Churchill’s Biographers: Gilbert vs. Manchester

by Richard M. Langworth on 2 March 2012

You Can’t Read One with­out the Other

A reader asks for “a clear sum­mary of Mar­tin Gilbert’s and William Manchester’s writ­ing styles, remind­ing me of the vast but com­ple­men­tary dif­fer­ence between Churchill’s two most famous biographers.

There are big dif­fer­ences between them, but both should be read for a full appre­ci­a­tion of Churchill. In 1986, as Man­ches­ter was com­plet­ing Vol­ume II of The Last Lion, he received an encour­ag­ing note from Gilbert: “Our work pro­ceeds on par­al­lel tracks.”

William Man­ches­ter

Man­ches­ter was a lit­er­ary styl­ist of the first mag­ni­tude, which is quickly appar­ent from the sonorous, emo­tive, rolling phrases of The Last Lion, reflect­ing the skill that ear­lier brought us Death of a Pres­i­dent and Amer­i­can Cae­sar, his mas­ter­piece on Dou­glas MacArthur. But Manchester’s sources are more restricted. He can be care­less with facts. He some­times offers foot­notes that do not jibe with the words they refer to. Other times he is sim­ply wrong, albeit over details. As one of his proof­read­ers on Vol. 2, I sub­mit­ted over 600 nit­picks and cor­rec­tions. I never checked to see if they’d all been made! Yet there are few in Manchester’s class for sheer lit­er­ary qual­ity, and this has won him a legion of admirers.

Sir Mar­tin Gilbert CBE

For exhaus­tive facts from every avail­able source, how­ever, we must turn to Sir Mar­tin Gilbert’s offi­cial biog­ra­phy, Win­ston S. Churchill, eight main vol­umes with sev­en­teen doc­u­ment vol­umes to date and six more to come. Gilbert is fas­tid­i­ous and detailed, putting the reader at Churchill’s shoul­der as events unfold. Gilbert takes a chrono­log­i­cal, clin­i­cal approach and rarely intrudes with his per­sonal opinion.For this rea­son he has been crit­i­cized as writ­ing just another “case for the defense,” like Churchill did in his war memoirs.

This is unfair. Gilbert’s views are evi­dent in his selec­tion of mate­r­ial; like Man­ches­ter he is gen­er­ally approv­ing of Churchill, but does not fail to illus­trate cases when Churchill made mis­takes, and to out­line the unpleas­ant consequences.

To William Man­ches­ter we owe such vital obser­va­tions as:

Churchill, how­ever, always had sec­ond and third thoughts, and they usu­ally improved as he went along. It was part of his pat­tern of response to any polit­i­cal issue that while his early reac­tions were often emo­tional, and even unwor­thy of him, they were usu­ally suc­ceeded by rea­son and generosity.

And only Mar­tin Gilbert, after exam­in­ing over a mil­lion doc­u­ments in Churchill’s archive, and inter­view­ing over a thou­sand of Churchill’s col­leagues and con­tem­po­raries, could wind up by say­ing of his subject:

I never felt that he was going to spring an unpleas­ant sur­prise on me. I might find that he was adopt­ing views with which I dis­agreed. But I always knew that there would be noth­ing to cause me to think, “How shock­ing, how appalling.”

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