Winston Churchill led Britain with grit, bombast, and his cat, Nelson

In “The Splendid and the Vile,” Erik Larson portrays London during the Blitz, focusing not only on Churchill but also on his family and friends.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
“The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz” by Erik Larson, Crown, 608 pp.

The sounds of the Blitz, the German aerial assault of the United Kingdom during World War II, were imprinted on a generation. First came the wails of air-raid sirens and the pops of anti-aircraft guns. Then the shriek of dive bombers and the sparks and hisses of incendiaries – grim little fire starters designed to set streets aflame and light up targets for enemy pilots, writes Erik Larson in his spectacular new book, “The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz.”

Amid the anxiety and fear, Larson notes something else: a zest for life. It feels as if the young are dancing faster and falling in love more deeply. Meanwhile, Winston Churchill takes over the reins of government “with a thrilling sense of challenge and opportunity” and soon transforms into a veritable rock. He’s just the man for one of the most important jobs in modern history – stopping Adolf Hitler. 

Larson, as America’s most compelling popular historian, is at his best in this fast-moving, immensely readable, and even warmhearted account of the battle to save Britain. Here he draws readers into the early years of the war when much of the world assumes Britain will crumble under endless German bombs. So do plenty of Britons, but not Churchill. He’s as confident as he is “flamboyant, electric and wholly unpredictable.” 

Not to mention eccentric. Churchill loves to swan about in sky-blue rompers, work in bed, and tote his cat, Nelson, around while murmuring “Cat, darling.” 

The Blitz kills thousands of citizens while countless others survive close calls. Survivors struggle with grief and fear amid broken glass, bombed-out streets, chilly shelters, and an ever-present coating of dust. Meanwhile, the threat of a German invasion looms and the outcome of the British Empire depends on those wishy-washy allies across the pond.

Much of “The Splendid and the Vile” tracks Churchill as he rallies his fellow citizens, plots military strategy, and carefully woos President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Britain needs American ships, supplies, and soldiers to survive, but FDR’s hands are (mostly) tied by wary voters and isolationist members of Congress. “I shall drag the United States in,” Churchill promises.

Hitler and FDR aren’t the focus here. Instead, Larson highlights the people around Churchill, like the colorful newspaper magnate William Maxwell Aitken, the 1st Baron Beaverbrook, aka Max. He’s the prime minister’s confidant and right-hand man, competent and also stimulating. “Some take drugs,” Churchill declared. “I take Max.”

Along with Churchill himself, a pair of dashing young people give this book its heart: Mary Churchill, the fun-loving but somewhat naive teenage daughter of the prime minister, and John “Jock” Colville, a private secretary. Both individuals leave deeply revealing diaries that capture their refusal to put their personal lives on hold for queen and country. 

At first, Mary Churchill isn’t entirely tuned to the chaos and drama around her. But she matures fast. Soon, to her father’s delight, she commands an anti-aircraft battery as a member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s branch of the British Army.

As for Colville, Larson uncovered diary entries that reveal him to be a helpless romantic who’s also a keen and poetic observer. Larson draws the book’s title from a diary entry Colville made the night of a bomb attack on London. The scene – of searchlights and flashes, ancient constellations and sudden fires – “was magnificent and terrible ... never was there such a contrast of natural splendor and human vileness.” 

Should we care about privileged people who find time for love and cats while a nation faces oblivion? Absolutely. As Churchill and his nation demonstrated, leadership and resilience don’t require a grim determination or even an always-stiff upper lip.

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