A History of the English-Speaking Peoples: Andrew Roberts Reintroduces Us to Churchill's Long-Delayed Epic Work, Which Was Written with the Assistance of a Former Editor of History Today. (Cross Current)

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IN BROAD PRINCIPLE I shall be willing to undertake to write "A History of the English-Speaking Peoples", their origins, their quarrels, their misfortunes and their reconciliation for the sum of 20,000 [pounds sterling],' wrote Winston Churchill to Newman Flower, the managing director of Cassell & Co, on October 30th, 1932. The project would take four or five years, he expected. Yet because of the great events that overtook not only Churchill but also the English-speaking peoples themselves, this four-volume work (The Birth of Britain, The New World, The Age of Revolution and The Great Democracies), comprising almost 1,500 pages, was not published for another quarter of a century.

Churchill was, in October 1932, in the first few months of that period of internal Tory opposition which he dubbed his `Wilderness Years' when he came up with the idea of writing a work whose `object was to lay stress upon the common heritage of the peoples of Great Britain and the United States of America as a means of enhancing their friendship'. It was an act of Themistoclean foresight, for a decade later those two countries, along with their dominions and dependencies, were to be in the forefront of the struggle to prevent `a new dark age' and to save Civilisation.

Although there were sound political reasons for writing the book, the principal and immediate reason for its inception was financial. A prodigious spender with no inherited wealth, Churchill throughout his life relied on his pen and his parliamentary stipends to pay for his grand style of life; and having recently resigned from the Conservative Shadow Cabinet over the issue of Indian self-government -- whose prospect he abhorred -- he knew he could not expect any ministerial posts in the near future. In the event it took a full-scale European war to get him back into His Majesty's Government.

So his History was from the outset intended to be a best-seller. As he wrote to one of his assistants, the Oxford historian Keith Feiling,

As you know, I wish to give special prominence in the first section of the work to the origin and growth of those institutions, laws and customs and national characteristics which are the common inheritance, or supposed to be, of the English-speaking world. Language and literature play a large part, and indeed these studies should be as it were threaded together by a vivid narrative picking up the dramatic and dominant episodes and by no means undertaking a complete account.

This was not going to be yet another dry-as-dust semi-academic history of the British and their worldwide cousinhood: instead, it was to be a fast-flowing work of literature, starting with Julius Caesar's invasion of England in 55 BC and ending in 1902 with Britain's victory in the Boer War.

Although Churchill engaged the help of a large number of distinguished historians to help prepare drafts for him, to explain to him periods of history of which he was unfamiliar and to ease the process of research and writing, this was very much his own work -- as the voluminous annotations on the proofs make abundantly clear. In 1937, explaining to his wife Clementine about their precarious financial situation, he wrote about how the History was `entailing an immense amount of reading and solitary reflection if justice is to be done to so tremendous a topic'. The final 15,000 [pounds sterling] of his advance was not payable until the delivery of the manuscript, which he hoped he could achieve in December 1939.

Of course the rise of Nazism was to interrupt his writing with increasing force over the following two years, but it is astonishing how Churchill was able to compartmentalise his life, snatching time from his campaign against the appeasement of Hitler to get on with his writing. As the war clouds seemed to be gathering over Hitler's demand for the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia, Churchill wrote that he was engaged in `rollicking' with Piltdown Man, Cassivellanus, Julius Caesar, the Scribe Gildas, the Venerable Bede `and other hoary figures'. …