“The World’s Great Stories” Retold by Winston Churchill

“The World’s Great Stories” Retold by Winston Churchill

Excerpt­ed from “Win­ston Churchill Retells the World’s Great Sto­ries,” writ­ten for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the orig­i­nal text in three parts with more links and images start­ing with Part 1, click here. To sub­scribe to week­ly arti­cles from Hills­dale-Churchill, click here, scroll to bot­tom, fill in your email in the box enti­tled “Stay in touch with us.” Your email address always remains a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.

Greats by a Great

How would you like to read great nov­els in the words of Win­ston Churchill? Such a col­lec­tion exists. In 1933, Churchill retold a dozen of “The World’s Great Sto­ries” for The News of the World. Six also appeared in the Chica­go Sun­day Tri­bune. Five were reprint­ed in 1941. Then they were for­got­ten, lost among his “pot­boil­ers” of the 1930s. In 1975 they were briefly res­ur­rect­ed in the lim­it­ed edi­tion Col­lect­ed Essays of Sir Win­ston Churchill. The pub­lish­ing his­to­ry is entry C393 in Ronald Cohen’s mas­ter­ful Bib­li­og­ra­phy.

Why would Churchill wish to retell such clas­sics as Uncle Tom’s Cab­in, The Count of Monte Cristo, Don Quixote, or A Tale of Two Cities? Because he was paid well to do so! Nev­er inde­pen­dent­ly wealthy, he worked hard to main­tain his lux­u­ri­ous lifestyle—and the heavy enter­tain­ment and trav­el over­head of an active polit­i­cal career. “I earned my liveli­hood by dic­tat­ing arti­cles which had a wide cir­cu­la­tion not only in Great Britain and the Unit­ed States,” he wrote, “but also, before Hitler’s shad­ow fell upon them, in the most famous news­pa­pers of six­teen Euro­pean coun­tries. I lived in fact from mouth to hand.”

His 1930s arti­cles ranged from the eso­teric (“Are There Men on the Moon?”) to the whim­si­cal (“Are We Too Clever?”) to the his­tor­i­cal (“Moses”). Inter­spersed were thought­ful reflec­tions on civ­i­liza­tion (“Mass Effects in Mod­ern Life”) or inter­na­tion­al devel­op­ments (“How Ger­many is Arm­ing”). Some­what dis­mis­sive­ly, Churchill and his staff called some of these “pot­boil­ers.” “Very excit­ing,” remem­bered his sec­re­tary Grace Ham­blin: “They were quick­ly put out and sent off usu­al­ly the next day. He got his mon­ey very quick­ly, which he liked too. We all liked doing potboilers.”

Genesis of the “Great Stories”

Churchill rarely had to “shop” his material—publishers came to him. In mid-1932 it was news­pa­per baron Lord Rid­dell, who wrote:

Would it appeal to you to write six arti­cles “Six Great Sto­ries of the World Retold by Win­ston Churchill”? Sen­sa­tion­al things like Monte Cristo, Wilkie Collins’ Moon­stone, Rid­er Haggard’s She, Ben-Hur, Ana­tole France’s Thais, Uncle Tom’s Cab­in—5000 words each arti­cle. What would you want for them to be pub­lished in the News of the World. You would have an enor­mous audience—3,500,000 per week.”

Churchill replied by return, acclaim­ing Riddell’s “bril­liant idea.” Not omit­ting to note that Collier’s were pay­ing him $1500 (£312) an arti­cle, he offered Rid­dell six sto­ries for £2000. He then hired his one­time pri­vate sec­re­tary and lit­er­ary col­lab­o­ra­tor Eddie Marsh to help write drafts at £25 each—a mod­est over­head! “If I had read about 2500 words of your ideas on each of the select­ed books,” he wrote Marsh, “it would be a foun­da­tion on which I could tell my sto­ry. I shall of course be read­ing them all again myself.”

