Churchill Would Be Famous Today on the Strength of His Writing Alone

The 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill's death is a fitting occasion to note that he was not only a great leader but one of the finest writers of the century he helped define.

Cecil Beaton/IWM/Getty Images

Writing is generally an afterthought for politicians: The memoir is their genre, their time in elected office is the setting, they are the hero, and the result is not good. A book from any notable politician has become more an inevitability than an exception. It’s an almost obligatory close to a life in public service. There are of course exceptions, and a handful of recent outliers—Dominique de Villepin’s volume on French poetry, Newt Gingrich’s alternate histories. But no contemporary exception is quite so striking, in breadth, variety, and quality, as the written work of Winston Churchill.

No one would argue that history has misgauged Churchill’s significance by concentrating on his time as prime minister during World War II instead of upon his debacle of a single novel. But the biographical inattention to his voluminous body of written work nonetheless has been a strange oversight. Now that wrong has been righted, in a single stroke and ably so, by Jonathan Rose’s The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor.

Simply detailing Churchill’s literary record would make for an excellent volume. As Rose notes in his introduction, “Winner in 1953 of the Nobel Prize in Literature, a tremendously successful middlebrow author, he clearly could have made a handsome living from his pen even if he had never been elected to public office. In the Churchill Archives at Cambridge, one out of eight boxes is devoted to his literary affairs. And yet scholars have scarcely touched on that side of his life. He may be one of the most intensely studied individuals of modern times, according to Historical Abstracts, but he has only a handful of entries in the MLA Bibliography. Some entries refer to an altogether different Winston Churchill, an American novelist (1871-1947) of the Progressive era.”

Although Churchill’s writings embraced a world far less circumscribed than the narrow purviews of most politicians, it is nonetheless largely impossible to separate his prose from his life as a public servant. “For Churchill, politics and literature were two sides of the same career,” Rose writes, “impossible to prise apart.” For Rose this isn’t simply a question of Churchill’s writing his non-political works even as he kept one eye on the voting public. Rose is equally interested in how the influence worked the other way—that is, how literature and theater shaped Churchill’s political craft. The man’s “lifelong addiction to dramatic metaphors” isn’t coincidence; it’s centrally important.

It would be absurd to claim that Churchill’s literary talents were the meritocratic means of entry to a political career, not when his father was Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons, and his grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great grandfather had all spent time in the House of Commons before their assured seats in the House of Lords. But those literary skills were immensely consequential to the ultimate shape of his legendary career.

Churchill’s literary persona was shaped by his times: His reading diet contained plenty of Shakespeare but, more unusually, a lot of contemporaries. The spirit of H. Rider Haggard and Rudyard Kipling runs through his early war correspondence about the Spanish-American War, the Sudan Expedition of 1898, and the Boer War. He read Stevenson’s Kidnapped while imprisoned by the Boers and referred to one inspector of his cell repeatedly as “Sherlock Holmes.” His own early work included a heavily Wildean musing on speech, “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric,” which contained such sentiments as “the orator is real. the rhetoric is partially artificial.” His sole novel, Savrola, was a Prisoner of Zenda knockoff, scuttled partway through its seeming plot in a wake of declamatory statements. He devoured H.G. Wells’s futuristic novels, which influenced both his enthusiasm for military gadgetry and shaped his own outlandish scenarios for life. He turned to quoting Hamlet in response to the Dardanelles disaster, a strategic effort featuring a “kind of ingenious plotting … often found in unrealistic war novels.” It’s no surprise that after this Churchill’s fortunes ebbed.

Rose’s repeatedly emphasizes that Churchill’s wilderness years weren’t merely an exile imposed by his own actions or viewpoints but also by his own temperament. He was, as the 1920s unfolded, a turn-of-the century gadfly stuck to the walls of a new age, of ironical modernism, or of blunt technocracy: “The theatrical style of parliamentary oratory, so popular in the Edwardian era, was going out of fashion, and politicians who indulged in it (notably Lloyd George and Churchill) were no longer trusted. With that kind of high rhetoric they had led the country into war, justified bungled military operations, and made unfulfilled promises to veterans (“Homes fit for Heroes”). A new style of political discourse was emerging: direct, conversational, grounded in facts, reassuringly tedious, the style of Stanley Baldwin, Clement Attlee, and Neville Chamberlain himself. Churchill stuck to his old melodramatic mode, which seemed increasingly ludicrous in the post-war world.”

