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Churchill: A Biography
By Roy Jenkins
Farrar Straus & Giroux
1 002 pgs. HC, US$40/C$60

England's lion

By Steven Martinovich
web posted December 24, 2001

Few twentieth century figures have had as much written about them as Winston Churchill, perhaps making Roy Jenkins' Churchill: A Biography a superfluous exercise. Indeed Jenkins himself admits in his forward that his efforts have added little new to the considerable Churchill knowledge base, a usually fatal admission to make for a biographer as talented as Jenkins.

With that admission in mind, Jenkins' decision to simply chronicle Churchill's rise from Boer War celebrity - thanks to an escape from a POW camp - to preeminent Second World War leader becomes a little more understandable though it still leaves the reader feeling that the job was left incomplete.

Although Churchill today is famed for his political skills - eloquence matched with a fierce desire for power to make a difference - Jenkins' account makes it clear that had it not been for the Second World War, Churchill would undoubtedly be a lesser known figure more famous for being great, but not great enough to capture the top prize in political life. The man we know for providing the roar for the English lion was a remarkably self-destructive figure that several times all but killed his career and alienated many of his allies. It's telling that when he walked into the House of Commons for the first time as Prime Ministers, his Conservative members applauded only Neville Chamberlain, the man who Churchill replaced.

Although he's often accused of being one of the causes for the quiet dissolution of the British Empire, a silly notion given that he was a man who served as a prototype for the Edwardian Englishman, Churchill also famously fought against any real political autonomy for India, famously described Gandhi as "seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir, striding half naked up the steps of the Viceregal palace."

As Jenkins points out, Churchill was right more often than he was wrong. Churchill was one of the few that saw early on no differences between Communism and National Socialism and only allied England with the Soviet Union because Adolph Hitler's greater threat. He was also rightly concerned about the proliferation of nuclear weapons and pushed for summits to limit their expansion. His exhaustive, and occasionally exhausting, effort does an impressive job chronicling the political animal that was Churchill.

Where Churchill fails, and quite noticeably, is Jenkins' decision to ignore the private man. Although we know that Churchill was the product of what could be charitably described as poor parenting, perhaps the reason why his relationship with his son Randolph was so shaky, and his marriage saw his wife absent for nearly every single notable accomplishment of his career, the reader finishes the book not really knowing anything about the complex motivations that must have driven a man that Jenkins describes as "the greatest human being to ever occupy 10 Downing Street."

Jenkins' own political career and beliefs as a Labour MP who served as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Home Secretary - he was even present in the House of Commons during one of Churchill's most humiliating episodes - also perhaps colors his commentary. At one point, Jenkins attempts to prove that Churchill was one of driving forces of a push for a European government, an interesting charge to make if you can believe that a man who used Britain as a bulwark against Hitler's expansionism would agree to turn it over to German bureaucrats.

Despite those failings, Churchill is an impressive if somewhat overwritten book. Those scared off by Martin Gilbert's eight-volume study of England's lion or William Manchester's more accessible two-volume effort will likely find Jenkins' Churchill a more friendly entry into the field. Jenkins manages to gather the many threads in Churchill's life - writer, painter, journalist, and politician - into one entertaining book, surely as remarkable of an accomplishment that a biographer can pull off with a figure as large as Britain's most famous modern political leader.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

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