Reviewed by Dana Huntley
By Brenda Ralph Lewis
Reader’s Digest, New York
“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” Address to Parliament, June 4, 1940.
Soldier, statesman, author and master politician: Yes, Winston Churchill left his mark on the 20th century. Regarded widely as the greatest Briton of all time, it is for Churchill’s bulldog tenacity as wartime prime minister that the English statesman is best known and universally admired. Had he never emerged from his “wilderness years” in the ’30s to lead the wartime Cabinet through Britain’s historic struggle against Nazi Germany, however, Churchill would still deserve his place in history as one of the 20th century’s most remarkable men and insightful politicians.
When Churchill became prime minister in May 1940, he had already enjoyed a full career in Parliament and in the Cabinet, including turns among other offices as president of the Board of Trade, home secretary, first lord of the Admiralty and chancellor of the Exchequer. He was already old enough and accomplished enough to retire bathed in honors.
After King George VI summoned Churchill to the palace and asked him to form a wartime government, however, the new prime minister wrote, “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
In fact, it is a history diligently and copiously recorded. Books about Churchill’s life and career abound. A quick search of Amazon yields 30,288 entries for key words “Winston Churchill.” As it happens, however, long-time British Heritage author Brenda Ralph Lewis (see “Them Foreigners Up from Lunnon,” September 2005) has brought a meaningful addition to the library of material available on Churchill and his times.
Churchill: An Illustrated History is a superb blend of word and image, containing more than 190 rare color and black-and-white photos of Churchill and the many famous people of his acquaintance.
Lewis’ easygoing narrative style unpacks Churchill’s life story with verve and sensitivity. While Churchill’s dramatic and world-changing wartime leadership understandably takes center stage in any profile of the great man’s life (and occupies more than a third of the book), the strength of this biography-that-reads-like-a-story is how Lewis weaves the wartime years into the broader tapestry of Churchill’s life.
This volume is never going to supplant exhaustive Churchill biographies like William Manchester’s The Last Lion. It does, however, offer a vibrant and unusually well-illustrated overview of the man from his swashbuckling days as a war correspondent and cavalry officer to elder statesman on the backbench of Parliament until his death at the age of 90.
It was after Churchill’s tenure as heroic wartime prime minister, when he was in his 70s and 80s, that he won the Nobel Prize for writing the six-volume history The Second World War, not to mention his four-volume masterpiece A History of the English Speaking People. Oh, and by the way, he continued to lead the Conservative Party for another 10 years, returning to become a Cold War prime minister in the crucial years of 1951-55.
It is impossible to imagine what the world would be like today without the enormous influence Churchill exercised upon 20th-century events. When Churchill resigned from office as prime minister in 1955 and left government (though not Parliament) for the last time, his son Randolph wrote to him: “Your glory is enshrined forever on the unperishable plinth of your achievement….It will flow with the centuries.” It’s a modest epitaph. If you’ve any questions, Brenda Lewis’ well-done book explains why.