Between the wars, Churchill turned increasingly to his own writing, producing The World Crisis, his history of World War I, and to the massive projects Marlborough: His Life and Times, a biography of his esteemed ancestor, and the 20-year effort A History of the English Speaking Peoples (each volume of which hovers around 2,000 pages), along with a bewildering variety of smaller works.

Churchill’s versions of events in which he was involved, e.g., Gallipoli, are at times questionable, but his war correspondence is lively, his histories are gripping, and the quality of his prose is always unfailing.

Consider two lighter examples of his style, the first from Cartoons and Cartoonists:

“Just as eels are supposed to get used to skinning, so politicians get used to being caricatured. In fact, by a strange trait in human nature they even get to like it. If we must confess it, they are quite offended and downcast when the cartoons stop. They wonder what has gone wrong, they wonder what they have done amiss. They fear old age and obsolescence are creeping upon them. They murmur: ‘We are not mauled and maltreated as we used to be. The great days are ended.’”

Then there’s his portrait of George Bernard Shaw from Great Contemporaries, the equivalent of a Profiles in Courage that wasn’t ghostwritten by Ted Sorenson.

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“Few people practice what they preach, and no one less so than Mr. Bernard Shaw. Few are more capable of having the best of everything both ways. His spiritual home is no doubt in Russia; his native land is the Irish Free State; but he lives in comfortable England. His dissolvent theories of life and society have been sturdily banished from his personal conduct and his home. No one has ever led a more respectable life or been a stronger seceder from his own subversive imagination. He derides the marriage vow and even at times the sentiment of love itself; yet no one is more happily or wisely married. He indulges in all the liberties of an irresponsible Chatterbox, babbling gloriously from dawn to dusk, and at the same time advocating the abolition of Parliamentary institutions and the setting up of an Iron Dictatorship, of which he would probably be the first victim.”

Churchill’s longer prose works tend to echo the themes that he—nearly alone—continually pressed in public life: They crop up in his portrait of Marlborough’s battles against another absolutist, Louis XIV, and the struggle against tyranny is central to his portrait of the English-speaking peoples. In fact, Churchill’s literary pursuits between the wars so consumed him that for a while he was known more as an author than as a politician. After Munich, whenever renegade Tories skeptical of the Chamberlain administration met, Churchill was often not invited, because he “had not shaken off his reputation as an erratic litterateur.”

That is, of course, until the outmoded disposition of a single-minded melodramatist was exactly what Britain required, fueling his return to the head of the Admiralty and soon after his rise to Prime Minister.

He had, in a very real way, been practicing for this role for some time.

“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” Churchill spoke those words twice on 13 May 1940, first to his ministers meeting in Admiralty House, then in his first address to the House of Commons as Prime Minister, but he had been working on the phrase (adapted from Garibaldi) for more than 40 years. He first drafted it when he was imprisoned by the Boers, assuring his captors that a British victory “is only a question of time and money expressed in terms of blood and tears.” In the final volume of The World Crisis, he descrtibed the pointless sacrifice of millions of men on the Eastern Front: “Their sweat, their tears, their blood bedewed the endless plain.” In Marlborough, speaking to the contemporary issue of rearmament, he denounced English Parliamentarians for rapidly demobilizing their armies after the Peace of Ryswick in 1697: “they were only too soon to redeem their follies in blood and toil.”

This metier, so flagrantly unsuited to Britain’s needs in prior decades, suddenly found its perfect utility. A manichean stage vision of a villain of untold malevolence was suddenly the world’s reality, and Churchill’s rhetoric soared to meet the challenge. There are repeated invocations of conflict as a grand drama and countless references to the “tragedy” of world conflict. Rose finds continued inspiration for Churchill’s conduct of the war in his lifelong attachment to the coup de theatre—tactics that were often of questionable strategic value but offered bold psychological impact.

Churchill’s public role during the war is more familiar; and the singularity of that role perhaps played some role in his defeat just on the cusp of his greatest triumph. The man of melodrama was not perceived as a fit for the postwar world. And yet, in the words of his successor, Clement Attlee, “He was so perfectly suited to fill a particular need; the need was so vital; and the absence of anybody of his quality was so blatant that one cannot imagine what would have happened if he had not been there.”

Churchill wasn’t finished yet, however. A torrent of written work was to follow before and during his second ministry, namely the completion of The History of the English Speaking Peoples and the writing of his voluminous history of World War II, bolstering an already astonishing literary output. Again, had he done nothing else, this would have been an enormously impressive accomplishment; as a secondary pursuit, it’s a brilliant means to better understand his first.