This magisterial three--volume biography of Winston Church-ill, begun by William Manchester nearly 30 years ago, has at last reached completion, though the path to its finale took a circuitous trip through the wilderness, reminiscent of Churchill himself. The Last Lion is doubtless the most popular Churchill biography, its lyrical adulation for the subject comparable to Carl Sandburg’s six-volume Lincoln biography.
A literary approach to a political figure is distinctly out of fashion in our revisionist and egalitarian age. Manchester’s transparently heroic rendering of Churchill is today rejected by everyone except . . . readers. For a decade after the publication of the second volume, which took the story up to Churchill’s arrival at 10 Downing Street in May 1940, readers were demanding to know when the third and final volume would appear with the abiding interest of youngsters awaiting the next Harry Potter installment. Rumors began to circulate that Manchester was having difficulty, that he was scaling back the third volume to cover just the war years, or that he was, most implausibly of all, suffering writer’s block.
He took a strange detour in 1993 with a middling-sized book about the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, A World Lit Only by Fire, whose appalling factual errors and haphazard organization caused it to be poorly received. Then came the news in the late 1990s that, due to poor health—Manchester suffered a series of strokes—he would be unable to write the third volume. Perhaps a collaborator would be selected to complete the project; but despite a series of rumors and false starts, no successor was chosen until shortly before Manchester died in 2004, when Little, Brown announced that Manchester had at last settled on a writer to complete the last volume: Paul Reid.
No one had ever heard of Reid, a former feature writer for the Palm Beach Post who had taken up journalism as a second career in his late forties. He knew little about Churchill, and had never written a book before. Thus, the third and final volume is in some sense two stories: the continuation of the Churchill narrative, and the suspense drama of how it would turn out under another hand. Could a novice biographer possibly emulate Manchester’s gripping but sometimes overwrought prose (“Churchill’s feeling for the English tongue was sensual, almost erotic”) and satisfy demanding Churchillians at the same time?
In hindsight, whatever faults and foibles Manchester may have had, his choice of Reid appears inspired. Coming to Churchill with fresh eyes, Reid has produced a volume about the climax of Churchill’s career which ably captures the fullness of the story but with many departures from Manchester’s style and assessment of Churchill. Reid’s narrative of Churchill during and after World War II is straightforward, well written, and compelling; above all, it surmounts what would have been the likely problems of the third volume had Manchester lived to write it himself.
It turns out that Manchester did, indeed, suffer writer’s block after he arrived with Churchill at Number 10, and for a simple reason: The Churchill story becomes much more difficult to tell starting in 1940, because he is now in charge of the scene rather than a prophet in the wilderness. The cast of characters enlarges, the decisions are numerous and difficult to evaluate, even now—though a legion of revisionists are on hand today to point out Churchill’s shortcomings and blunders.
It is easy to see how the last third of Churchill’s life was harder for Manchester to fit into the purely heroic mode of the first two volumes. The strongest aspect of those volumes—his vivid recapturing of the social and political context surrounding Churchill—was either unnecessary or inappropriate for the last volume. The “overtures” of the first two volumes—the first describing Victorian England, the second the fever swamp of Depression-era Britain—could not find their symmetrical match for the third volume. Manchester’s talent as the biographical equivalent of a landscape painter became a disability when the canvas required portraiture. His muse deserted him.
Even Churchill’s unabashed champions—of whom I am one—sometimes find Manchester’s treatment out of proportion, or incommensurate with his true greatness. Manchester thought him the greatest Englishman since King Arthur (or since Disraeli, he says in the second volume)—an odd comparison since Arthur is partly a mythical figure while Churchill is a real one. Not satisfied with King Arthur, Manchester also compared Churchill to King David and Leonardo da Vinci, while adding the infelicitous judgment that “he had the temperament of a robber baron.”
Manchester rightly offered that “an American is struck by the facility with which so many British intellectuals slight the man who saved their country.” Yet he comes close to doing much the same thing with the unconscious way he embraces an essentially historicist approach to Churchill himself. Manchester’s most questionable assessment is that Churchill is to be explained and understood as a figure emanating from the “parochial grandeur” of the Victorian era, that his greatness in the struggle against Hitler is due precisely to his being wedded to obsolete, even reactionary values. In fact, without Hitler to summon “enormous stores of long-suppressed vitality within him,” it is not clear Manchester would have found Churchill interesting or admirable. In many other respects, Manchester sides with the current conventional wisdom that Churchill was an unthinking racist, imperialist, and anti-Communist.
Churchill’s Victorian roots are what make Churchill, for Manchester, the last lion, whose like we can’t expect to see on the world stage again. But it is an all-too-easy trope: Peter Canellos called Senator Edward Kennedy the Last Lion in his 2010 biography. Moreover, the suggestion that Churchill is some kind of remnant of a bygone age does readers a disservice. To be sure, Churchill had his own doubts about the possibilities of heroic virtue and high statesmanship in the 20th century. But for all of Manchester’s fulsome admiration for Churchill and his magnificence in describing Churchill’s life, his premise is wrong. Roy Jenkins has said that explaining Churchill as a product of Victorian aristocracy is “unconvincing. . . . Churchill was far too many faceted, idiosyncratic and unpredictable a character to allow himself to be imprisoned by the circumstances of his birth.” And another biographer, John Lukacs, adds: “Contrary to most accepted views we ought to consider that [Churchill] was not some kind of admirable remnant of a more heroic past. He was not The Last Lion. He was something else.”
The “something else” at the root of Churchill’s greatness in 1940 derived not from his being a Victorian man, but from his being, in a larger sense, an ancient man—the kind of “great-souled man” contemplated by Aristotle, among other classical authors. Manchester doesn’t go back far enough in explaining Churchill, and deprives readers of reflecting on the eternal nature of courage, greatness of soul, and practical judgment that are the summa of statesmanship in any age.
Paul Reid’s summary judgment in this third volume is more sound: “He may have been born a Victorian,” writes Reid, “but he had turned himself into a Classical man. He did not live in the past; the past lived on in him.” This is just one, though the most important, of Reid’s departures from Manchester’s Churchill. And while Reid has produced a more restrained and disciplined narrative, it is nonetheless stirring reading because of the subject matter. Reid’s contribution is worthy of a place among the best Churchill books. Despite the subtle confusions and runaway grandiosity of Manchester’s first two volumes, they remain resplendent reads—so long as readers remember not to take the “last” part of the title literally.
As Reid reminds us, Churchill said that the British people had “the lion heart.” Churchill himself only supplied “the roar.” So long as the British, or any, people still have a lion heart, there will be statesmen capable of giving a suitable roar.
Steven F. Hayward is the Thomas Smith fellow at the Ashbrook Center and the William Simon distinguished visiting
professor at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Public Policy.