It is no wonder The Splendid and the Vile hit number 1 on The New York Times bestseller list. Larson wrote this well-documented account of life inside Winston Churchill’s inner circle with such elegant prose one can forget that it is nonfiction history. 

The setting is a two-year period of great challenge for England when they stood alone against the Nazis, determined to bomb the British into submission. Like other successful World War II chroniclers, Larson includes the actions and behaviors of the leaders of both sides of the conflict, including Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess’s bizarre solo flight to Scotland.

The focus, though, is on England’s prime minister, a gregarious dynamo of energy who liked to take baths and naps and stay up late into the night with his company and his brandy, Nazis and their bombs be damned. Winston Churchill was by this and all other accounts a warrior at heart, determined to save his island nation by any means possible, excluding, of course, surrender. With odds against him, defeating the Germans was always on his mind.

If you have never heard about the other family members, this book is your chance to be enlightened. Clementine Churchill, the Prime Minister’s wife, was a strong-willed woman gracious as any proper English gentlewoman. To challenge her husband and his policies in front of her, however, was a risky proposition. 

Churchill’s daughter Mary, eighteen at the time, was a teenager dearly fond of her “Papa” and worried about the stress his office inflicted on him. But she was still a teenager, and like our teenagers, today who gather for parties amid a pandemic, Mary and her friends gather to party amid falling bombs.

Then, there is Randolph Churchill, the Prime Minister’s wayward son, whose carousing and gambling was a blight on the family. He fornicated with whomever and whenever, and eventually, his wife Pamela begins to do the same, including a tryst with W. Averell Harriman, who at the time was President Franklin Roosevelt’s envoy. The melodrama these two add to the story makes the reader pause and ask, am I still reading history?

Erik Larson must have spent hours reading the diaries of everyone even remotely connected to Winston Churchill, not to mention those of Nazi leaders. He picked out some gems to quote. Among the many accounts referenced are those left by Churchill’s staff, especially his private secretaries. 

One of them told Winston Churchill that he gave the British people the courage they needed to prevail over the German Blitz. He denied that and responded by saying he merely got them to focus on their courage. To me, this was the magnificent sentiment of a leader whose faith in the people he served was unimpeachable. This book is not just about the man, but the British people, for whom he was their steward and their spirit of resilience. 

When I taught my history students World War II, I would tell them if I had to pick one hero from the war in Europe, it would be Winston Churchill. Hitler never invaded England; instead he turned on the Soviet Union because Churchill scared him more than Stalin. There is nothing in this book that changes this perspective. If anything, it enhances it.

The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz

By Erik Larson; Crown (2020)

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