Today – late but enthusiastic – I join the many who have written about Andrew Roberts’s new biography of Winston Churchill,Walking with Destiny.
I have now read all 982 pages with care and attention, most of them twice, many more than twice. My takeaway is that Andrew Roberts has made an impressive fight.
Yes, a fight. Because wrestling a figure like Winston Churchill into biographic encapsulation is a battle. One made perhaps harder by the fact that so many have stepped into this proverbial ring before.
Which brings me to another metaphor – the elephant in the room, the venerable heavyweight champion of Churchill biography, Sir Martin Gilbert (1936-2015). Over decades, Gilbert wrote what is not only the longest, but also arguably the most thoroughly researched, exhaustively documented, most ambitiously comprehensive biography in human history. Gilbert substantially adhered to Randolph Churchill’s guiding maxim (who had borrowed it from Lockhart): “He shall be… his own biographer.” This made – in both Gilbert’s eight-volume opus and the later, one-volume condensation – a laudably informative read, but perhaps one not always compelling as a narrative.
There is no want of scholarship underpinning Andrew Roberts’s own effort. Walking with Destiny delivers a steady current of salient and evocative facts. Moreover, Roberts is conspicuously even-handed. Indeed, sometimes Roberts is almost painfully fair in framing Churchill’s errors and deficiencies – of discernment, of impulse, and of character.
But these very compliments of Roberts’s new work might beg the question – why? Why this fresh biographic work about a figure so exhaustively chronicled?
One can attempt to answer the question from a perspective of scholarship. To be sure, the hitherto unmined diaries of both the Soviet Ambassador, Ivan Maisky, and King George VI are a noteworthy addition to the historical record. They provide dimension and, in at least one case, alter some conventional perspective. Nonetheless, this new material alone would not seem to justify a wholly new thousand pages about Churchill.
So again, why?
My own answer begins simply – because once I started reading this book, despite its mammoth size and my significant familiarity with the subject, I found it quite impossible to set aside. Walking with Destiny showcases Roberts’s rare combination of manifest erudition and engaging narrative skill that only a precious few historians seem to reconcile and command. Moreover, Roberts does not just compose history, but, like his subject, has a deep sense of it. Of the unfolding and enfolding context, nuance, and import. Of the constituent elements – events, decisions, time, and place. These he weaves without warping and shades without obtrusively coloring.
In short, Roberts tells Churchill’s story compellingly, fully, and evocatively in a way at once engagingly readable, substantively filling, and intellectually provoking. That more than justifies the addition of a new biography to the canon.
To be substantive in my praise, I owe some specifics.
Speaking to Roberts’s scholarly pith, I was struck by the manner in which he repeatedly used a statistic to convey far more than bare fact. On the disappointments and unrequited supplications of Churchill’s childhood: “…in the seven years from 1885 to 1892, Churchill wrote to his parents seventy-six times; they to him six times.”
To understand the urgent compulsion of his early quest for glory, we are told how, seeking an opportunity for combat, Churchill “…took a train over 2,000 miles in five days of sweltering heat from Bangalore to Nowsherea…”
The dizzying arc of Churchill’s early ambition and burgeoning influence is illustrated thus: “In 1903 he made twenty-nine speeches (travelling over 2,200 miles), in 1904 thirty-eight (5,500 miles), in 1905 forty-four (over 3,700 miles), in 1906 fifty-nine (3,800 miles) and in 1907 (despite his East African trip) forty-two. These speeches of often more than 5,000 words each…. He kept up this extraordinarily high level… even after the peak year of 1908, with sixty-nine speeches in 1909, seventy-seven in 1910 and sixty-five in 1911, traveling a total of 10,000 miles to deliver them.”
Regarding the impactful and enduring presence of the Other Club in Churchill’s life: “Churchill was to attend more than 300 dinners of the Other Club, by far the largest number of meals he ever had in one place other than with his own family.”
