“You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs—Victory in spite of all terror—Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.” These were the words that echoed in my mind as I read through the first of volume of The Last Lion, a superb biography of Winston Churchill written by William Manchester. Through Manchester’s fluid yet also sedulously descriptive pen, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory” recounts the first fifty years of the life of one of the greatest statesmen of the 20th century.
Manchester’s tactful writing style and eloquent mannerism allow us to penetrate into the inner life of Churchill as he grows up and becomes the orator, novelist and historian we know him as. One of the tropes of Churchill’s life is bipolar disorder. As Churchill vacillates between periods of high energy and low energy and rides out “the storm” of life, we see what gave him the power to push through difficult moments. Manchester’s brilliant description of the Churchillian country house, where Winston seeks refuge after the Gallipoli Crisis and after his second fall from government, bespeaks how life’s mould shaped him to become the man he is during times of deep personal crisis. His heart-melting letters to his wife, Clemence, shows us not only the parliamentary hawk but also the loving husband that is in Churchill. Manchester, armed with the knowledge he gained from his life-long research on Winston Churchill’s life, offers us a comprehensive account of the inner workings of the mind of a genius.
The brilliant exposition of Churchill’s boisterous public life offers us a glimpse into the political, social and cultural life of the late Victorian era. Not in another book can one hear of Churchill’s daring escape from a Boer war camp in the Second Boer War, getting instantly catapulted into celebrity status in the process. Not in another book can one learn of the monumental role of Churchill, then an army corporal, in the Mahdi War. Not in another book can one more acutely feel the pulse of the British society as it marched to war in the first months of World War I. Throughout all of this, Manchester manages to depict not only the fierce patriotism of the British society but also the winds of change and dejection that blew during the war and well into the Interwar Period. Perhaps the best indication of this is Churchill’s friendship with two of the most important war poets of the 20th century: Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon, the former welcoming the war with exoneration, the latter condemning it for inhumaneness.
The virtuosity of Manchester shines through in the captivating narrative of the book. We watch entranced and at awe as Churchill takes away the right of the House of Lords to veto bills, as he takes his first ministerial position, as he resigns in disgrace after the failed naval offensive in Gallipoli. The author’s talent and wit turn even the most monotone moments into moments of profound insight into the life of Churchill. A parliamentary debate becomes a battle of wills; Churchill’s enthusiasm for learning how to fly become demonstrations of his courage, his embarkment in India a magical tale from a millennium away. We grow so affectionate for the man that at the end of the book, where Lady Astor, responding to a question by Stalin as to whether Churchill will become the Prime Minister in the coming decade, says “Churchill?! He is finished.”, we are floored by our incredulity.
For all enthusiasts of recent history, the first volume of The Last Lion is a must read. Numbering in some 900 pages, the book is pretty long, but the dividends that one reaps are definitely worth it. Above all, the book makes us remember that to be acquainted with a man, one meeting is enough; to know him requires a lifetime. Now, that lifetime is at your fingertips.