The Splendid and the Vile: I Spent Two Months Reading a Biography of Churchill

I can’t blame Erik Larson. The Splendid and the Vile is a page turner (even at 600 pages).

Though tell someone you’re reading a biography of Winston Churchill that covers just one year of his life and watch their eyes roll. It’s true. There are many more lesser-known figures worthy of 600 pages and two months of time* that I could have (should have?) devoted my energies to reading. But I’m glad I read this one and eagerly recommend it to you.

Not because of Churchill (though also because of Churchill – there’s a moment late in the book where he is hosted by Roosevelt, and opts to take the entire meeting spanning several hours naked with his cigar and you think okay, good – and because it does from this telling make a strong case that Churchill’s energy and capacity to rally and to appoint and keep strong colleagues fundamentally altered history) but because of the way Larson explores the fear of living in history.

And ummm… that’s an easy sentiment to get behind. Larson names the absolute particular ways the English were living each day in absolute uncertainty and – well, I was going to write ‘helplessness’ in the sense the ordinary person couldn’t do much to change the direction of a bomb or to influence the strategy of the war, but Larson avoids a portrait of helplessness. It’s more the sense of uncertainty and limitation – that there is So Much to Be Afraid Of and so the people carry on shopping and dancing and going to the park. And maybe it should be the opposite – maybe the better book for our moment should be the one where when there is So Much to Be Afraid Of we all take to the streets screaming for something different (and we should) but there is something of a mirror to the human instinct of just… carrying on (not, god forbid, that I reference *that trite keep calm poster).

I guess I should back up and say it’s a biography of Churchill from the day he’s named Prime Minister in 1940 to a year later in ’41. It cover the relentless onslaught of the German airforce, and the wartime preparations of the British government, but it is – so brilliantly – laced with the lives of Churchill’s immediate family, as well as his secretaries and ministers. To witness in one chapter the devastation of the attack on Coventry, to the marriage proposal of his daughter and her total twitterpation with her fiancee is to perfectly capture the way history operates at the levels of the national tragedy and the personal… what is it. I’m tempted to call it dissociation – but that human ability to completely ignore all the evidence of mounting calamity and the encompassing disaster, and to just continue to fret about a crush, or a party, or a ruined dress. Which I know nothing at all about.

And then it also offers insight into how the Germans were thinking and planning at this stage in the war and I found that totally fascinating. If you don’t know the story of Rudolf Hess, that alone would be sufficient reason to pick this one up.

So yes – I know you don’t need another WWII recommendation, or a suggestion to read a biography of the archetypal old white man. But really, it’s very, very good.

*to be fair, the two months owed to pressing life deadlines that are soon enough resolved and I am now reading a book of poetry, so that is short. OH and I started and got halfway though but didn’t finish Michelle Good’s Five Little Indians (not for any reason of the book but because I just couldn’t find my way through it and will try again next year) so perhaps it’s not quite as dire reading just one thing for five months. NOT THAT YOU’RE COUNTING. (I am counting).


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