Book Review: The Splendid and The Vile
Erik Larson is so good a storyteller that as you read through The Splendid and the Vile, his magnificent saga of Winston Churchill during the bombing of Britain — “the year Churchill became Churchill,” as Larson says — you wonder how it will all turn out! The book is what’s been said of Larson’s earlier works: “addictively readable.”
Subtitled “A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz,” The Splendid and the Vile, over 500 pages, is worth every word. You’ll zip through in admiration and suspense, marveling at Larson’s perspective on the months between May 1940 and May1941, when Germany confidently, violently and nonstop sent its sophisticated bombers and fighters to annihilate English cities and the countryside. A striking frontispiece photo, the only one in the book, shows three lone figures amid destruction of what was once the Holland House Library in Kensington. Two shelves are still standing in the debris. The figures are exploring and touching what remains.
In an opening Note to Readers, Larson says the 9/11 attacks prompted the book: “It was only when I moved to Manhattan a few years ago that I came to understand, with sudden clarity, how different the experience of September 11, 2001, had been for New Yorkers than for those of us who watched the nightmare unfold at a distance. This was their home city under attack. I wondered then how Londoners, particularly, coped – ordinary citizens as well as political leaders.” What Larson does not say, however, and what I think gives his theme added power, is that he may not have been in New York on 9/11, but the city had once been his home. He was born in Brooklyn.
Larson’s book is another take on Churchill, that larger than life icon who was not King George’s first choice for Prime Minister. Quirky, risk-taking, flamboyant — a nighthawk, holding important meetings at 10 Downing Street and his country estate, moseying around in colorful silk robes, or naked, working in his bathtub, jabbing away with a cigar, soused often but always rhetorically superb. He was also 66 at the time he took over. But Larson’s book is not all Churchill. Other figures emerge who tend to be ignored by Churchill scholars and become like characters in a novel.
In fact the title of the book, “The Splendid and the Vile" comes from a remark, slightly altered, in a diary entry by Churchill’s lovelorn private secretary John Conville, as he watched a night raid through a big window, bombs falling on London. Another main character is the Canadian-born newspaper mogul, Lord Beaverbrook, Minister of Air Production, eventually Minister of just about everything. Churchill adored him, rejecting Beaverbrook’s resignations 14 times.
Then there’s Churchill’s devoted socialite young daughter Mary, eager to help the war effort, and, of course, his shrewd, strong-willed sympathetic wife, Clementine. Not to overlook FDR’s close personal advisor, who became Chruchill’s good friend, the sickly-looking Harry Hopkins, “a crumbling lighthouse from which there shone the beams that led great fleets to harbor.”
Larson researched the book widely and deeply, not just public documents but diaries, letters, intimate accounts — not just Churchill’s but Goebbels’ and G?ring’s — shrewder than Hitler — all referenced and sometimes annotated in endnotes. Writing the book, Larson says, taught him to look at the past differently. Readers will see just how divided our country was in the early 1940s, the Senate split between those who wanted to aid England, and the isolationists, powerful partisans of America First who knew that Roosevelt was constrained, not likely to risk sending ships or material abroad, despite Churchill’s constant pleas, until after the 1940 election, and signs that the RAF could hold its own.
Marvelous metaphors, elegant sentence rhythms, a driving narrative — all make The Splendid and the Vile a book for our time. Our own close political divisions have history. And history has heroes whose seemingly minor or trivial actions often count as much as, maybe more than, what traditional records reveal.