65); and Alldritt’s esteemed predecessor was Manfred, not Martin Weidhorn (vi). Finally, the nickname of Churchill’s literary uncle was “Mortal Ruin” rather than “Family Ruin”(14). If Churchill could read Alldritt’s book, he would probably sympathize with these failings, since his own first book was garbled by the good offices of that well-meaning uncle.

Moreover, Alldritt sometimes suggests that Churchill’s writing takes its character from the times in which he writes, as in this remark about the Marlborough: "clear-cut moral estimates are among the features of this biography that show it to be a work from between the wars. In these years there was a strong tendency for writers to see life in terms of absolutes of good and evil, the heroic and the villainous” (128). Certainly Churchill grappled with questions and problems that occurred to other writers of his era, but to suggest that he took his bearings from the “strong tendency” of an age is to under­estimate his independence of mind. Most of the contemporary writers who figure in Alldritt’s comparisons to Churchill, though esteemed for their prose styles, fall short of Churchill in the comprehen­siveness of their thought; and all of them fall short of Sir Winston in their understanding of politics.

To indicate the limits of the purview of a very good book is not to detract from its originality and discernment. It ranks among the best works we have on Churchill’s writings. It has one other strength, which Churchill himself would appreciate. It is liberally adorned with cartoons, drawings, and advertisements from or about Churchill’s books, and it offers more than a few fresh and arresting apothegms. For the book lover without time to read who likes to “handle” and “fondle” his books — to “peer into them,” and “let them fall open where they will,” as Churchill writes in his essay on hobbies in Thoughts and Adventures, Alldritt’s book will likewise afford delight.