I’ve wanted to read this since it came out in 2020 but I’ve put it off because at the same time I was just not interested in Winston Churchill and the blitz. At some point recently I saw it available in the library app and I got it and am giving it a try. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Larson and that’s been most of what he’s published. That said, I wasn’t so hot on Churchill or WWII military history before I read this and I’m still not. That said, the book is pretty good. Oh well.
The Splendid and the Vile:
A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz
by Erik Larson
2020 – 608 pages
read by John Lee 17h 49m
rating: 9 (re-reading) / WWII history
As is apparent from the title, the book tells the tale of Winston Churchill and his courageous leadership between that fateful day in May of 1940, the day Churchill became Prime Minister and Hitler marched into Belgium, and a year later in May 1941, when Franklin D. Roosevelt and the US were finally convinced to step in as allies. That was a dreadful year for the UK because after getting Holland and Belgium, Hitler started in on English cities and this was prior to the US coming in.
Yes, Churchill’s attitude was somewhat “defiant” although he’s usually been called courageous. I suppose in that situation either word will do. He and England were certainly in the wrong place at the right time – or vice versa. What else could he do but continue to tell the country to turn out the lights, hunker down, actively return fire, and try to get help. And he managed to do all that so it’s absolutely to his credit no matter if he did a few underhanded things to get the help. The US has never regretted helping England in WWII. And like a hurricane, Churchill seemed to gather strength, energy and determination which he confidently articulated and conveyed to the British people who soldiered on, cold, homeless and hungry. (Yeah)
The book is also about Churchill’s own family struggles during this time and they had plenty of them. His wife Clementine was as supportive as she could be working in housing and other volunteer efforts. Randolph, Churchill’s eldest son, drank and tried to keep his wife Pamela satisfied, but she found a lover. Mary, the youngest daughter, wanted to get out and do what young people were doing. Meanwhile Winston moved the all between the Prime Minister’s residences and their own while consulting with his advisors and doing whatever was necessary while waiting for the long promised invasion.
A lot of it seemed pretty boring, to me. I knew it wasn’t and it picked up a lot from time to time and then at the end. The problem was me and my lack of interest at that moment. Of course the droning voice of John Lee just didn’t help (but I usually enjoy Lee’s narrations).
One thing is that Erik Larson had access to recently released material and he’s an excellent researcher and writer so parts of the book were new and fascinating. But I missed the footnotes. By the time I got to the end I knew I would read it again and I knew I would do it with the Kindle version in hand. So I plugged along and finished a first reading.
During that time I fell asleep listening to the tape for about 3 hours. I was tempted to just skip it but no … I had been starting to get interested at about the Book 5 mark – midway? – . I picked it up again.
This might not have been a such great book to read in the early days of the pandemic – it showed a prime minister with courage and determination who used the resources at hand and developed more as well as seeking help. If we’d had something like that going for us n 2020 we might not be facing what we are today. And England in 1940-’41 was a nation under extreme pressure, maybe more than we were in 2020. Otherwise, the times were really not much alike as far as I can see. Differences and similarities, I suppose – a good question for a college history exam – heh. For all his foibles and the dirt which has been dug up more recently, Churchill, whatever his shortcomings, seems to have been the right guy at the right time to get the job done.