Mr Churchill’s Profession by Peter Clarke - review

Winston Churchill's literary career.

Winston Churchill and his wife, Clementine. Photo: Getty Images

Mr Churchill’s Profession: Statesman, Orator, Writer

Peter Clarke

Bloomsbury, 368pp, £20

Of books about Winston Churchill there is no end. The general biographers have plied their trade; more recently the military historians have analysed him as a war leader; most of his own books have retained their appeal. Newcomers to this field need either to bring with them a reputation already made or else to happen upon a theme that has so far escaped notice.

Peter Clarke scores under both headings. As a former master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, he needs no introduction to the learned world. He has chosen as his theme the relationship between Churchill’s historical writing and his achievements as a political leader. Some part of this field is already well ploughed and Clarke acknowledges his debt, in particular, to David Reynolds who, in his book In Command of History, has dealt faithfully with Churchill’s history of the Second World War.

This has left Clarke to tell the story of the early works of Churchill as a soldier, his biographies of his father, Randolph, and his ancestor the first Duke of Marlborough, his account of the First World War and his last work (other than a collection of speeches), A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. There is plenty of scope here for Clarke’s detailed research and occasional crisp and illuminating comments.

He deals at length with the great man’s inheritance from his parents. Randolph emerges as more of a taker than a giver. He left to his son a quick wit and the gift of oratory. The “Fourth Party”, the 19th-century parliamentary grouping to which Randolph belonged, was made up of skirmishers, capable of annoying Gladstone but without a distinct programme for the Tory party. “Tory democracy”, “Trust the people” and “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right” were great phrases for a political battlefield but raised more questions than they answered. Randolph ignored Lord Salisbury’s advice, which still has weight that Conservatives should not forget: since Tory supporters on the whole accepted the present state of affairs, this obliged them when seeking improvement “to work at less speed and at a lower temperature than [their] opponents”.

Randolph was adored from a distance by his son but they were never close. Clarke dismisses as unrealistic that Winston, who had spent the early years of his early life east of Suez, was too innocent to grasp that what ailed his father was probably syphilis. When Randolph died
in January 1895, Winston was left alone with his mother. “The pinch of the whole matter,” he wrote to her, “is that we are damned poor . . . In three years from my father’s death you have spent a quarter of our entire fortune in the world. I have also been extravagant; but my extravagances are a very small matter beside yours.”

She did not argue the point but showed real affection by approaching newspaper editors to persuade them to take Winston as a special war correspondent. But there was no war suitable for Churchill to repeat the success that he had scored with his first work of non-fiction, The Story of the Malakand Field Force, published in 1898. A promising opening was snuffed out when the Turks and Greeks inconveniently ended their dispute over Crete. Churchill would have been ready to work alongside either party.

His next endeavour, thanks to a timely intervention by Lord Salisbury, was to go with Lord Kitchener to the Sudan. Churchill was present at the battle of Omdurman and about that time tried his hand at a novel. Savrola was not a success: “I consistently urged my friends to abstain from reading it.” Next was an account of the Sudan campaign, The River War, and a dash for parliament in 1899, when he narrowly lost a by-election at Oldham.

Then came the Boer war, which led him into another book, London to Ladysmith Via Pretoria, but not until he had been captured and later escaped in circumstances that guaranteed good publicity. “My dearest Mama,” he wrote, “I enclose cheque for £300. In a certain sense it belongs to you for I would never have succeeded had you not transmitted to me the wit and energy which are necessary.”

In 1906, Churchill published his two-volume biography of his father. By now the MP for Oldham, he wrote out the entire work in longhand. It was an openly partisan attempt to rebuild his father’s reputation as a Tory democrat. Oldham had elected him as a Conservative in October 1900 but he was also a convinced free trader and when the split came over tariff reform he transferred to the Liberals. Promotion followed quickly and by 1911 he was first lord of the admiralty.

