King Arthur, Queen Elizabeth (the first one), Henry VIII, Nelson, Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill.
Six names; the six names that even the most challenged GCSE student could surely come up with as Great Britons (or more specifically perhaps, Great Englishmen and Women). Four sovereigns (one essentially mythical) and two commoners. Except there was nothing common about WSC – Winston Spencer Churchill, but perhaps something mythical.
The personal tragedy of the series of strokes that forced William Manchester to reluctantly hand over the reins of this epic 3-volume project, is mirrored in the final tragedy of Churchill’s public life– the unedifying sight of a much-diminished giant clinging to power.
Born to unimaginable privilege, the young Churchill overcame his intellectual deficiencies and bizarre parenting by marshalling all the advantages of his class–not excluding encouraging his mother to seduce men who could advance her son’s career. Manchester is not so explicit as to call WSC out for pimping out his mother, but he gives us enough facts to draw our own conclusions.
And this is the strength of the entire work. It gives the reader enough well-researched information and background material to draw our own conclusions about an undisputed giant of the 20th century. A man of deep flaws, inexcusable prejudices, bombastic self-belief, but indomitable spirit when it really mattered. Although generally favourable to its subject, the book does throw light on Churchill’s flaws and errors of judgement, certainly enough to dispel some of the myths of unalloyed genius that have grown up around him.
There are few lives which would warrant a 3000 page biography–WSC was undoubtedly one of them. This work sits between Roy Jenkins’ single volume excellent biography and Martin Gilbert’s massive official work which runs, I believe, to 12 books. An indispensable addition to any Churchill library.