"Life is fraught with opportunities to keep your mouth shut," Winston Churchill is reputed to have said (he's also reputed to have said "That which does not kill you makes you stronger," "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's," and "Let them eat cake," so proceed with caution), but in a long and eventful life lived entirely in the public eye, he was never known, seen, or even rumored to keep his mouth shut, and the thronging legions of biographers who told and re-told his life story over the last 70 years have perpetuated that incessant burbling. Churchill himself wrote well over 6 million words in his lifetime, almost all of them about his lifetime, and since his death in 1965, a torrent of books about him has gushed from the world's presses, thousands and thousands and thousands of studies, quote compilations, and enormous biographies. Readers have been bombarded with Churchilliana: Churchill as gardener, Churchill as literary figure; Churchill as artist; Churchill as soldier; Churchill as letter-writer; Churchill as leader; Churchill as lover; Churchill as lecturer; Churchill, in other words, as unkillable cottage industry.
The latest book in this bombardment is a doorstop more-than-1000-page one-volume biography: Churchill: Walking with Destiny by justly celebrated historian and biographer Andrew Roberts. It's been over 20 years since Roberts wrote "Eminent Churchillians," a collective look at Churchill's circle of friends and enemies. "Eminent Churchillians" contained many sharp insights into Churchill's character and could easily have foretold an equally insightful future long biography squarely on the man himself.
"Churchill: Walking with Destiny" isn't that biography. Rather, it's a kind of whopping big thematic continuation of Roberts' bestselling one-volume 2014 work "Napoleon: A Life." That earlier book, likewise part of a torrent of tomes on its subject, erects the framework of a fallible – indeed intensely flawed – man but then builds up around that framework a gorgeous temple to a kind of god on Earth. It was a neat trick (ably assisted by this author's fantastically readable prose, which flows along in a pitch-perfect combination of erudition and eloquence); it allowed Roberts to have lunch on a Monday with objective scholars and supper on a Tuesday with hagiographers without alienating either group.
As with Bonaparte, so now with Churchill. In brightly engaging chapters, Roberts takes readers through all the stages of Churchill's adventurous life as a soldier of the empire and then as a professional politician – Home Secretary, First Lord of the Admiralty, and of course Prime Minister during his country's most dire trial of modern times. And Roberts is frank about Churchill's famous failures. About the debacle of the Gallipoli campaign, for instance, he writes, "In the Second World War his bulldog obstinacy proved invaluable; during the Gallipoli campaign it left him appallingly vulnerable." His various strategic blunders during the Second World War, whether involving Japan or Norway or the Italian campaign, are laid out in clear detail with every appearance of engaging impartiality.
But as with "Napoleon: A Life," the impartiality here only runs so deep. This big book repeats the uncanny performance of being critical entirely in the service of praise. “The public trusted [Churchill] in 1940 not because they believed he had always, or even generally, been right – all too clearly he had not,” Roberts writes in a typical passage, “but because they knew he had fought bravely for what he believed in, while many other, more self-serving politicians had not.” Roberts is a shrewd and experienced biographer; he knows perfectly well that “he fought bravely for what he believed in” is actually fairly faint praise – and can apply to the evil as well as the good.
What Churchill thought right at the time seldom turned out to be, in fact, right – something the man himself was honest enough to point out. But Roberts is more concerned with crediting his hero with intangibles. His Churchill, with his bulldog obstinacy and his brave fighting for what he wanted to fight for, “did much to create, sustain, and direct” his people's determination to “fight on until victory” against the Nazi menace, and in the process became a kind of living embodiment of the nation. On Jan. 24, 1965, when, as Roberts puts it “the noble heart of Winston Spencer-Churchill beat its last," Charles de Gaulle said simply: “Now Britain is no longer a Great Power.” This is essentially what "Churchill: Walking with Destiny" gives its readers: a Winston Churchill who is both man and patron saint.
“Far too much has been and is being written about me," Churchill is reputed to have said, and Roberts has the nonchalant courage to include the quote around the 1100-page mark of his book. As fair warning to his readers, he also includes Churchill's most prescient warning: “To do justice to a great man, discriminating criticism is necessary. Gush, however quenching, is always insipid.”