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.”