I finished a book this morning that finally won me over. I loved Erik Larson’s book The Devil in the White City and wanted to read his book about Winston Churchill and his family called The Splendid and the Vile. Being from Missouri where Churchill gave his Iron Curtain speech at Westminster College in Fulton and a big fan of his, I was pre-sold on this book. At first I had reservations when I read that Larson often based his text on the diaries and reminiscences of others, but Churchill’s personality and grit still come through.
Ruth & I watched Darkest Hour together and really liked this movie. Gary Oldman as Churchill and Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine were superb in their roles. I suspected that the movie scene where Winston Churchill questions passengers on the London Underground about their attitudes toward Hitler and his bombing of their city was fiction and never really happened, and after reading The Splendid and the Vile I’m more convinced of this than ever. I kept waiting for this scene in the book but it never occurred. The sentiments expressed by Brits, however, come through vividly. In it Churchill is indomitable as I expected.
The Splendid and the Vile comes off as super authentic about 1941, the year in which London was repeatedly bombed and Churchill prevailed without the direct support of the American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR did support the Brits with words but would not commit the United States to joining the war effort until Pearl Harbor was bombed. I had to read all the way to page 484 before I learned how many people died in Great Britain during the German bombings that occurred during Hitler’s relentless attempt to defeat Great Britain before Pearl Harbor was attacked. Speaking about London, Larson finally says on that page, “No other British city experienced such losses, but throughout the United Kingdom the total civilian deaths in 1940 and 1941, including those in London, reached 44,652, with another 52,370 injured. Of the dead, 5,626 were children.”
Periodically, I found The Splendid and the Vile too long; but then when I finished it, I wished it had been longer. I very much liked how Larson portrayed Winston and his wife Clementine, but I wanted more detail about his family. Their youngest daughter Mary becomes a living, breathing presence throughout the book; but the others, with the possible exclusion of their only son Randolph, remain fairly undeveloped. I wanted more information, for example, about their daughter Sarah, who became an actress. Mary is finally convinced by her mother near the end of the book to postpone her marriage to Eric Duncannon. She was, after all, only 18 years old. What happened to Diana, Mary and Sarah’s sister? Did Mary ultimately marry Duncannon? Perhaps Larson was wise not to linger on their fates. For all I know, the biographical details about the 4 Churchill children are in many sources and readily available. I will be finding out.
In the meantime, I highly recommend reading The Splendid and the Vile if you have any interest in learning about the Churchills and the experiences of other players in the war effort in the early part of World War II. This is especially true if you want to learn what London was like before the US became directly involved in the defeat of the Nazis.