The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, Erik Larsen 2020

Larsen has written a rather wonderful and staggeringly researched book about one of my favorite historical figures and eras, Winston Churchill and England during WWII.  Just when you think that between William Manchester, Roy Jenkins, Martin Gilbert, and a crowd of other Churchillian biographers we knew everything about this fascinating and complex character, along comes Larsen with an entirely novel take.

And, I did mean the double entendre embedded in ‘novel’ because the book reads as much like a suspenseful mystery as it does history/biography.  By focusing on the day to day activities, diary entries, calendars, and other primary sources often neglected as too trivial by biographers and historians, Larsen takes us through the perilous year from May 10, 1940 when Churchill replaced Chamberlain as the British Prime Minister to the attack on Pearl Harbor when the US entered the war and turned the tide.  He does this by extensive quotation and reconstruction of events through the eyes and writings of Churchill, his wife, daughters, and son, his private secretary, and a small cast of additional characters.  Perhaps the most interesting of these are Lord Beaverbrook, Churchill’s daughter-in-law Pamela, and the American envoy managing Lend Lease, Averill Harriman, but there are dozens of minor characters that add to the mix.  While many of these names are well known, one was totally new to me, John Colville who was a 24 year old Cambridge graduate when he became an assistant private secretary to the new Prime Minister.  His diary was a rich source of information for Larsen including his observations about a night-time bombing raid on London which he described as follows:  “Never was there such a contrast of natural splendor and human vileness.” In addition, interspersed with these English actors are chapters featuring the diaries and words of Hitler, Goring, Goebbels, and Hess.

All in all, the book reads like one of those tense mysteries where you know the outcome but can’t keep yourself from being nervous nonetheless.  It’s a masterful work and one that I highly recommend to anyone who, 80 years later, continues to marvel at the incredible courage and grit that the English demonstrated as the sole combatant against the evil that was the Third Reich during the first two years of WWII.  The great man theory of history is somewhat out of vogue, but it is clear to me that without Churchill at the helm, we might all be speaking German or not around to speak at all.