Mr Churchill's Profession
Throughout most of his long political career Churchill relied for the bulk of his income on his earnings as an author and journalist. That was, however, a precarious way of earning his living, especially when he accepted more commissions than he could complete in the contracted deadline. That was particularly the case in the 1930s, when he was out of office but required a large income to support his family, his expensive tastes and his country home, Chartwell in Kent. During that decade Churchill produced three books of memoirs, several collections of speeches and two major histories. The first was Marlborough: His Life and Times, a biography of his famous ancestor, which was published in four volumes between 1933 and 1938. The second was A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, which he contracted to write in 1932 but which was still incomplete when he became Prime Minister in 1940. The History was eventually completed, largely by other hands, and published between 1956 and 1958. In Mr Churchill’s Profession, Peter Clarke focuses mainly on the origins of those two works, particularly the History. In that respect his book complements (and was partly inspired by) David Reynolds’s impressive 2004 study, In Command of History, about the genesis of Churchill’s The Second World War.
Clarke’s story has partly been told before but he provides the most comprehensive and illuminating account. He combines, unusually, an assured knowledge of 20th century political history with an expertise in economic and financial issues. This enables him expertly to unravel not only the complicated details of Churchill’s publishing contracts but also the taxation that arose from them. Churchill’s stratagems to avoid tax – by having his literary earnings classified as capital gains rather than income – have a very contemporary resonance today. He was also helped by the fact that a quarter of his literary income came from the United States. General readers may not be that interested in all the financial and textual details provided by Clarke but they will appreciate his lucid, fluent prose and light touch. He is also good on the domestic arrangements at Chartwell and the collaborative nature of Churchill’s history writing.
Despite the subtitle of the book, Clarke says little directly about Churchill’s role as a statesman or an orator. The contemporary political significance of Churchill’s historical endeavours is also not fully explored. The first Duke of Marlborough provided Churchill with a role model for a war leader of an international coalition against a dominant autocratic State. A 1938 Punch cartoon, not featured by Clarke, depicted Churchill, having finished his life of Marlborough, being urged by his famous ancestor to now turn his attention to national defence. Clarke does, however, point out that Churchill’s interest in ‘the English-Speaking Peoples’ only blossomed when it took the form of a lucrative book deal. Even then he showed little interest in the history of the United States, with the notable exception of the American Civil War. Churchill, moreover, largely ignored the most obvious tie between the English-speaking peoples: their common language and culture. He made, for example, no reference to Shakespeare.
History Today indirectly assisted the completion and publication of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. The magazine was started by Churchill’s crony and financial adviser, Brendan Bracken, who suggested that its co-editor, Alan Hodge, should help Churchill to revise the text. Hodge did so and became a personal friend of Churchill, who nominated him to membership of the Other Club. Even so, History Today published a critical review of volume three, The Age of Revolution by the eminent Dutch historian Pieter Geyl, who considered Churchill’s approach to be subjective, scrappy and too focused on military heroes rather than political ideology. But he acknowledged that Churchill’s dramatic and narrative skills made the book a delight to read.
Mr Churchill’s Profession is a valuable and original addition to the ever-growing corpus of Churchill studies. While it draws attention to what Clarke calls Churchill’s ‘inability to govern his own reckless impulses’ it also illustrates his capacity for sustained drudgery and his resilience in the face of challenging circumstances. Those qualities were as apparent in Churchill’s private life as in his public career.
Roland Quinault is editor of William Gladstone: New Studies and Perspectives