American History



imprinting on the popular mind an improbably demotic Winston Churchill—prosthetically enhanced Gary Oldman hanging with Tube-traveling plebs (wrong) and sprinting around Whitehall (right)—here comes Roberts, prolific historian and biographer of Napoleon and Lords Salisbury and Halifax, to rebalance his late countryman’s portrait. In 1,151 vivid pages, corrects Hollywood’s airbrushing of the 20th century’s indispensable 19th-century or perhaps 18th-century man by incising into that rosy rendering needed shadows of rampant imperialism and relentless self-aggrandizement. As Patrick O’Brian refused in his Age of Sail swashbucklers to consider that a reader might not speak fluent pre-industrial navalese, so too Roberts deigns not to simplify. He paints Churchill’s long and complex life, notably its political aspects, with a Britannic granularity that, like a Turner canvas, perfectly illuminates with barely a stroke of explication, and for that bless the author’s heart. Roberts explains by showing, and if that means one must gnash through the occasional gnarl regarding the minute implications of by-election and deselection in an obscure borough, then one must. Roberts’s Churchill is not only British as British can be but a New World in the mode of the buccaneering American mother who bore him. He slashes through life utterly confident—“In the high position I shall occupy,” he tells chum Murland Evans at 16, “it will fall to me to save the capital and save the Empire.”—yet tormented by his father’s scorn, failure, and early death. This Churchill contains many, many words, brief and attenuated, some new and some old, all brilliantly deployed but no more of either than this fine volume’s subject demands and deserves.

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