If you like Winston Churchill, you may know that he also wrote history books.
You may not know that, during his “exile” years between the wars, Churchill wrote Marlborough: His Life and Times, a four volume biography of his famous ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough. It is extremely informative on a wide range of subjects and a broad expanse of English and European history. You meet royal mistresses and Puritan widows, D’Artagnan, the Duke of Monmouth, and all manner of other people of note. You meet the original Winston Churchill and find out about his descent from a blacksmith who married well. You also hear from Marlborough’s redoubtable wife Sarah, a woman of strong opinions who, in old age, talked back to the historians.
But you also see our Churchill being quite open about drawing comfort from the lessons of history. He celebrates the stubborn persistence of John Churchill in the long years of disappointment after early success, and his readiness to respond to his country’s need after all that time. He draws parallels between WWI and the various messy European wars, often fought at the same messy places. He describes Marlborough’s long changeover from hardcore Tory to Whig. Finally, he points out that you don’t become the winningest general in a big swath of history by being lazy or an idiot. (Throughout the entire book, he conducts a big feud against Macaulay on this point. Yeah, it is family pride, but backed up with documentation.)
By defending Marlborough, Churchill seems to work off some of his ire against his own critics. But he also seems to measure himself pretty sternly against his peers in the past, along with all of modern times. In short, it is the old concept of history as a mirror or a yardstick, but Churchill’s use of it is a little more naked to our eye than Tacitus or other great historians.
We sometimes forget that Churchill was a socialist of sorts. His blended admiration of France under the Sun King as collectivist, and hatred of it as anti-liberty, will strike you as weird. This is balanced by his Whig/Protestant view of history, which is equal parts old-fashioned and wrongheaded, but also very devout and sincere. Finally, his defense of some of Marlborough’s less glorious moments is downright eyeroll-worthy. “Betraying the king while you live under his roof is totally justified if your heart is pure.” Sure, Churchill, just keep telling yourself that.
(After hearing this detailed account of the work done before the “Glorious Revolution,” I don’t want to hear anybody from the UK talking about the American Revolution as treacherous. Our folks were extremely open and aboveboard about their actions. The lords who threw the Glorious Revolution were snakes.)
OTOH, you really can’t beat a Parliament politician’s insider ideas about Parliament’s history of wheeling and dealing. If he’s wrong about this stuff, it’s a very knowledgeable way of being wrong. You also learn a great deal about his sources for writing about Marlborough and his contemporaries. He is excellent at using period sources to make his portrait of Marlborough more accurate and more human, and he delights in the odd coincidences and fun bits of history.
You won’t be sorry if you get this book. You may spend large parts of some chapters having to listen to the book somewhere that you can growl back at Churchill, but you won’t lose by it.
If you already subscribe to Audible, you can get all four volumes of Marlborough: His Life and Times for one credit. That’s 81 hours, folks.
The downside of the audiobook is that you do not get footnotes.
The upside is that the narrator does a really good job with Churchillian prose, without being super-blatant about the fact he is doing a Churchill imitation.
So consider checking it out.