Churchill the Middlebrow

Richard Toye
History Department, University of Exeter

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Cross-posted from Australian Book Review

Rose Literary ChurchillOn the rear jacket of this fascinating and important book is a picture of Winston Churchill at his desk at Chartwell, his house in Kent, just a few months before the outbreak of World War II. Apparently caught in the moment of literary creation, cigar in mouth and concentrating on his papers, the photo credit – to a Picture Post photographer – leads to the obvious suspicion that this was actually a staged shot. For Churchill, his country home was not merely a place of repose but a writing factory, the output of which would earn him the large sums of money necessary for its upkeep. At the same time, his image as a man of letters served to advertise the product as well as to suggest the existence of a non-political ‘hinterland’ of the kind appropriate to a statesman of fertile brain and broad views.

Part of this reputation lay in the fact that Churchill was extremely prolific; his collected works run to thirty-four volumes and there are an additional four volumes of essays. These are merely the tip of a substantially larger iceberg, because, of course, there are his speeches, letters, and policy memoranda to be considered too. As long ago as 1954 there appeared a book entitled Sir Winston Churchill – As Writer and Speaker so the idea of analysing his literary side is not exactly new. Scholars such as Robin Prior, David Reynolds, and Peter Clarke are among those who have dealt with important aspects of it. But Jonathan Rose – Professor of History at Drew University and author of a seminal study of working-class reading habits – can fairly claim to have advanced the field considerably. His book is in some ways idiosyncratic and it fails to reference some important secondary literature, yet it gets one big thing (and many smaller things) right. Unlike so many writers, Rose does not concern himself merely with analysing the mixture of talents and faults that together comprised Churchill’s ‘greatness’, but contextualises the man’s writings and rhetoric within the genres that influenced him and to which he in turn contributed and shaped. This book therefore falls within a developing new Churchillian scholarship that concerns itself less with matters of praise and blame, and more with how to locate its subject within his social, cultural, and political world.

Rose provocatively describes Churchill as ‘a tremendously successful middlebrow author’. He does not develop the point systematically, but Churchill’s output was undoubtedly patchy. His sole novel, the Ruritanian romance Savrola (1899), was positively weak, his journalism sometimes descended to the hack level, and even his war memoirs have long quotations from contemporary memoranda that look a lot like padding. The History of the English-Speaking Peoples(1956–58), work on which halted during World War II and which was eventually published (with the help of ghost writers) during the 1950s, had a genuine middlebrow quality. (Rose does not define the term, but he does quote Punch magazine’s joke that middlebrows were ‘people who are hoping that some day they will get used to the stuff they ought to like’.)

Still, Churchill frequently rose to a much higher level, not in the sense that his writings were ever esoteric or difficult, but in terms of literary skill. On the topic of Empire, for example, it is possible to disagree with many of the sentiments that he expressed while at the same time recognising that, in his early despatches from various small wars, he offered a much more thoughtful response than many of his more overtly jingoistic fellow journalists. Rose recognises many of Churchill’s subtleties, although in my view he does incomplete justice to My Early Life (1930), which he describes as ‘a delicious warm bath of imperial nostalgia’. So it was, but one must also observe the persistent note of astringent irony, which makes it certainly Churchill’s most charming book, and perhaps also his best. There are marvellous passages on the outbreak of the Boer War, in which the older Churchill mocks the naïveté of his younger self in expecting an easy victory, while hinting that he had nonetheless been significantly wiser than the older men who were actually in charge.

There was a symbiotic relationship between Churchill’s journalism and his more substantial works. Books could be serialised in the newspapers; articles (and indeed speeches) could be turned into books. Rose gives us a fascinating insight into the culture of literary recycling when he turns the spotlight on Churchill’s famous (and to some minds notorious) article on Hitler, originally published in Strand magazine in 1935. ‘We cannot tell,’ Churchill wrote, ‘whether Hitler will be the man who will once again let loose upon the world another war in which civilization will inevitably succumb, or whether he will go down in history as the man who restored honour and peace of mind to the great Germanic nation.’ A sensitive reading of the text shows that Churchill was not really in doubt at all about this question, but was making a display of open-mindedness – and again deploying irony – in the interests of persuading his audience that the Nazis’ peaceful protestations were not to be relied upon. And in fact the German government was extremely angry about the piece, belying any idea that it reflected secret crypto-fascist tendencies on Churchill’s part. But Rose shows that two years later, when Churchill republished the article in his collection Great Contemporaries (1937), he ‘made some judicious cuts’ at the behest of the British Foreign Office, removing some of the more strongly worded criticisms of the Nazi régime. This extraordinary finding is further proof of Churchill’s pragmatic habit, of which scholars have long been aware, of adapting his writings according to what he saw as the political demands of the given moment.

Rose is also excellent on theatre, seeing the genre of melodrama as an important key to Churchill’s mindset. He makes the valuable point that the boy Winston was as fond of his toy theatre as he was of his lead soldiers. It is also the case that Churchill had a taste for the dramatic political gesture, although Rose is a little too reductionist in his portrayal of the wartime prime minister as a playwright cum actor–manager who in his diplomacy ‘dissolved the boundary between theatre and reality’. Rose’s conception of literary influence at times seems curiously mechanistic, and – to enumerate just one of the book’s eccentricities – his suggestion that Churchill’s youthful essay on rhetoric ‘was his coded homage to Oscar Wilde’ seems downright quixotic. It is perhaps most helpful to see literature as a resource upon which Churchill could draw, and which he could adapt to his own purposes, rather than as a series of fantasies or visions which he tried to live out on the world stage. Above all, though, Rose is to be commended for raising these questions, which will fuel debate for years to come. He has certainly written one of the more significant books on Churchill to have been published this century. He writes accessibly and stimulatingly, but he cannot, happily, be accused of being middlebrow. Above all, Rose has shown the quality of imagination, by forcing us to think beyond conventional disciplinary boundaries, thus making us consider both literature and politics in a new light.