“The art of the deal”

Good sales­man that he was, Churchill then inter­est­ed Robert McCormick’s Chica­go Tri­bune in the Amer­i­can rights for £1800. His com­bined fee was £3800 ($18,000, or $380,000 in today’s mon­ey). The Tri­bune could not start until Jan­u­ary 1933 but Rid­dell was ready to go. Churchill had a prob­lem, since he’d promised McCormick simul­ta­ne­ous release. “[I]t nev­er occurred to me till you said so the oth­er night that you would want to pub­lish them till after the end of the year,” he wrote Rid­dell. “I hope there­fore that you will not mind wait­ing till Jan­u­ary 8, or at your con­ve­nience lat­er in the month.”

Rid­dell was so pleased with the first four sto­ries that he asked for more. “Good news,” WSC wrote Marsh in Decem­ber. “They like them so much that they have ordered anoth­er half dozen.” Rid­dell sug­gest­ed some titles, but left the choic­es to Churchill. (McCormick set­tled for the orig­i­nal six, although he replaced Ben-Hur with Jane Eyre from the sec­ond set).

“Rot, padding, feuilleton and pemmicanisation”

Retelling whole nov­els in 5000 words each posed a major task of con­den­sa­tion. Marsh sub­mit­ted a sum­ma­ry of The Count of Monte Cristo. No good, Churchill replied: “[W]e are not writ­ing great sto­ries sum­marised, but great sto­ries retold. It is essen­tial to select the salient fea­tures of the tale and make them live in all their full­ness, leav­ing the rest in dark­ness. In Monte Cristo I shall give 1000 words to the plot against Dantes and 2500 to the ter­rif­ic prison dra­ma and 1500 to the revenge. That pret­ty well fix­es the dimen­sions.” Any­one who has read Monte Cristo will appre­ci­ate that Churchill had his empha­sis right.

Along with Dumas they liked Dick­ens, but Churchill knew he’d have to jet­ti­son vast ver­biage. This gave him oppor­tu­ni­ty to exer­cise his vocab­u­lary: “Both Dick­ens and Dumas mixed up a lot of rot and padding in their writ­ing for feuil­leton pur­pos­es,” he told Marsh, “all of which goes over­board through my lee scup­pers.” He knew A Tale of Two Cities well, “though I sup­pose I shall have to re-read it. It cer­tain­ly lends itself to dra­mat­ic pemmicanisation.”

This tells us much about Churchill’s com­mand of the assign­ment and direc­tion of the writ­ing. Eddie Marsh, a bril­liant poly­math, was the per­fect foil and draft writer. As the work con­tin­ued, Marsh wrote an increas­ing por­tion of the drafts, espe­cial­ly after the first six. Nev­er­the­less, Churchill final­ized them. His spe­cial take on each nov­el is what inter­ests today’s readers.

“Mes­sala forged ahead, and as [he] neared the west­ern goal Ben-Hur leant for­ward over his Arabs…. They answered with a bound that land­ed them along­side the Roman car.” —Churchill retelling “Ben-Hur,” 29 Jan­u­ary 1933. (The­atri­cal poster for a pro­duc­tion of William Young’s adap­ta­tion, 1901, Library of Congress)

The first six

  1. Uncle Tom’s Cab­in, by Har­ri­et Beech­er Stowe
  2. The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexan­dre Dumas
  3. The Moon­stone, by Wilkie Collins
  4. Ben-Hur, by Lewis Wallace*
  5. Tess of the D’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy
  6. A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

* The Chica­go Sun­day Tri­bune sub­sti­tut­ed Jane Eyre.

** Save for The Moon­stone, these sto­ries were reprint­ed in the Sun­day Dis­patch in 1941. For books or e-books, enter titles in Amazon.com or Bookfinder.com.

Uncle Tom’s Cab­in and The Count of Monte Cristo were the first choic­es. Churchill reject­ed She—“a slight work though very excit­ing. I think that King Solomon’s Mines is the best of Rid­er Haggard’s books.” He thought Shakespeare’s and Goethe’s works “too great to be dealt with in this way, except Faust, which can always be told.” He con­sid­ered A Tale of Two Cities, Ivan­hoe, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Trea­sure Island, Ten Thou­sand a Year, Rob­bery Under Arms and Faust.

