Churchill’s Biographers: Gilbert vs. Manchester

by Richard 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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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

gilbert August 15, 2012 at 14:03

yes churchill a life was written after the publication of the colossal official biography .. 1991 .

Richard M. Langworth March 7, 2012 at 16:47

Monty, you’re forgetting Gilbert’s CHURCHILL: A LIFE (1991), which contains many facts not in the official biography.

Monty Waters March 7, 2012 at 15:14

There’s a similarity between Manchester and Gilbert: neither wrote a complete cradle to grave biography of Churchill. There’s a dissimilarity within this: The biography that we rightly think of as Gilbert’s was actually started by Churchill’s son Randolph. The biography that we rightly think of as Manchester’s is being completed by another writer.

gilbert March 5, 2012 at 10:54

i more or less agree . i think martin gilbert work is far more serious and researched . volume one of manchester is fine bit two is plagued with errors . what made manchester a good read is this inimitable style . never boring .

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