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The Lion Caged
An outstanding American historian follows Winston Churchill through a typical day during his political exile in the 1930s and uses that single twenty-four-hour period to reveal the character of the century’s greatest Englishman in all its complexity. See Churchill lay bricks, paint a landscape, tease his dinner guests, badger his secretaries, dictate a history, make up a speech, write an article (that’s how he earns his living), refuse his breakfast because the jam has been left off the tray, refight the Battle of Bull Run, feed his fish, drink his brandy, fashion a “bellyband” to retrieve a particularly decrepit cigar, recite all of “Horatius at the Bridge,” take two baths—and await with noisy fortitude the day when he will save the world.
February/March 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 2
Using saltshakers, cutlery, and brandy goblets, he can reenact any battle in the Civil War.
At Chartwell this is the last word. Later the servant will say: “There was no answer to that. He knew, as I and the rest of the world knew, that he was right.” Elizabeth NeI, after reciting her very legitimate grievances, adds: “Neither I nor anyone else considered this treatment unfair. … I used to wonder how long his patience would last, if he would not one day say, ‘Go, and never let me see you again.’” Phyllis Moir, another member of the secretarial pool, will recall Winston on the phone, telling her to fetch him certain papers: “Mr. Churchill was standing by the telephone, his face very red and very angry, stamping his feet and sputtering with rage. He literally tore the papers out of my hand and savagely stammered an incoherent answer into the mouthpiece.” She adds loyally: “Mr. Churchill is not the sort of man to apologize to anyone, but he would go out of his way to say something appreciative and his whole manner made you feel he was ashamed of his bad behavior.” He expressed his shame by failing to turn on her wrathfully after he had hung up. Instead he asked her if she was enjoying the countryside.
It hardly seems adequate. The blunt truth is that Winston has never considered himself a toad beneath the harrow, and for the best of reasons; he isn’t one. No humble man would outflank a traffic jam by driving on the pavement. He believes he is a superior being, entitled to exceptional forbearance as well as special privilege and not subject to judgment by the rules of polite society. That is, of course, arguable. What is striking is that those who work for him, toiling long hours, underpaid and subject to savage, undeserved reprimands, agree with him. They feel the sting of his whip. Yet he continues to command their respect, even their love. Those who are shocked by Churchill’s treatment of his employees all have this in common: they never worked for him.
Sometime between 2:00 A.M. and 4:00 A.M. he quits, leaving the others to sort out ribbon copies and carbons, clean up the study, and, if the night’s dictation has included manuscript, prepare a packet for the London courier. In his bedroom he divests himself of his trousers and velvet slippers; then, in one great overhead swoop, yanks the rest of his clothing up, away, and across the chamber. In a gesture that is more narcissistic than remedial, he faces the mirror in his bedroom and brushes his strands of hair straight down over his ears, saying to his valet, with dubious authority, “That’s the way to keep your hair.” He asks him for “my eye blinkers,” slips the sleep mask in place, and is presently breathing the deep, slow breaths of the slumberer. His dreams, he tells his family, are often of his father, who died prophesying Winston would be a failure. In 1932 it would be hard to find more than a dozen men of Parliament or Fleet Street who would find that prediction laughable.
Appearing together, the first two volumes of Churchill’s Marlborough: His Life and Times reached an appreciative audience in Britain that did not, however, include members of intellectual and literary communities. Evelyn Waugh wrote pitilessly: “As history it is beneath contempt, the special pleading of a defense lawyer. As literature it is worthless.” Time , describing the author as “the perennial bad boy of English politics,” told its readers: “Historians may be amused by Biographer Winston’s irrepressible stout language (he is a past master in the violent use of rubberstamp phrases) and defiant bias.” To Herbert Read, the eminent Oxford critic, Churchill’s prose revealed “aggrandizement of self,” eloquence which is “false because it is artificial,” and “a false dramatic atmosphere.” A contributor to the Yale Review wrote that Churchill “exhibits all the rhetorical symptoms of an instructor of Freshman English.” Among the literary elite any prophecy that Churchill would one day be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature would have provoked laughter.
Here, as elsewhere, in the bleak interwar years, the explanation lies in the cultural aftershock of the Great War. The four-year holocaust had left behind it, as Sir Isaiah Berlin points out, “hatred for the grand style as such. The victims and casualties of disaster thought they had earned the right to be rid of the trappings of an age which had heartlessly betrayed them.” Churchill’s vision of history was scorned as an ugly pastiche of ponderous Edwardiana. Standards in the world of letters, like social values, had been drastically revised once the British population grasped the full horror of trench warfare in France and Flanders. Literate men identified it with the ornate, elaborate, rococo prose popular in prewar England, and they recoiled from both.