It was, one of Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s private secretaries had to confess, a sight both “magnificent and terrible.” On a September night in 1940, John Colville watched from his bedroom window as German bombers carried out one of the first raids of the London Blitz. Explosions and fires lit up the night sky; searchlight beams strained to pick out the planes droning overhead as anti-aircraft guns blindly blasted away. “Never,” he wrote in his diary, “was there such a contrast of natural splendor and human vileness.”
This contrast between light and darkness — between human beings at their best and humanity at its worst — is the theme running through Erik Larson’s chronicle of Churchill’s first year in office. These were desperate months, when American resistance to being drawn into World War Two left Britain and its Commonwealth allies standing alone against Hitler’s military juggernaut.
The Splendid and the Vile, a title inspired by Colville’s description, is a book as courageous, in its own way, as its larger-than-life subject. There are countless Churchill biographies and movies. Gary Oldman won an Oscar barely two years ago for Darkest Hour, which dramatized Churchill’s first days as prime minister. Is there anything new to be said about this twentieth-century colossus?
The answer is a resounding yes. Larson, who offered a fresh take on the 1915 sinking of the liner Lusitania in his last book, Dead Wake, plunged into a vast archival record and stacks of diaries and memoirs to find, as he puts it, “my personal Churchill.” His cinematic flair brings every scene and every character to life. This is history up-close and personal — vivid, immersive and presented with real-time pacing and urgency. Readers tour the rubble of bombed-out cities alongside Churchill, attend tense cabinet meetings or have a seat at the dinner table as the great man holds court, his stories and one-liners as free-flowing as the champagne and the brandy.
The narrative is peppered with the telling details that Larson’s readers have come to expect. When Churchill was not dictating memos in a dressing gown and slippers, he relaxed in a one-piece outfit of his own design — aides called them his “rompers” — that made the rotund leader look like “a pale blue Easter egg.” London mailboxes were coated in a yellow paint that would change color if the Germans unleashed poison gas. King George VI’s favored brand of lavatory paper? Bromo. Movies helped Churchill to unwind and one night, as Hitler was planning to invade Russia, he settled in to watch Charlie Chaplin lampoon his nemesis in The Great Dictator.
Then there are the numbers, which tell stories of their own. The life expectancy for a new member of the British bomber crews launching retaliatory raids on German cities? Two weeks. Few Londoners (no more than one in twenty) descended into shelters when air raid sirens wailed, preferring to stay in their homes and take their chances. “It was best,” one woman noted, “to forget it and die comfortably in bed.” And of the more than 44,000 people killed by Nazi bombs during Churchill’s first year in office, 5,626 were children.
The focus is on how Churchill, his family and his inner circle experienced the war; readers learn of the evacuation of Dunkirk, U-boat attacks on British shipping and other faraway events as the prime minister did, through dispatches and reports. The diary of his teenage daughter, Mary, reveals how rarely the war intruded on her carefree world of dances and parties. A supporting cast of generals and cabinet colleagues emerge from the prime minister’s shadow to add their thoughts and experiences to the narrative, and Larson never forgets a nickname. One general is called Pug because he resembles the breed of dog. Newspaper proprietor Lord Beaverbrook, one of Churchill’s confidants, worked miracles as minister of aircraft production but was an odious figure christened The Toad.
John Colville recounts a night when Churchill and his dinner guests scrambled to the roof of No. 10 Downing Street to “watch the fun” as a bombing raid unfolded. But Larson never allows the experiences of the privileged few to obscure the horrors faced by the many. Five hundred civilians died in the city’s East End that night, leaving mortuary workers to sort through “fragments of bodies and limbs.” Larson mines personal journals and the archives of Mass-Observation, an organization that encouraged people to record their everyday lives, to bring home the grim reality of the Blitz.
There are lessons here for our times. The British government established Anti-Lies and Anti-Rumours bureaus to stop the spread of false reports that could undermine the war effort, agencies that would have plenty of work on their hands today. And Larson’s personal Churchill has a lot to say about leadership. The prime minister marshaled words not to taunt and deride, but to inspire. He led by example, displaying personal courage, humility and empathy for the people suffering under the Luftwaffe’s punishing attacks. He was often seen with tears in his eyes, overcome by the weight of the responsibilities and expectations he carried. When crowds cheered and mobbed him as he visited bomb-ravaged Bristol, he saw the response not as personal adulation; rather, it was proof of “the spirit of an unconquerable people.”
Moving to Manhattan a few years ago gave Larson a deeper understanding of the profound impact of 9/11 on New Yorkers. “This,” he explains in a note to readers, “was their home city under attack.” He wondered how Londoners, and Churchill in particular, had managed to endure the Blitz night after night. As a result, The Splendid and the Vile was born.
Churchill once quipped that history would be kind to him, because he intended to write it — and be did, producing a six-volume history of the war by 1953, the year he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Had he known he would one day attract the attention of a master storyteller like Erik Larson, he might have saved himself the trouble.
The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz
By Erik Larson
Published February 25, 2020
Dean Jobb is the true crime columnist for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and the author of Empire of Deception, the true story of a master swindler who scammed the elite of 1920s Chicago (Algonquin Books). His next book, coming in June 2021, recreates the Victorian-era crimes of Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, who murdered as many as ten people in Chicago, London and Canada. Dean teaches in the MFA in Creative Nonfiction program at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Website: deanjobb.com Twitter: @DeanJobb