Excerpted from “Churchill’s Novels in Sterner Days: More than Mere Escape,” written for the Hillsdale College Churchill Project. For the original article with endnotes and more images, click here. To subscribe to weekly articles from Hillsdale-Churchill, click here, scroll to bottom, and fill in your email in the box entitled “Stay in touch with us.” Your email address is not given out and remains a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
Novels in crises
Law professor and radio show host Hugh Hewitt wrote an arresting column in the Washington Post: “Fiction has even more value when the real world is in crisis.” Reading novels while the world is in turmoil? Some great leaders did. There must be reasons why. Mr. Hewitt offers four:
First, fiction can keep anxious minds from chewing themselves to bits…. Second, reading can give a sense of proportion, which our distracted age needs most urgently…. Third, novels can take us into unfamiliar worlds and better prepare us to live in our own…. Fourth, and finally, time spent with a worthwhile novel is not time sucked away and spat out. It is time, and the lessons of time, brought into focus.
As leading proof of these assertions, Hugh Hewitt offers Churchill: “When his nation, and the free world, took its own pulse each morning in 1940 and 1941, the greatest statesman of my lifetime escaped into a collection of “Captain Hornblower” novels, Moll Flanders, Phineas Finn and Pride and Prejudice, according to the military correspondent and historian Thomas Ricks.”
During his research Mr. Hewitt asked the Churchill Project what novels WSC read in those perilous days. Typically we piled on far more information than he needed. Our report however may interest readers.
Fred Glueckstein has elsewhere explained how closely Churchill read H.G. Wells. In 1931, weeks after publishing “Mass Effects in Modern Life,” his forecast of a dystopian future, Churchill praised Wells’s The Time Machine. He called it “a marvellous philosophical romance, in the train of Gulliver’s Travels.” Wells, Churchill wrote, “knew that hell was going to break loose and knew exactly what it would look like and feel like when it did.”
On into the Second World War, Churchill was motivated by Wells’s views of military science in war: “The irresistible Juggernaut, driving through towns and villages as through a field of standing corn—a type which Armageddon itself could not achieve….” That was an accurate description of the Blitzkrieg in France in 1940. More circumspectly, Churchill called it “a remarkable combination of air bombing and heavily armoured tanks.” He then admonished Britons: “Arm yourselves, and be ye men of valour.”
In 1932 Lord Riddell proposed that Churchill retell some famous novels for News of the World. Between January and March 1933, WSC reviewed twelve of “The World’s Great Stories”: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Moonstone, Ben-Hur, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, A Tale of Two Cities, Jane Eyre, Adam Bede, Vice Versa, Ivanhoe, Westward Ho! and Don Quixote. Eddie Marsh wrote the drafts; Churchill re-read each novel and finalized the texts.
The essays are worth reading because they are not just reviews or abridgments. They offer Churchill’s personal impressions. Take for example Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Reflecting on how inextricably slavery was woven into Southern life, Churchill made points rarely heard:
One fact alone reveals the powerlessness of the community to shake itself free from the frightful disease which had become part of its being. Over 660,000 slaves were held by ministers of the Gospel of the different Protestant Churches. Five thousand Methodist ministers owned 219,000 slaves; 6,500 Baptists owned 125,000; 1,400 Episcopalians held 88,000, and so on. Thus the institution of slavery was not only defended by every argument of self-interest, but every pulpit championed it as a system ordained by the Creator and sanctified by the gospel of Christ.
Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels enthralled Churchill. Desmond Morton, a onetime associate, said WSC devoured each as it came out. They were “almost as a draught of pure wine to a thirsty man.” Asked why this was so, Morton replied:
There are lots of possible explanations…. Of course he hated any kind of life, action or thought that he would consider “sordid.” Equally, he was the “never-grow-up” type of boy that you have seen him to be. Nevertheless this particular trait was endearing…. Actually there is something fundamentally of importance in this. Of course, he saw himself in all the heroic roles; does not a boy do this? But there is much more to it than only this.
En route to meet Roosevelt in August 1941, Churchill devoured a Hornblower novel, saying: “I find Hornblower admirable.” This caused perturbation in the Middle East Headquarters. “It was imagined that ‘Hornblower’ was the code-word for some special operation of which they had not been told.”
Nor was Forester a wartime fixation, according to Edmund Murray, Churchill’s bodyguard from 1950 to WSC’s death. Sir Winston’s affection for Hornblower, Murray thought, was its “accurate historical allusions…. He was such a devotee of the celebrated Captain, in fact, that Forester would send him, from his home in America, an autographed copy of each new work. When the author came to visit England he was invited to Chartwell for lunch.”
Churchill’s pace in wartime was heavy for a man pushing 70, and in 1943 he twice fell ill with pneumonia. Confined to bed in February, he picked up Defoe’s Moll Flanders, “about which I had heard excellent accounts, but had not found time to test them.” Finishing it, he gave it to his doctor, “to cheer him up.”
Later that year found Churchill reading Jane Austen’s classic novels on the landed gentry at the end of the 18th century. Again pneumonia struck. He repaired to Marrakesh for recuperation, joined by his daughter Sarah:
I had long ago read Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and now I thought I would have Pride and Prejudice. Sarah read it to me beautifully from the foot of the bed. I had always thought it would be better than its rival. What calm lives they had, those people! No worries about the French Revolution, or the crashing struggle of the Napoleonic wars. Only manners controlling natural passion so far as they could, together with cultured explanations of any mischances.
Trollope and more Forester
Despite his liking for Austen, Churchill came late to Trollope, in 1953. According to his doctor, Lord Moran, he had not read Trollope’s novels before. Now he read three. “At parts of Phineas Finn I became very tearful,” WSC said, “though it is not at all a moving story.” Next he read The Prime Minister.
Churchill’s favorite Trollope novel was The Duke’s Children. It offered, he said, “a good picture of an extraordinary world that has gone. The Duke is, of course, a poop; a Liberal he calls himself, yet he is so narrow-minded.”
Later in 1953, the PM was flying to the Bermuda Conference with Eisenhower and French Prime Minister Joseph Laniel. For reading en route, Churchill acquired another Forester. Moran found WSC with “his nose in it throughout the meal.” Landing at Bermuda, he was still engrossed in it. “I must get Christopher to put it away before they come,” he quipped. The title was Death to the French.