On Winston Churchill’s first day as prime minister, Adolf Hitler invaded Holland and Belgium. Poland and Czechoslovakia had already fallen, and the Dunkirk evacuation was just two weeks away. For the next twelve months, Hitler would wage a relentless bombing campaign, killing 45,000 Britons. It was up to Churchill to hold his country together and persuade President Franklin Roosevelt that Britain was a worthy ally—and willing to fight to the end.
In The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson shows, in cinematic detail, how Churchill taught the British people “the art of being fearless.” It is a story of political brinkmanship, but it’s also an intimate domestic drama, set against the backdrop of Churchill’s prime-ministerial country home, Chequers; his wartime retreat, Ditchley, where he and his entourage go when the moon is brightest and the bombing threat is highest; and of course 10 Downing Street in London. Drawing on diaries, original archival documents, and once-secret intelligence reports—some released only recently—Larson provides a new lens on London’s darkest year through the day-to-day experience of Churchill and his family: his wife, Clementine; their youngest daughter, Mary, who chafes against her parents’ wartime protectiveness; their son, Randolph, and his beautiful, unhappy wife, Pamela; Pamela’s illicit lover, a dashing American emissary; and the advisers in Churchill’s “Secret Circle,” to whom he turns in the hardest moments.
The Splendid and the Vile takes readers out of today’s political dysfunction and back to a time of true leadership, when, in the face of unrelenting horror, Churchill’s eloquence, courage, and perseverance bound a country, and a family, together.
Disclaimer: Although I received an electronic uncorrected proof of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, the words and opinions below are my own.
One of my hobbies is genealogy. It initially began as a search for my husband’s roots in Scandinavia and colonial America, but I eventually began to trace my own family history in what is now the United Kingdom. I’ve uncovered where my paternal great-grandfather fought during the Great War but didn’t think there was much on his son – my grandfather – because he wasn’t in the military. It turns out that he was in a reserved occupation – a bit like an essential worker during the current coronavirus pandemic – but he was in the Auxiliary Fire Service in London during World War 2. His older brother, my great uncle, was listed in the 1939 Register as being trained as an Air Raid Warden. Both lived in south London and both survived the war. That got me wondering what life might’ve been like for them and their wives at that time. Erik Larsen’s latest book, although focusing on the British government from 1940 to 1941, has now given me some idea.
The introduction (or prologue) is titled Bleak Expectations, not exactly an optimistic starting point. It reveals that British government officials planned for a worst-case scenario if Germany decided to bomb or invade the country. There is something to be said about this method. Although a bleak picture is painted, we feel better when these expectations don’t come to pass. I only need to look at the case projections for New York during this Coronavirus pandemic and compare it to the actual numbers to experience that, especially in New York. But on another hand, we never seem to learn our lessons regarding preparedness. Whereas now there are discussion points about whether the world was prepared for such a situation, back then there was an acknowledgment of a shortage of planes and anti-aircraft defenses. Things weren’t looking good when Winston Churchill came to power on 10th May 1940, and this is where Larson starts proceedings before looking at events of the Dunkirk evacuation just two weeks later.
But the Dunkirk evacuation is also where Churchill set the tone for the war and the war effort. The Prime Minister believed in showing confidence and fearlessness and that such attitudes could spread. Churchill didn’t believe in minimizing events, but he portrayed confidence that they could be overcome. This was highlighted in his famous “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech on 4th June 1940. Larson uses primary sources such as personal diaries to show the reaction to that speech and many others.
Personal diaries provide vital clues to life in 1940 and 1941. Reading the entries makes me hope that somewhere down the road, 22nd century historians will be able to reflect on 2020 using similar sources. As well as writings from Churchill family members, private secretaries, and other associates, Larson makes use of entries from Mass-Observation, which relied on volunteers to keep diaries about everyday life. Some entries made me cringe for their frivolity; it seems crazy that so many young people – including Churchill’s youngest daughter – laughed, danced, and drank champagne while so many of their countrymen (and women) were dying either in battle or because of the blitz. There were many occasions when Churchill and company would watch the blitz from the roofs of government buildings. The title of the book comes from a line in Sir Jock Colville’s diary where he described watching bombs falling over London at night as both “splendid” and “vile.” But other entries, described the resilience of the people, how they got on with daily life while the bombs fell over an eight-month period, and how they cheered their Prime Minister when they saw him. Who knows, maybe my grandparents and other relatives were among them.
The Splendid and the Vile clocks in at over 600 pages, but it didn’t feel like that many. The contents page shows a daunting 101 chapters, plus epilogue. It isn’t all that bad, however. Many of the chapters are short, with some being only one page long. Plus, almost twenty percent of the book is comprised of sources, acknowledgements, and notes. It means that, even if some of the sentences are long with several clauses, it’s a reasonably easy read. I’m a focused reader, so it took me just over one week to read. Because it can be broken down into bite size chunks, it’s a book that can be picked up and put down at will. This was the third of Larson’s books that I’ve read, and it’s probably the one I’ve enjoyed the best.
Erik Larson is the author of five national bestsellers: Dead Wake, In the Garden of Beasts, Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City, and Isaac’s Storm, which have collectively sold more than nine million copies. His books have been published in nearly twenty countries.
Publisher: Crown Publishing (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
Publication Date: 25 February 2020