Ulti­mate­ly the last four were dropped, while Ivan­hoe made the sec­ond cut. Lawyers con­sult­ed copy­right hold­ers, who were most­ly fine with what they saw as wel­come pub­lic­i­ty. Only Harp­er & Broth­ers, pub­lish­ers of Twain’s The Prince and the Pau­per, with­held permission.

Omissions and an addition

Churchill decid­ed against Ana­tole France’s Thais, and Marsh agreed: “[I]t would be dif­fi­cult to do jus­tice to the dis­eased, sup­pressed sex­u­al­i­ty (of which it is so ter­ri­ble a sto­ry) in the course of a 5000-word arti­cle….. [It is] much bet­ter done at length in French, than in abrupt and abridged Eng­lish.” From Chica­go, Robert McCormick sug­gest­ed Wuther­ing Heights, but they’d already set­tled on Brontë’s Jane Eyre. McCormick men­tioned Tolstoy’s Anna Karen­i­na, but Churchill hadn’t read that mam­moth tome, and Rid­dell didn’t want it.

Nor had Churchill read Ben-Hur, which he con­sid­ered “mere pop­u­lar sen­ti­ment.” But Lord Rid­dell liked it, so Eddie Marsh tack­led a draft. “Gol­ly what a book!” Marsh wrote. “The seafight is real­ly fun, so I’m mak­ing that a ‘high-light,’ and there will be anoth­er in the char­i­ot-race; but there are ter­ri­ble unman­age­able tracts between—I don’t think I’ve ever read a book in such bad Eng­lish.” In the final ver­sion, Churchill gave a beau­ti­ful flour­ish to Bib­li­cal sto­ry of the Wise Men at the birth of Jesus.

The second cut

  1. Jane Eyre, by Char­lotte Brontë*
  2. Adam Bede, by George Eliot
  3. Vice Ver­sa, by Thomas Anstey Guthrie
  4. Ivan­hoe, by Wal­ter Scott
  5. West­ward Ho!, by Charles Kingsley
  6. Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes

*Sub­sti­tut­ed for Ben-Hur in the Chica­go Sun­day Tri­bune.

When Rid­dell asked for more titles, Churchill sent fur­ther ideas to Marsh for com­ment. Both agreed on Jane Eyre, Adam Bede, West­ward Ho!, Ivan­hoe and Vice Ver­sa. The Clois­ter and the Hearth, The Wan­der­ing Jew, East Lynne, Van­i­ty Fair and The Last Days of Pom­peii were reject­ed. Rid­dell was still push­ing Faust, and Churchill thought “the full Ger­man sto­ry would be mag­nif­i­cent,” but it proved too unwieldy for a 5000-word retelling. He also won­dered whether Vice Ver­sa “was not below the mid­dle-class lev­el which goes to these schools.” Marsh thought Vice Ver­sa—a light Vic­to­ri­an novel—a break from the oth­er, most­ly gloomy stories.

Instead of Goethe, Rid­dell got Cer­vantes. “His Lord­ship thinks that Don Quixote would be a good thing,” wrote Vio­let Pear­man, Churchill’s sec­re­tary, “although you find it rather heavy and with not much plot.” Rid­dell had learned of an upcom­ing film adap­ta­tion star­ring George Robey. “This should inspire you,” WSC informed Marsh. The film debuted in May, and Rid­dell saw to it that Churchill’s ver­sion appeared in March. It was the last in the series.

What makes these sto­ries unique is, of course, Churchill’s vast back­ground and expe­ri­ence. His telling adds poignant reflec­tions and Churchillian phras­es to the famous novels.

Links: Churchill’s stories one by one

For accounts and excerpts from Uncle Tom’s Cab­in, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Moon­stone and Ben-Hur, click here.

For Tess of the D’Urbervilles, A Tale of Two Cities, Jane Eyre, Adam Bede, Vice Ver­sa, Ivan­hoe, West­ward Ho! and Don Quixote, click here.

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