Random House Trade Paperbacks 2004
Paperback, 336 pages
Biographies are an indispensable part of the Christian’s library—but whose do we read? Not only are we faced with the dilemma of which biography to read, but we are also faced with the dilemma of which biographer to read. Here’s one I think is worth the time of reading for several reasons. First, it is a biography of a formidable personality. While Churchill’s contribution to the advancement of Christianity is negligible if it exists at all, he occupies a major role in world history. If nothing else, Churchill is fascinating. Often quotable, sometimes admirable, and occasionally despicable, he appears to be larger than life. Second, it is a well-written biography. Ruben does an excellent job of differentiating her account of Churchill’s life from the over 650 other accounts: “I decided to write a biography that would make my case for my Churchill but also press the opposing arguments—a biography that would convey the ambiguities of his character and reputation as well as the elementary themes of his life” (7-8).
Finally an unexpected delight was Rubin’s habit of explaining what labor and obstacles any biographer faces:
No biography can be complete or conclusive…. Layers of fact pile higher and higher, and each additional fact may change the picture of the subject. A biographer’s choice to highlight or dismiss certain episodes—controversial, offensive, or poignant—can vividly color a portrait. Readers unfamiliar with the subject’s life are blind to the artful selection that’s taking place” (221).
Her chapter 34 heading is “Churchill Exposed: Missing Information Supplied.”
There are, as the title implies, forty chapters in this book. Some are short and serve to locate the man within his world. Chapter 3 is a list of over sixty people (notable in their own right) who crossed paths with Churchill. Chapter 9 is Gretchen Rubin’s attempt to define Churchill with a single word. Chapter 14 is a time-line of his life (born 1874, died 1965). Chapter 22 is called “Churchill in Context,” introduced with these words from the author:
Colorless but useful, bare facts help us grasp the whole of Churchill’s life by placing him in context. Neatly ordered, seemingly without interpretation or bias, their precision is comforting. We read these facts; we assume these must be the ones that matter. (139)
Chapter 26 is a collection of photographs taken throughout his life. Chapter 30 is a map of the British Empire at its largest. Chapter 35 is called “Churchill True or False,” and is a sixty-three-question true/false quiz about his life.
The other chapters are a little meatier, and I have chosen to categorize them in several ways. Some of the chapters deal with people and events that shaped his life. Chapter 4 is called “Churchill’s Finest Hour—May 28, 1940.” Of that time Rubin writes,
We search in a biography for the subject’s decisive moment, the one that sums up a life’s meaning or changes its direction. Churchill’s life was starred with turning points: escaping from the prison camp, winning his first election, fighting for his reputation after the Dardanelles disaster, becoming Prime Minister, proclaiming victory in 1945, losing the election in 1945. However, one period—the end of May 1940—stands out from the rest. It was at this dangerous time that Churchill showed himself most fully and used his gifts with greatest effect. (35)
Chapter 15 is titled “Churchill as Son” and discusses Churchill’s relationship with this father: both as Churchill remembered it and as it was in reality. Speaking of this, Rubin writes,
In fact, Winston Churchill had two fathers. One was the cold, disapproving father who died when Winston was twenty; the other was the father whom Winston invented after the real one died. (103-104)
Chapter 25 emphasizes the “Englishness” of Churchill. Whatever shortcomings he may have had, he was an English patriot. According to Rubin he had one goal: “the glory of England” (157). Chapter 29 furthers this explanation by focusing on his imperial aspirations for England.
Another group of chapters addresses Churchill’s personal life. Was he a great leader? Chapter 5 presents the arguments for “yes”—and “no.” Chapter 10 raises the issue of his ambition to be famous:
Although it is impossible to prove a subject’s motives, a biography must probe them, because motive helps to explain a subject’s actions. Why did Churchill do what he did? To maintain the Empire—because he loved war—to prove himself to his father. These theories are plausible, but there is another explanation as well: to satisfy his overpowering desire for fame.(77)
Chapter 16 takes up the debate on whether he was a good or bad father. Chapter 17 discusses his love of painting, at which he was fairly competent. Chapter 18 is titled “Churchill the Spendthrift.” Of his habits, Rubin writes, “One of Churchill’s most obvious qualities was his self-absorption, and one of the most obvious manifestations of this quality was his persistent trouble with money” (119).
Chapter 21 debates whether he was an alcoholic; 24 debates the happiness of his marriage, 28 explains how he viewed his own life, and 38 deals with his death. Churchill longed to die a glorious death, but it was not to be.
Some of the most interesting reading is found in the chapters that probe his relationships with other political figures—and how they viewed him. Chapter 19, in fact, deals with that very subject. It is a collection of quotations (often contradicting each other) made by various people about Winston Churchill. Chapter 1 reveals him to be a hero, and chapter 2 argues that he was a failed politician. Chapter 31 explores the relationship between Winston Churchill and FDR. Did they have a close friendship, as some believe? Or did they have only a workable relationship only, based upon their need for each other during World War II?
Chapter 33 examines Churchill’s view of Adolf Hitler. According to Churchill, the only thing he had in common with Hitler was “a horror of whistling,” but Rubin suggests there was much more:
They shared many of the qualities that buttress a leader’s power. Each had charisma, confidence, eloquence, physical stamina, and a high tolerance for risk. Each was ruthless, driven, obsessed with military power, fascinated by science, self-educated, self-absorbed, with a strong historical imagination. They both proved themselves in battle, and both had a surprising passion for painting. They both sought to control every aspect of the war, from grand strategy to minor details. (212)
The final category is that of Churchill’s mastery of language. He was, according to Rubin, sentimental (chapter 20), belligerent (chapter 13), and indifferent to other people (chapter 12). Once after his personal attendant accused him of being rude, Churchill replied, “Yes, but I am a great man” (87). Chapter 6 is called “Churchill’s Genius with Words,” and Rubin says that “The grand style was his hallmark” (47). Chapter 7 highlights his eloquence by amassing some of his more memorable quotes—but why spoil your fun by reciting some here? OK, one. A member of parliament complained when Churchill slept through one of his speeches. “Must you fall asleep when I am speaking?” said the man. “No,” said Churchill, “it is purely voluntary” (58).
This is truly a well-written, informative book. It’s divided into easily readable chapters. One caution, though: some of Churchill’s language can be crude. There’s not much of it, but there is some.