Churchill’s Novels: Escape Valves or Reality Checks?

Churchill’s Novels: Escape Valves or Reality Checks?

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.

H.G. Wells

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.”

Novels retold

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.

C.S. Forester

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.”

Daniel DefoeJane Austen

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.

One thought on “Churchill’s Novels: Escape Valves or Reality Checks?

  1. “I rec­om­mend Forester to every­one lit­er­ate I know.” Ernest Hemingway

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