With the publication of the final volume, Never Flinch, Never Weary, October 1951-January 1965, the official biography of Winston Churchill has been completed. As determined by the Guinness Book of World Records (the arbiter of such things), it is the longest biography in history. The completed project consists of eight narrative volumes and 23 document volumes. It has both physical and intellectual heft. Together the volumes, which have been acclaimed as a “classic of English scholarly biography,” total over 42,000 pages, measure 72 linear inches, and weigh 108 pounds. As Larry Arnn, the biography’s final editor, has commented its mammoth size is “befitting one of the largest lives ever lived.”
The story of the “Great Biography” starts in 1960 as the then 85 year-old Winston Churchill selected his son Randolph to write his biography based on his voluminous personal papers. Randolph Churchill had proven himself capable by researching and writing a biography of Lord Derby. (Selecting his son to write his biography continued a tradition, as Winston Churchill had written the biography of his own father, Lord Randolph Churchill. In turn, Churchill’s grandson, Winston Churchill, would write the biography of his father, Randolph Churchill).
Randolph Churchill assembled a research team and work began on the official biography in 1961. The following year, Martin Gilbert, a young History Don from Merton College, Oxford, joined the research team. In approaching the project, Randolph Churchill adopted the motto “he shall be his own biographer.” Winston Churchill’s personal documents were to be the basis of the biography’s narrative, with extensive selections made from Churchill’s personal papers that included correspondence, minutes, memorandums, telegrams, reports, and speeches. This approach ensured that “from its pages emerges a living Churchill who towers above his fellow politicians.” Beyond Churchill’s papers, research for the project was also undertaken in the cabinet papers, government documents, and other collections of personal papers.
The first narrative volume of the Churchill biography was published in 1966, a year after Churchill’s death, with the second following in 1967. The initial publishers were Heinemann in Britain and Houghton Mifflin in the United States. Randolph Churchill died in 1968 at the age of 57 with only these first two volumes written. Although Winston Churchill’s grandson and Frederick Smith, 2nd Earl of Birkenhead, were both said to be keen to take on the project, the Chartwell Trust selected Martin Gilbert to continue the work. He received £80,000 to complete the project, most of which went to supporting his research. Over the next twenty years, the remaining six narrative volumes and first 13 companion volumes of documents (which took Churchill’s life to 1939) were published. The next three document volumes, which covered the years 1939-1941, were published under the title The Churchill War Papers. Although widely praised on the publication of each volume, a criticism made of the biography was that it favored meticulous coverage of Churchill’s life, with at times day to day attention, over analysis and interpretation of events and decisions.
After the publication of the War Papers there was a pause in publication of new volumes. Hillsdale College, however, stepped in to join the project. A liberal arts school established in 1844 located west of Detroit, Hillsdale’s president is Larry Arnn, a Churchill scholar who worked with Gilbert as a research assistant in the 1970s. Having reached an agreement with Gilbert and the Churchill family to complete the project, Hillsdale became the publisher of the official biography in 2004. Under Hillsdale’s stewardship, the eight narrative volumes and first 16 documents were republished and commencing in 2014 the remaining seven documents volumes were brought to publication with the final volume appearing in 2019. Sir Martin passed away in 2015 and Larry Arnn followed him as editor.
The official biography is simply an outstanding achievement. Under the editorship of Churchill, Gilbert, and Arnn, the biography is indeed worthy of the subject whose life it chronicles.