“A Sun that Never Sets”: Churchill’s Autobiography, “My Early Life”

“A Sun that Never Sets”: Churchill’s Autobiography, “My Early Life”

Win­ston S. Churchill, My Ear­ly Life: A Rov­ing Com­mis­sion. (Lon­don: Thorn­ton But­ter­worth, 1930; New York: Scrib­n­ers, 1930.) Numer­ous reprints and edi­tions since, includ­ing e-booksExcerpt­ed from the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the full arti­cle, click here.

Connoisseur’s Guide

My Ear­ly Life appeared a year before the last vol­ume of The World Cri­sis. The sub­ti­tle, “A Rov­ing Com­mis­sion,” is from the first chap­ter of Churchill’s Ian Hamilton’s March. It seems he took it from an ear­li­er nov­el by G.A. Hen­ty, one of his favorite authors. The titles changed places in the first Amer­i­can edition.

A won­der­ful treat is in store in this most approach­able of Churchill’s books. Harold Nicol­son in his 1930 review likened My Ear­ly Life to “a beaker of cham­pagne.” His bub­bly expres­sion is not shy of the mark. If the read­er was drawn to Churchill by his war mem­oirs, his auto­bi­og­ra­phy will come as a rev­e­la­tion. The mem­oirs chron­i­cle a very pub­lic strug­gle against nation­al extinc­tion. The auto­bi­og­ra­phy charts a young man’s pri­vate strug­gle to be heard. But the same style and pace is there, the same sense of adven­ture, the piquant humor. We read­ers are enabled to peer over Churchill’s shoul­der as events unfold.

Vanished Age

Of course he was born with cer­tain advan­tages,” as William Man­ches­ter put it in his fore­word to a 1980s edition:

…his youth was vir­tu­al­ly incom­pre­hen­si­ble to most peo­ple then alive. He had been born into the Eng­lish aris­toc­ra­cy at a time when British noble­men were con­sid­ered (and cer­tain­ly con­sid­ered them­selves) lit­tle less than god­like. His grand­fa­ther was Viceroy of Ireland….These dom­i­nant forces—the class into which he had been born—were mas­ters of the great­est empire the globe has ever known, com­pris­ing one-fourth of the earth’s sur­face and a quar­ter of the world’s pop­u­la­tion, thrice the size of the Roman Empire at full flush. They also con­trolled Great Britain her­self, to an extent that would be incon­ceiv­able in any civ­i­lized nation today. One per­cent of the country’s population—some 33,000 people—owned two-thirds of its wealth, and that wealth, before two world wars devoured it, was breathtaking.

The first edi­tion, 1930, in a repli­ca dust jacket.

Nev­er­the­less, Churchill had lit­tle hand­ed to him, once fam­i­ly influ­ence had placed him where he want­ed to be. He could not have embarked on those thrilling war jun­kets abroad with­out the influ­ence of his moth­er and oth­er great per­son­ages. But once there he was on his own, and he acquit­ted him­self well.

Life cycle

My Ear­ly Life begins with Churchill’s first mem­o­ries at the “Lit­tle Lodge” in Dublin. Here his father lived as sec­re­tary to his grand­fa­ther, the Duke of Marl­bor­ough. Winston’s descrip­tion of his nurse, Mrs. Ever­est, is heart­warm­ing. The accounts of the Roy­al Mil­i­tary Acad­e­my; his adven­tures as a war reporter in Cuba, India and South Africa; his escape from the Boers in 1899, and charge of the 21st Lancers at Omdur­man, will hold the reader’s atten­tion to the end. Here and in his lat­er account of enter­ing pol­i­tics and Par­lia­ment, we can see Churchill’s emerg­ing polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy, stud­ded with remark­ably advanced views on British soci­ety and the Empire.

The text was not entire­ly fresh when the book appeared in 1930. Churchill had been writ­ing auto­bi­o­graph­ic books since 1898. But the book meld­ed his expe­ri­ences togeth­er, added a lot, and had a huge print­ing over the years. There is a copy for every read­er, be it a cheap paper­back or a rare first edition.

It is notable that My Ear­ly Life was one of the two Churchill works excerpt­ed by the Nobel Library—for Sir Winston’s 1953 Nobel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture. Churchill is at his daz­zling best as chron­i­cler and mem­oirist. Fresh­ly entered in the polit­i­cal wilder­ness, he wrote think­ing that his polit­i­cal career was over.

—from Richard M. Lang­worth, A Connoisseur’s Guide to the Books of Sir Win­ston Churchill (Lon­don: Brasseys, 1998, reprint­ed 2002).

An appreciation by Henry Fearon

The first U.S. edi­tion in dust jack­et (Chartwell Booksellers)

Churchill’s ded­i­ca­tion of My Ear­ly Life  “To a new gen­er­a­tion” con­fess­es his view that he had giv­en a pic­ture of a dis­tant time. How far away those late Vic­to­ri­an years are now.

His account of child­hood, school, the Army, and his first arrival at the House of Com­mons nev­er flags in its inter­est or impor­tance. Yet even at the time of its writ­ing, Churchill could nev­er have fore­seen the endur­ing weight of For­tune which was to set­tle upon him.

Fine and inter­est­ing as the My Ear­ly Life is, there is one small draw­back to sea­soned read­ers. Just as we are expect­ing the author’s pol­i­tics to enter­tain us, we are hur­ried back­wards to tales already told in the Malakand Field ForceThe Riv­er WarIan Hamilton’s March, and his escape from the Boers in Lon­don to Lady­smith via Pre­to­ria. Yet this is a tale well worth reading—or re-read­ing. My Ear­ly Life will always be, I believe, the most read­able of Churchill’s books.

* * *

Mr. Fearon was a dis­tin­guished bib­lio­phile and col­lec­tor. Years ago left me a copy of his unpub­lished com­men­tary on Churchill’s books. He had, I think, a way with words. His full account of My Ear­ly Life is a click away —RML

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