Before He Was Churchill

Article excerpt

Byline: Geoffrey Wheatcroft

The trials and triumphs of the future icon.

When Winston Churchill entered Parliament following the 1900 general election, he was 26, and already famous. He had reported on or served in no fewer than four bloody conflicts, in Cuba, Afghanistan, Sudan, and South Africa--and there's something eerie about the way the scenes of his early adventures would still be haunting us more than a century later.

These had been the material for the five books he had already published (one of them his only novel, Savrola), as well as copious and lucrative journalism. He enjoyed dramatic adventures in the Boer War, taken prisoner before escaping, and then returned to tell the world about these escapades, touring the country with a lantern-slide lecture--the PowerPoint of its day--titled "The War As I Saw It," which could have stood as the subtitle for later, more famous multi-volume chronicles of two world wars.

No sooner was he an M.P. than he set off to make more money (though less than he hoped) on an American lecture tour. He returned to the political fray, and a startling switchback ride. Elected as a Tory, he attacked his own party and then bolted to the Liberals in 1904. Less than two years later the Liberals won a landslide election, and Churchill held salaried ministerial office for almost 10 years. By 1908 he was in the cabinet; by 1911 he was First Lord of the Admiralty. And by the end of 1915, after he had directed the greatest fleet on earth at the outset of the greatest war in history, his career had collapsed, a 40-year-old man with a great future behind him.

This is the dramatic story told in Young Titan. Michael Shelden has made his name as a literary biographer, with a series of books on the outstanding generation of English writers born in just that first decade of the last century when Churchill was forging his career: Graham Greene, Cyril Connolly, and George Orwell. His new book is a departure, but a distinguished one. He gives a vivid portrait of a young man on the make, as ambitious as he was gifted, and keen on money: not one person in a million of his age, he boasted to his mother, "could have earned [pounds sterling]10,000 without any capital in less than two years."

As Shelden describes him, Churchill was looking for a wife as well as a career and money, and looking at first without much success. He lived in the shadow of his father, the splenetic Lord Randolph Churchill, who had recklessly ruined his own political career and then, aged only 45, when Winston was 20, had died of syphilis, as his son surely knew. And there was also Lady Randolph, Jennie Jerome of Brooklyn by birth, Winston's spendthrift, flighty, and exasperating mother.

There is no record of bachelor dalliances on Winston's part, and one concludes from Shelden as from other biographers that lust wasn't his thing. At any rate, both Pamela Plowden and Ethel Barrymore turned him down before he met Clementine Hozier. Churchill had already formed a close friendship with Violet Asquith, daughter of the prime minister, and Violet had a low opinion of Clementine when Churchill married her in 1908.

But that might have been jealousy, and Clementine proved to be one of Churchill's better choices in life. …