The Last Lion
The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Alone, 1932-1940 is a powerful biography of one of the great leaders of the twentieth century. It is also so rich in detail about the people, forces, and events of Winston Churchill’s time that William Manchester finds it necessary to emphasize to the reader that the “work is a biography, not a history.” Churchill is presented in all of his impulsiveness, callousness, and obstinacy, but his vision, rhetorical effectiveness, adherence to principle, and power to inspire and lead also emerge, revealing an authentically great man.
This is the second volume in a projected three-volume biography. It acquaints the reader with Churchill’s life at Chartwell, his country estate, and moves with Churchill to the public stage of the British Parliament, where he attempts to resist the forces moving toward the annihilation of civilization in Europe and England.
Manchester’s facts are drawn from extensive research, using primary historical and biographical sources. These include taped interviews, manuscript collections, and various archives and published collections of British, French, German, American, Polish, Italian, Czechoslovakian, and Russian documents. The sources are extensively but unobtrusively documented; the text is supplemented by useful maps and a rich selection of photographs. Manchester’s thoroughness and objective, balanced presentation give great credibility to the work, while the sheer force of his narrative makes the book more gripping than most novels.
Manchester portrays Churchill as one of the world’s truly great leaders despite his flaws: “England’s most singular statesman, a brilliant, domineering, intuitive, inconsiderate, self-centered, emotional, generous, ruthless, visionary, megalomaniacal, and heroic genius who inspires fear, devotion, rage, and admiration among his peers.” Churchill’s interests included history, literature, bricklaying, painting, military science, hunting, philosophy, landscaping, architecture, and government.
Manchester devotes the first section of the work to presenting Churchill’s typical activities at Chartwell. Churchill emerges as an unusual, colorful character. He rose at 8:00 a.m., bathed, and returned to bed for breakfast, depending totally on servants to help carry out these routine tasks. He spent the rest of the morning with the newspapers and his mail. He had guests for lunch and dinner and was an avid conversationalist who talked much more than he listened. In the afternoon, he fed his goldfish, took a siesta, and painted. If he was working on a particular project, such as a fence or wall, he might lay bricks for a while. From 11:00 p.m. until between 2:00 a.m. and 4:00 a.m., he worked at his profession of writing, assisted by his secretaries, who took dictation and typed the drafts.
Manchester’s selection of details effectively reveal Churchill’s character. He presents Churchill as struggling to get dressed for lunch, assisted by servants, and always arriving late as a result of consistently underestimating the amount of time he needed to do everything. He describes Churchill’s drinking Scotch all day and brandy or champagne at meals, but pacing his drinking so as to avoid drunkenness. Manchester reveals how Churchill wrote and rehearsed his speeches and used a written text in delivering them, yet was able to make them sound spontaneous. The animal sounds with which the Churchill family members greeted one another and the exotic petits noms they used reveal that they were not like the usual upper-class British family.
The complexity of Churchill’s character is evident in his views toward war. Generally regarded as a militarist, Churchill is shown to have had anything but a simplistic view of war. He argued that the “hazards and discomforts of war . . . strengthen a young man’s character,” and it is evident that as a youth he regarded war as magnificent. Yet even as a young man he had written, “War, disguise it as you may, is but a dirty, shoddy business, which only a fool would play at.” After World War I, he wrote, “War, which was cruel and magnificent, has become cruel and squalid.”
Manchester describes a large underground network of informants on which Churchill relied during the 1930’s. These informants kept him abreast of England’s lack of...
(The entire section is 1837 words.)