A Six-Course Feast

By Johnson, Paul | The American Spectator, November 2005 | Go to article overview

A Six-Course Feast


Johnson, Paul, The American Spectator


A Six-Course Feast In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War by David Reynolds (RANDOM HOUSE, 656 PAGES, $35)

THIS REMARKABLE BOOK, which won the Wolfson History Prize when it was published in Britain in 2004, tells the inside story of how Winston Churchill recorded his version of the second World War in six massive volumes. When the results of the 1945 General Election came through in July, ending Churchill's five-year premiership and bringing him back to earth bump, his wife said: "Maybe it is a blessing in disguise." To which Churchill replied wryly: "It appears to be very effectively disguised." As it turned out, Clementine Churchill was right. Not only did dismissal by the electorate save Churchill from making strategic errors of judgment in the immediate postwar period, especially over India, where he would have tried to hang on, but enforced idleness, after his hectic industry during the war years, made it possible for him to get down immediately to the business of telling his side of the wartime story. By the time he returned to power at the end of 1951, the bulk of the work had been done. If Churchill had remained in power, it might never have been written at all.

The book has five remarkable characteristics, all of which Reynolds brings out in generous detail. First, size. On 12 May 1954, when it was all done, Churchill himself remarked: "Looking back it seems almost incredible that one could have got through all those six volumes and I suppose nearly two million words." In fact there were 1,631,000 words of text, plus a further 278,000 in the appendices, making 1,909,000. If you add the indexes, the total reaches 2,050,000. (For purposes of comparison, Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is about 1,100,000 words.)

Second, by any standards this was one of the most successful books ever written, both financially and in terms of readers. The original book deal of May 1947 (for a projected five volumes) brought Churchill $2.23 million, which Reynolds says in today's money "might be estimated at anything between $18 million and $50 million." In addition Churchill got huge sums from Time-Life and the New York Times. The work won the Nobel Prize for Literature. This meant, Reynolds writes, "that Churchill had joined an elite group containing Britons such as Kipling, Shaw and T.S. Eliot, and only one other historian, Theodore Mommsen, the German chronicler of ancient Rome." At the time of the Nobel prizewinning (1953), the Daily Telegraph, which serialized the last volume in London, stated that volumes one to five had already sold 6 million copies, and extracts had appeared in 50 papers in 40 countries, concluding: "No book has ever so swiftly achieved such dissemination." Both British and American publishers made fortunes from the work and so did Churchill's agent and Riviera host, Emery Reves.

Third, the work was a documentary history as well as a personal memoir. Churchill had earlier dealt with the First World War in about 750,000 words, provoking the famous quip from his cabinet colleague Lord Balfour: "Winston has written an enormous book about himself and called it The World Crisis." He learned a lot about this experience, especially the need to get possession of, and make use of, official papers. Reynolds thinks that many of the most important assessments and telegrams Churchill wrote while the war was on were classified by him with a view to future use in his memoirs. When he left Downing Street in 1945, he made a "remarkable bargain" (Reynolds's phrase) with the then Cabinet secretary, Sir Edward Bridges, the custodian of government documents, under which a vast quantity of his wartime papers were classified as his personal property, and he was allowed to remove them physically to the archive at his country house, Chartwell in Kent. The only condition was that their publication had to be approved by the government of the day. This bargain not only made it easy for Churchill to document his work in full but also further benefited the Churchill family financially.

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