The Magazine

Not So Special

Why the author doesn’t like Churchill’s ‘History of the English-Speaking Peoples.’

Sep 24, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 02 • By EDWARD SHORT
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Not long ago I was in Boston browsing the stacks of that legendary emporium, the Brattle Book Shop, when I chanced upon Winston Spencer Churchill: Servant of Crown and Commonwealth, a collection of tributes to the parliamentarian, war leader, historian, and wit, which his longstanding English publisher Cassell brought out in 1954 to celebrate the great man’s 80th birthday. 

Included among the contributors were some notably diverse figures—Duff Cooper, who resigned his post in the cabinet after Munich; Viscount Cecil, whose abounding faith in the League of Nations proved such a pitiable illusion; Aga Khan, the sybaritic imam who shared Churchill’s passion for the turf; Bernard Baruch, who helped put Churchill back on his feet after the 1929 crash; Clement Attlee, who in his many years in the House of Commons prized Churchill not only as a worthy colleague but as an even worthier opponent—all of whom had lively things to say about the august honoree. 

Yet the one whose tribute captured the essence of Churchill best was Violet Bonham Carter, H. H. Asquith’s daughter. Describing meeting young Churchill at a dinner party when she was 19 and he was 33, she recalled, “With his dramatic South African exploits behind him, and a political career in the making, [he] was already on the high road to fame”—though his critics were quick to dismiss it as mere self-seeking “notoriety.” Still, Violet was shrewd enough to see it as something more.

His unabashed confidence, unsquashable resilience, his push and dash and flair for taking short cuts through life, his contempt for humdrum conformity have always challenged stuffy, stolid, stick-in-the-mud opinion here and elsewhere.

For Violet, no one knew better “how to perform the public service known as ‘putting the cat among the pigeons,’ ” and readers of her memoir, Winston Churchill as I Knew Him (1965), will also recall that it was at this same dinner that Churchill turned to his young companion and quipped, “We are all worms, but I do believe that I am a glow-worm.”

In Mr. Churchill’s Profession, Peter Clarke attempts to dim the luster of Violet’s friend by disparaging not only the writings of the man but the man himself. The author of a recent study of John Maynard Keynes and a survey of the end of empire for the Penguin History of Britain, Clarke might seem peculiarly suited for such a task, though whether he succeeds is another matter.  

Rather than studying Churchill’s literary work as a whole, Clarke limits himself to a sustained attack on A History of the English-Speaking Peoples (1956-58), which Churchill wrote from 1932, when his political career seemed finished, to the later 1950s, when he finally handed the baton off to Anthony Eden. Clarke does take up aspects of Churchill’s four-volume life of the Duke of Marlborough (1933-38), but there is very little about his life of Lord Randolph Churchill (1906), his history of the Great War, The World Crisis (1923-1929), his auto­biography My Early Life (1930), his history of the Second World War (1948-54), or his charming collection of pen portraits, Great Contemporaries (1936). 

Clarke also spends a good deal of the book discussing the assistance Churchill obtained for his History of the English-Speaking Peoples from a number of talented editors, most of whom were good historians in their own right: Keith Feiling, the biographer of Neville Chamberlain; G. M. Young, the author of that wonderful study of the Victorians, Portrait of an Age (1936); Alan Bullock and William Deakin, who would go on to edit the Oxford History of Modern Europe series; Denis Brogan, the Cambridge don who wrote a number of books on American politics; Alan Hodge, Robert Graves’s collaborator in the interwar social history, The Long Week-End (1941); and J. H. Plumb, the epicurean biographer of Sir Robert Walpole, who spent the Second World War at Bletchley Park deciphering the German naval code.

With such a cast of characters, Clarke might have put together a fascinating account of how these different historians viewed the Anglo history that Churchill proposed to cover. But in his hands such marvelous material never comes to life. 
Clarke only deviates from his niggling account of the History for brief digressions. For example, he notes that Frontiers and Wars (1962), an omnibus edition of Churchill’s early imperial histories, “is still readable today for its lucid and bold exposition,” though the real reason he commends “its mordant asides” is that they underscore “the intractable nature of the resistance to Western dominance in Afghanistan.”