Literary Churchill

The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor by Jonathan Rose is a vivid, elegantly written, and thorough study of the literary influences on Winston Churchill’s writing and politics. Throughout this selective chronological narrative of Churchill’s life, Rose argues that Churchill’s political thoughts and decisions were influenced (if not determined) by his reading and theatre-going, as “his political goals and methods were shaped by what he read in books and saw on the stage.” The specific literary influence on Churchill was the melodrama, which “pervaded” the British theatre, novels, and other writing from the end of the Napoleonic Wars to the First World War. Melodrama was a “world of absolutes” with villains, heroes, last minute rescues, and the coup de theatre. The latter was a “perennial” device of “dramatic bombshells” that would “be wholly unexpected and leave the audience gasping.” It was, according to Rose, “one of Winston’s favorite literary and political strokes” which he employed with “very mixed results.” Although Rose largely makes a convincing argument for the literary influences on Churchill, he, on occasion, overstates his case for a literary connection on only slim evidence while disregarding other possible motivations. The author also does not adequately consider whether Churchill’s politics and decisions would have been the same whether he had not read a certain book, not seen a particular play, or not written Savrola, his own melodramatic novel. The finest and most interesting sections of The Literary Churchill are Rose’s consideration of Churchill’s wartime speeches and his comparison of Churchill and Hitler as artists, writing that “in May 1940 the Second World War became a duel between two artists” and that the Nazi leader “might have won the war if he had not been opposed by an equally brilliant political artist.” Rose, a professor at Drew University and author of the award-winning The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, has written an original and thoughtful study that will be essential reading for Churchill scholars.