The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz
I first encountered Erik Larson’s masterful prose in his The Devil In The White City, wherein he turned a relatively minor incident connected to the Chicago World’s Fair into a suspenseful murder mystery. The kind of thing that makes for historical drama so intense that you can’t believe you’re reading about real-life people and events. That was quite a while back, so I welcomed with hesitant arms my brother-in-law’s recommendation of his latest.
I say “hesitant” because I’ve about had my fill of war books after having spent multitudinous hours over the last years amid the stupidity, carnage, and futility of all our major American wars plus a couple of similar conflicts in which the U.S.A. had no part. However, I figured maybe it was time to dive back in.
I mused on the title. The subtitle says this is a Churchill book, so I automatically figured HE would be the splendid one and perhaps Hitler would be the vile. But hold on. It’s not just a Churchill HIMSELF book, it’s about the Churchill family. So maybe it’s not just another paean to the conquering hero. I know little or nothing about the family. “Sarah” & “Randolph” were familiar names; beyond that, my ignorance was vast. So, without even opening page one, I had more than enough reason to turn the page.
What a family.
Larson gives us plenty of WWII, its prologue and aftermath and Winston’s part in all of it, but the focus really is on the family, and much of it is not as admirable as the legends of the English perseverance might suggest. Here we are a bare couple of decades since what was called The Great War in which an entire generation of English soldiers had perished for virtually no gain, yet the Europeans are ready to do it all over. Once again, soldiers by the tens of thousands marched, sailed, and flew abroad and stayed there. Underground or underwater or scattered wherever the explosives dropped them. Or parts of them.
I’ve always been contemptuous of the America Firsters of this period who refused to commit the USA to this epic conflict despite the fact that centuries of western civilization–indeed, the entire English-speaking world–was in peril. However, I began to think they had a point. Not enough of a point to change my mind, but the colossal idiocy that would create such a monster as this at a time such as this leaves me breathless to even think about.
That’s one point of vileness, though not one, I think Larson is talking about.
Another point of vileness is Hitler, etc. But Larson, thank goodness, spends little time there. Adolph just is, like the weather. No need to dwell on him.
The surprising vileness to me is the way the Churchills and their ilk treated one another and their actions in face of the cataclysmic events that surrounded them. I tried to withhold my judgement, tried putting myself in their place. I’ve never been there, so what would I do if I were a child of near-royalty, inclined toward drinking and partying night after night and suddenly finding myself in a situation where the drinking and partying were inappropriate? Would I become a Nero-Roman as well? I would hope not, but who knows for sure?
For the Churchill kids and their ilk, the band played on, and they kept dancing. It was nice for out-of-work musicians that there was still dancing and singing and clubbing. But when your saxophone player gets blown literally in two, might it give you pause?
Some of the vileness might have happened anyhow. Spoiled and self-indulgent Randolph, for example, would likely have fucked himself crazy, gambled away a fortune, and abandoned a sweet wife and a couple of kids war or no war.
They weren’t all like that. Mary partied hearty, to be sure, but she also joined the Red Cross and did other charitable work. Diana worked for a naval charity. Not so Sarah, the actress, who was famously entertaining and independent though apparently not charitably inclined.
Somehow, though, all these characters in the book seem secondary to John Colville, Winston’s secretary. He’s there during the parties and during the negotiations. Beyond the history, we follow his rather pathetic romantic life. He pursues an unrequited and unrequiteable love for years. Knowing it’s hopeless, knowing he’s pitiable, yet unable to tear himself loose.
The Splendid and the Vile is well worth the read, but, I think, suffers from the lack of focus that makes Colville such a prominent character in the book, even though he wasn’t such in life. There’s a case to be made for introducing character’s such as Jonson’s Boswell who stand aside and observe and bring us insights we’d never get otherwise. But Colville is no Boswell. And though we learn facts and get descriptions from him, we gain no particular insights. As a result, Larson anchors us readers nowhere, but leaves us flitting here and there like butterflies sipping a drop of nectar here and there, but never (and let’s leave the butterfly analogy behind right here), never sitting us down to a hearty emotional meal.