Churchill: A Biography. (Book Reviews)

By Dr. Jablonsky, David | Parameters, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Churchill: A Biography. (Book Reviews)


Dr. Jablonsky, David, Parameters


Churchill: A Biography. By Roy Jenkins. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2001. 1,002 pages. $40.00. Reviewed by Dr. David Jablonsky (Colonel, USA Ret.) Professor of National Security Affairs, US Army War College.

Winston Churchill's life spanned a period from the reign of Queen Victoria to that of Elizabeth II--a time of immense change that began with small wars on the periphery of the British Empire and ended with the advent of the hydrogen bomb. Over the years, numerous biographies and memoirs by contemporaries have chronicled his life. Added to this are Churchill's own writings, including his mid-life autobiography, still fascinating and exciting reading after 70 years. Finally, there is Martin Gilbert's comprehensive and definitive multi-volume biography of the British statesman, replete with companion volumes of documents.

What, then, can Roy Jenkins bring to a new biography of Churchill, particularly since he acknowledges that he has not unearthed many new facts about the British statesman? The answer is an experienced eye as a politician, historian, and biographer. Jenkins was a leading figure in the Labour Party for several decades and, like Churchill, served as Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer. In addition, he is a member of the House of Lords and Chancellor of Oxford University. He is the author of 18 books, including well-received biographies of William Gladstone and Herbert Asquith. The resuit is an unawed, sometimes wry and witty, always elegantly written study that provides new insights on Churchill.

The biography is marked throughout by masterful examinations of British governmental culture in Parliament and in the Cabinet. Jenkins is particularly insightful in terms of the House of Commons, capturing the richness of its political traditions and of Churchill's growing and ultimately unswerving devotion to that institution. To this he adds perceptive analyses of the impact of Churchill's speeches, particularly in wartime, while demonstrating how hard that Member of Parliament worked on all his speeches, committing them to memory, but always, after an early disastrous bout of forgetfulness, backed up by notes. At the same time, Jenkins guides the reader expertly through the intricate workings and connections of the British aristocracy which formed an important background to Churchill's life. But as Jenkins also points out, Churchill's ambition and sense of destiny ("We are all worms. But I do believe that I am a glow worm.") meant that the British statesman never allowed himself "to be imprisoned by the ci rcumstances of his birth."

As a historian, Jenkins captures the larger context of the events in Churchill's life, whether it is the origin of Britain's growing involvement in Egypt, which reaches its denouement on the killing fields at Omdurman, or the linkage of Churchill's Mediterranean strategy in World War II to the British way of war. As a writer, he conveys a perceptive appreciation of Churchill's literary style and debt to Macaulay and Gibbon and chronicles the astonishing productivity of a man who primarily dictated his books and articles-a case, as Churchill summed it up, of living "from mouth to hand." Although Churchill was disappointed at not winning the peace award, Jenkins makes abundantly clear why the British statesman was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

At the same time, Jenkins has a writer's ear for contemporary assessments like that of Pamela Plowden, Churchill's first love: "The first time you meet Winston you see all his faults, and the rest of your life you spend in discovering his virtues. …

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