The highly effective use of fact to limn Churchill’s character and core is not limited to statistics.
Roberts tells us that “Churchill habitually drove fast, routinely jumped traffic lights and occasionally went up on to the pavement when faced with traffic congestion.” It is no great effort to make the metaphorical extension to many aspects of Churchill’s life.
But Roberts’s effort is more than clever application of fact and extrapolated metaphor. Churchill was masterfully able to locate himself, his people, his place, and his time in the tributaries and currents of history. Roberts is similarly able to tease and trace the many convergences threading Churchill’s life. Sometimes this is fairly straightforward; Roberts highlights that it was Churchill’s loss in his first bid for Parliament that left him free to go to South Africa, where he won the fame that catapulted him to prominence. Sometimes the connections are more subtle, but no less vital; Roberts draws the connection between Churchill’s early, formative experience with fanaticism in the Victorian colonial conflicts of sub-Saharan Africa to Churchill’s instinctive, recoiling identification of similar fanaticism in Nazi Germany decades later. Likewise, rather than simply cataloguing Churchill’s more obstinate decisions – both good and bad – Roberts illuminates these decisions as a path both consonant with and illuminating Churchill’s guiding principles, beliefs, and impulses.
Churchill’s death came half a decade before my birth, so I am without any living memory of him. I’m interested in the man because he is interesting. And perfection is not interesting. I find Churchill engaging for his humanity and loathe hagiography which, to my reckoning, diminishes both the reality and relevance of Churchill’s remarkable life and character.
Among Roberts’s gifts to readers is not only unsqueamish disclosure of Churchill’s errors of judgement, but also acknowledgement of where Churchill’s core notions deviate from modern sensibilities. But this is done without a partisan agenda. Roberts neither selectively edits statements and events to demonize Churchill, nor apologizes for when Churchill was boorish or wrong. Rather, Roberts deftly contextualizes, revealing flaws and deficiencies in a manner that better suits frank understanding than retroactive judgement.
Roberts’s discussion of Churchill’s views on women’s suffrage is a case in point. The portrayal of Churchill’s views and political postures was honest enough to make me wince. But, most illuminating, there is a particular incident related when Churchill, on the cusp of adopting a more progressive position, instead literally orates himself into a reactionary retreat. It is painful. It is certainly no “finest hour”. But it is fascinating, informative, and of a piece that Churchill’s oratory could sway not just the mind and will of others, but his own as well.
In his Conclusion, Roberts spends nearly an entire page cataloging “many times when Churchill’s judgement could legitimately be called into question”. The list is excruciating to read. And it is justly set upon the scales. Yet such is the nature of Roberts’s balanced presentations that this inventory of fault and failure can be acknowledged, absorbed, and carefully weighed.
As can Roberts’s own book. To be sure, Walking with Destiny is not a flawless effort. It was a fight, and some of the knuckled thrusts and bumps are hard to obscure. To the point is Roberts’s intriguing decision to remain fairly even-handed in the massive, 951-page sweep of the narrative while saving the weighty Conclusion (pages 965-982) for more partial contextualization. “Conclusion” understates; this is a lengthy, substantive, referential essay that, frankly, feels of sufficient weight to stand and be read on its own, rather than simply mortar and tassel the book.
But even this – though far from seamless – worked very well for me as a reader. In retrospect, it afforded a salutary digestive exercise – opportunity for a lengthy, provoking, warts-and-all regard for the sweep of Churchill’s life before having it more conspicuously hued and appraised. Roberts’s Conclusion proved to be the literary equivalent of a strong tonic, brisk walk, and settling reflection after a taxingly large, rich, and volubly companioned repast.
Churchill once wrote that “Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy, then an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then it becomes a tyrant and, in the last stage, just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.” Roberts might identify. There is that sense here that Roberts’s undertaking was no gentle affair, but more of a Churchillian struggle in its intellectual and narrative demands and exertions. This seems fitting to the life Andrew Roberts has so ably framed and chronicled.