Several times in the course of reading these books, the same interaction kept happening. I would be talking with someone and mention that I was reading William Manchester’s epic-length biography of Winston Churchill. Invariably, the person would say something of this sort; “You know, Churchill is a fascinating character, because he didn’t do anything important until he became prime minister.”
I had heard that long before I began reading The Last Lion, and always found it a bit odd. Can someone really become Her Majesty’s chief magistrate without actually doing anything to prove himself worthy of the office? And for that matter, the people making that statement about Churchill will also offer the caveat that Churchill was the foremost antagonist in Parliament to Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement government. But how could a nobody who did nothing with his life suddenly be granted a platform for such powerful speaking? This presents a bigger paradox when placed in history; the whole population of Britain was behind Chamberlain led by an anti-war intelligentsia, while Churchill toiled in the extreme minority, to the point where his speeches about the villainy of Nazi Germany received more hate in England, than they did in the fascist regime itself!
Actually, the second book of the Last Lion series is named Alone. It carries through the decade where Churchill undertook a lonely and depressing service as a lone voice of sanity, a voice we may now declare as prophetic, at least when measured up to those of Churchill’s opposition. Truth be told, Churchill had established an astounding array of intelligence sources and had developed within himself an unique ability to work long hours and digest volumetric quantities of information.
So did Winston Spencer Churchill do anything with his life before he became prime minister? He did more than most of us could imagine possible. The first two books out of Manchester’s three are dedicated to his life before he ever ran Ten Downing Street. At least twice he had thought his career over and complete, only returning to service in the belief that he had more to offer to the English people.
From time in India, to the Boer War, to the Spanish-American War in Cuba, to numerous wrangles within Parliament; Churchill was a very busy man. During the Great War, he was made First Lord of the Admiralty (think Secretary of the Navy). He was also appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, created the air ministry and flew some of the first military planes, is largely credited with the vision which eventually became the tank… All the while, he wrote enormous quantities of books, both historical and one fictional work.
If you read the trilogy, you’ll read all about that and more. I highly recommend these books, and should say a few words regarding William Manchester’s prose. You would think that the writing would get repetitive or boring when you’re putting 3000 pages down about one man. Fortunately, Manchester wanted to offer context and so the books, while centering on the life of Winston Churchill, include so much more of British and world history during the time of Churchill’s life and the bookends. As well, his writing flows easily, both when read aloud and when absorbed by the mind.
Unfortunately, Manchester had a stroke and was unable to complete the third volume, entrusting the task to Paul Reid. Even more sadly, Manchester died before Reid was able to get much done. Manchester had completed the bulk of his research and had filled forty (or so) notebooks with scratch-notes that were to become volume III, Defender of the Realm, and it was upon these that Reid relied to finish the biography.
Reid had to decipher Manchester’s notes and arrange the narrative, as well as do a great deal of his own research in order to fact-check, and flesh out the events he would be covering. Perhaps Reid would disagree but I have to admit, writing 900 pages with Manchester’s style would strike me as a daunting task. The span of time between the release of the second book and the third is fully forgivable, given the stylistic continuity of the prose and the content.
I highly recommend these books to anyone who has the stamina for epic-length history. Let’s face facts, these will not be for everyone, solely because of the mountainous number of pages. But anyone who appreciates history will find these books a gold mine, worth every bit of time it takes to read them. Four only because the biography will not appeal to everyone. Fives for all three in every other regard.