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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