Winston Churchill doesn't seem to be the sort of fellow who needs a new biography written about him. He has had many hefty tomes devoted to his life, and penned several of them himself. Some of these biographies are multiple volume works and others are merely sizable single texts, the kind for which one must clear a large block of time in one's reading schedule to fully digest. The length of these texts is a natural result of two important factors: Churchill's profound importance to history and his almost compulsive need to write at length about himself, his ideas and opinions, history, and the like. His voluminous writings, combined with the historical accounts and personal writings of his contemporaries, provides a large jumping off point for anyone seeking to write a life of Churchill, and many have availed themselves of the opportunity. As a result, it would seem unlikely that a new biography could blaze any fresh trails or draw any startling conclusions about this most public of public figures.
Nevertheless, Roy Jenkins, an octogenarian former Member of Parliament and author of a number of books, including biographies of several other important British politicians, undertook the task, producing a new 1,000 page addition to the Churchill canon. He did so fully aware that he was breaking no new ground:
"I do not claim to have unearthed many new facts about Churchill," he writes in the preface to CHURCHILL: A Biography. "With published sources about him on their existing scale this would be almost impossible. Nor am I a great partisan of the 'revelatory' biography. Churchill in life was singularly lacking in inhibition or concealment. There are consequently no great hidden reservoirs of behaviour to be tapped."
What, then, does Jenkins offer in CHURCHILL? His largest contribution may be entirely stylistic, as he offers an extremely readable biography full of sly humor (or humour, as Jenkins would have it) as well as the occasional personal aside grounded in his experience in Parliament. He is always ready with a piquant comment --- "There was always the sense with Churchill...[that] if a little nursing attention had been required Florence Nightingale would have come out of retirement" --- and manages the tricky balancing act of explicitly inserting himself into the text without becoming obtrusive. Although full of details about various governmental crises, election procedures, and military strategy, CHURCHILL is seldom dry, and Jenkins never assumes a professorial air. Rather, he tells his lengthy tale in a somewhat casual, often anecdotal, voice that is almost always pleasant to read.
The book provides a few challenges, however, in addition to its girth. Among them for American readers is the very British cadence of Jenkins's language, though this largely resolves itself as the reader becomes comfortable with his style. More problematic are Jenkins's offhand references to the procedures of Parliamentary government and British history, a problem he anticipated and sought to remedy with a glossary that appears at the beginning of the book. Although helpful, this glossary is far from sufficient for the various puzzling moments American readers may encounter in the text. However, Jenkins can hardly be faulted for this, any more than an American biographer of Franklin Roosevelt could be held accountable for failing to identify each historical figure mentioned or congressional procedure cited for a potential British audience. Neither do these occasional moments of confusion detract from the overall readability of CHURCHILL.
Reviewed by Rob Cline (RJBCline@aol.com) on November 15, 2001