The story from then on is familiar but Clarke turns his searchlight on the relationship of Churchill with the publishers who moved from excitement to despair and back again as they watched, almost helplessly, the ups and downs of the author’s love affair with history – more particularly with his own page in that story. After reading The World Crisis, Churchill’s attempt at a history of the First World War, Arthur Balfour described it as “Winston’s brilliant autobiography disguised as a history of the universe”. A disproportionate part of the text is indeed devoted to a robust account of the Dardanelles adventure that temporarily buried Churchill’s political career.

Marlborough: His Life and Times, a splendid and spacious work whose first volume was published in 1933, is in part a counter-attack against Thomas Babington Macaulay, who had depicted Churchill’s ancestor as a traitor because of a letter he had supposedly written to the Old Pretender giving the particulars of a planned English attack upon Brest. Churchill could find no such letter in the Jacobite archives of 1694 and argued that the “Camaret Bay letter” had never existed. His rival in this field was George Trevelyan, a descendent of Macaulay just as Churchill was descended from the Duke of Marlborough. Trevelyan, a reasonable and scholarly man, considered Churchill’s passionate defence and acknowledged in his book on the reign of Queen Anne that the notorious letter was probably a forgery. This was a significant success for Churchill but he did not gloat and later accepted Trevelyan’s help on the last three of his four volumes on Marlborough.

Clarke then moves away from his chosen structure to give us an account of Britain’s dealings with the US from a time well before Churchill appeared on the scene. He charts the gradual increase in sympathy between the two countries and its spread from confinement in the working classes and their spokesmen into the drawing rooms of the well bred. Anglo-American friendship became an accepted part of the general political discourse. The settlement of the “Alabama claims” in 1871-72 on terms not too onerous for the British Treasury played a big part in that improvement. But the relationship went up and down and I was surprised to read a warning letter from Churchill’s wife, Clementine, who feared that he might be barred from high office in a Conservative government by his anti-American views.

Throughout this period, Churchill’s personal finances were in a state of crisis. His solution to the problem was simple: he had to step up his literary output. This caused him trouble with publishers on both sides of the Atlantic as his different commitments degenerated into a fearsome muddle. Publishers found that it was relatively easy to get undertakings from him of future effort but less easy to make those undertakings stick.

Clementine did her best to persuade him to cut his spending and was particularly apprehensive about the costs of running Chartwell, the family home in Kent. But Chartwell was increasingly dear to Churchill. The couple came close to putting the house on the market, until the problem was solved after the Second World War by Lord Camrose who organised its peaceful transfer to the National Trust.

Before this happy outcome, the argument between Churchill and his publishers centred on his undertaking to produce A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Work on this was suspended during the Second World War. It eventually appeared in four volumes between 1956 and 1958. Churchill had written most of the book by 1939; it was completed and scrutinised by his many helpers. (For his intricate dealings with the Inland Revenue, Churchill relied on the advice and ingenuity of Brendan Bracken and later Lord Camrose.)

Much of the battle with his advisers was inspired by his determination to include in the History as much as possible of the traditional accounts on which he had been brought up. He had his heroes, who included Alfred the Great, King Arthur, Chatham and, of course, the first duke of Marlborough. He argued strongly to retain the spelling of “Boadicea” given on her statue on the Embankment and also as much of the Arthurian myth as possible. “It is all true, or might be and more and better besides,” he said. His heroine was Joan of Arc; Cromwell was a notable villain. He managed to save the story of King Alfred and the cakes with a characteristic reference to “the gleaming toys of history fashioned for the children of any age”.

In 1940, Churchill’s two careers converged.  The war that he then helped to win was followed by the history of those same events and his finances were thereby secured. One is left with a vivid mental picture of Churchill working night after night in his study at Chartwell, brandy in hand, having played his nightly game of backgammon with Clementine and packed her off to bed. He had won a war for us but “. . . something ere the end/Some work of noble note may yet be done,/Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.”

Douglas Hurd, a Conservative peer, served as home secretary from 1985-89 and foreign secretary from 1989-95