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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
Its origins lie in the twenty-one months of autodidactic study Churchill spent as a cavalry officer in the Indian raj, selecting those writers whom he admired either for the originality of their minds or for their mastery of the language, studying their styles, and eventually creating his own: one that arose naturally from his powerful historical imagination, his concept of life as a great, multicolored pageant, and his evocation of striking images that lay somewhere between Benozzo Gozzoli’s painting of the Riccardi palace’s procession and the illustrations in Chatterbox, the children’s annual Winston had read as a boy. In Bangalore he devoured Carlyle, Schopenhauer, Darwin, Aristotle, Malthus, Plato, Adam Smith, Pascal, Gibbon, and Macaulay, and Samuel Johnson (his “Finest Hour” speech of 1940 is splendidly Johnsonian). In letters to his mother he begged her to send him books by the crate. “Macaulay,” he wrote her on January 21,1897, “is easier reading than Gibbon & in quite a different style. Macaulay crisp & forcible. Gibbon stately & impressive. Both are fascinating & show what a fine language English is since it can be pleasing in styles so different.” Still in his early twenties, sweating through the heat of the late Indian afternoon, he “began,” in his words, “to see that writing, especially narrative, was not only an affair of sentences, but of paragraphs. Indeed I thought the paragraph no less important than the sentence. Macaulay is a master of paragraphing. Just as the sentence contains one idea in all its fullness”—here we see his awareness of singlemindedness, which Bodkin admires in his painting—“so the paragraphs must fit on to one another like the automatic couplings of railway carriages.”
In his introduction to Savrola, his first and only novel, he wrote: “I have always thought that if an author cannot make friends with the reader, and explain his objects, in two or three hundred pages, he is not likely to do so in fifty lines. And yet the temptation of speaking a few words behind the scenes, as it were, is so strong that few writers are able to resist it. I shall not try.”
This bears the unmistakable Churchill stamp: two long sentences, disingenuously simple, followed by a wry twist of self-mockery. Great English prose, like traditional verse, is rhythmic and can be scanned. Moreover, the rhythm is determined by the theme. In his subsequent volumes on Kitchener’s Sudan campaign, and the Boer War, he taught himself this very difficult technique. Here is one sentence on Lord Curzon: “The morning had been golden, the noontide was bronze and the evening lead; but all were solid and each was polished till it shone after its fashion.” This encapsulates a man’s character and career, and its tempo, pirouetting on the semicolon, matches Churchill’s judgment of Curzon—viceregal, fastidious, thwarted, flawed.
On the steel nib of a gifted writer, or the tongue of a great speaker, English offers a broad range of eloquence: short and intricate sentences, monosyllabic and polysyllabic words, and stunning combinations balanced by counterpoint. At its best the language blends brief, simple declarative passages with rich Gladstonian exuberance. Gray’s Elegy is memorable for both his simple “The paths of glory lead but to the grave” and the braided “Full many a gem of purest ray serene/The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear.”
Churchill’s mastery of brevity is rare among public speakers, and—despite his immortal offer of nothing but “blood, toil, tears, and sweat”—largely overlooked. His prose is celebrated for the majestic manner in which it rolls and peals, mounting and swelling to successive climaxes. In his second work, The River War, he described the aftermath of Kitchener’s great victory at Omdurman and, sitting on the darkened battlefield, surrounded by Arab corpses, he scribbled on his pad: “Three days before I had seen them rise eager, confident, resolved. The roar of their shouting had swelled like the surf on a rocky shore. The flashing of their blades and points had displayed their numbers, their vitality, their ferocity. They were confident in their strength, in the justice of their cause, in the support of their religion. Now only the heaps of corruption in the plain and fugitives dispersed and scattered in the wilderness remained. The terrible machinery of scientific war had done its work. The Dervish host was scattered and destroyed.” A year later on another field in South Africa, he displayed his grasp of concision: “The night was chilly. Colonel Byng and I shared a blanket. When he turned over 1 was in the cold. When I turned over I pulled the blanket off him and he objected. He was the Colonel. It was not a good arrangement. 1 was glad when morning came.”
In his account of the Great War he showed that concise prose can be as lethal as a stiletto. After a meticulous account of the Battle of Jutland, he pointed out that Britain’s timid Admiral Jellicoe had thrice missed opportunities to annihilate the German fleet. Another historian might have written: “To let three priceless chances slip by is inexcusable.” Churchill used five words: “Three times is a lot.” They pursued Jellicoe to his grave.