The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson

A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz

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The Splendid and the VileMay, 1940. Already weakened by failures in Norway, the successful blitzkrieg in Holland and Belgium sounded the death knell for Chamberlain as Prime Minister. Reluctantly King George VI offered the position to Winston Churchill, a man adored by the public although many of his colleagues thought him too erratic for the role. Larson sets out to tell of Churchill’s first year in power: holding British morale together during the Blitz; desperately working to build up British forces to defend against the expected invasion; battling to get America, even if they weren’t willing to put boots on the ground, to at least assist with money and equipment while Britain stood alone against the overpowering forces of the Nazi war machine.

Larson is brilliant at bringing historical events to life so that it feels as if the reader is there in the room rather than reading a dry recital of historical facts years afterwards. Here he uses a variety of personal accounts to paint a vivid picture of Churchill through this dramatic period – primarily the diaries of his daughter, Mary, and his private secretary, Jock Colville, supplemented by various letters and memos between Churchill and members of his inner team. Larson also turns to contemporaneous reports in the newspapers and on radio, to show what people knew and how they felt at the time rather than through the lens of hindsight.

Churchill broadcastingChurchill broadcasting to the nation 18th June 1940
‘Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that,
if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years,
men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”’

It’s probably true to say there’s nothing startlingly new in the book, but Larson brings out the drama and emotion of the time without sacrificing factual accuracy and detail. Names from the history books become living, breathing people – Beaverbrook, Lindemann, Goering, Hess, et al – and we see their weaknesses and vanities along with their passion and commitment, whichever side they were on. The use of the word “saga” in the subtitle made me fear this might be too geared towards gossip about Churchill’s family, but in fact we learn just enough about them to get a feel for Churchill as a family man, and through Mary’s diary extracts we also get a picture of how the young upper-classes lived and played during this early part of the war, and how their attitudes changed and hardened as the dark realities of modern air-led warfare became clear.

What Larson does so well, though, is to bring the lives of the mass of ordinary working people into the story, not simply as a kind of audience for the great and the good, but as real participants in their own fate. For this, he uses extensively the records of the Mass Observation project, where many volunteer observers kept diaries in which they recorded not just their own lives but their impressions of what was happening in their localities. We see London reeling and terrified after the first air-raids, but the Londoners gradually realising that they were brave enough to take it, and showing the resilience and defiance for which they are remembered. He shows a kind of euphoria developing, and a good deal of sexual licence on display, due to a growing eat, drink and be merry attitude. Larson takes us to Coventry to see the devastating raid there and its aftermath, and his description of this piece of history I already knew quite well is so vivid that he reduced me to tears and roused my rage anew at this mindless death and destruction.

Churchill_CCathedral_H_14250Visiting the bombed-out Coventry Cathedral

Back with Churchill, we get to know the people in his smallish inner circle and how they interacted. We are critical of all government ministers and of course they should not be above criticism, but we perhaps don’t cut them enough slack considering the enormous responsibilities we expect them to deal with on our behalf. Churchill lived a life of comparative luxury, and rationing, which hit the general public hard, didn’t seem to make his table any less lavish, or his brandy to run out. But he worked such long hours his staff were permanently exhausted and he himself became ill (and worked through it), he had to tolerate and soothe the ruffled feelings of those to whom he delegated the impossible while still driving them to get it done yesterday, he had to make and live with decisions that inevitably would result in British loss of life, he regularly put himself in danger to show the public that he understood and shared what they were going through, he had to cajole and flatter the American president endlessly for very little return in the way of practical assistance; and frankly I didn’t begrudge him his smuggled cigars and chocolate, his extensive cellar, his extra meat provided by grateful landowning Dukes, even the money that was raised by supporters to help pay his household expenses. I suspect his poor entourage regularly wanted to beat him over the head with a brick, especially when he would put on records and start dancing round the dining room at 1 a.m. after a twenty-hour working day, but I’m glad they didn’t.

Winston-Churchill-the-Prime-Minister-with-King-George-VISpoiler alert: We won! VE Day 8th May 1945

Another excellent book from Larson, his trademark blending of historical facts with the personal building to give an intimate and affectionate portrait of Churchill’s personality and daily life as he led Britain through its darkest hour. Highly recommended.

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37 thoughts on “The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson

  1. An extraordinary time, and it sounds as though Larson really brings it to life, FictionFan. I love it when historians can draw the reader into the times and places they’re writing about, and yet still be really informative. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a gift. And, whatever else he was or wasn’t, I think Churchill was a fascinating person.

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    • I’m quite sure I’d have found Churchill intensely irritating and probably would never have voted for him – but I’m endlessly grateful he happened to be the man in the right place at the right time! Larson is fantastic at these – you get a real feel for the history but in an enjoyable way.

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  2. I’m embarrassed to say that I have yet to read one of his books, though people have begged me to do so. Is this a good one to start with or should I go with The Devil in the White City?

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    • I know, it’s a real talent and for me Larson is the best I’ve come across. This one was easy for him since I’m already interested in Churchill, but he can make me just as interested in subjects that wouldn’t occur to me – like the Chicago World Fair!

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  3. I’ve read two of his earlier books (The Devil in the White City and Isaac’s Storm) and this one is tagged in my library app. I’ve only heard good things about it! I also want to read Thunderstruck, so it might have to come ahead of this one. So glad you enjoyed it!

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    • I’ve read The Devil but not Isaac’s Storm, which I hadn’t heard about and looks great! Thunderstruck has been on my wishlist for ages but I keep reading his new releases instead. I loved his one about the sinking of the Lusitania too – Dead Wake.

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    • Hahaha, I know – I’ve destroyed the suspense! Hardly worth reading it now… 😉 Seriously, though, he is brilliant at bringing history to life – I’ve loved every one of his I’ve read so far…

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    • I probably wouldn’t have read it, being a bit Churchilled out recently, but Larson always makes his subjects feel fresh, and I love the way he lets you see what ordinary people were thinking and feeling as well as the powerful people.

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  4. I admire Larsen’s storytelling abilities, and (having done extensive research just to write a picture book) I shudder at the amount of research his stories entail. We have this book, but I haven’t read it yet…..

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    • I often look at the bibliographies in these books and wonder if the author can possibly have read them all. Presumably they have a system for dipping in and out, or researchers who read the books for them – I could do with one of those! He really is brilliant – I’m sure you’ll enjoy this when you get to it. 😀

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  5. It sounds like a fascinating book. I would love to read it, so I’m adding it to my to-read list. The use of primary sources is always a winner. Also, I agree with you that politicians are humans too and make mistakes and that should be ok.

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    • Yes, I get irritated that we somehow expect politicians to live totally blameless lives but we happily all break all kinds of minor rules ourselves – I can’t imagine why anyone would want to be a politician these days given the contempt we treat them with. Larson is always great at making history personal, and I love that he doesn’t only concentrate on the powerful people. If you do read this some time, I hope you enjoy it!

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  6. For many reasons I tend to avoid histories and documentaries of the war years these days, but your mention of the Mass Observation project and other contemporary accounts, along with an approach that avoids the temptations of hindsight, does appeal to me (as it obviously did for you). An excellent review, thank you.

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    • Thank you! I usually avoid WW2 stuff too, but I seem to have been reading quite a lot about it recently for some odd reason. With Larson, I know he always brings his subject to life, so even though this one was covering well known territory I was sure he’d still make it seem fresh – and he did!

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  7. This is the first I’d heard of the Mass Observation Project, but what an interesting idea! I love that people were writing down their experiences, no doubt it’s served as fodder for many a historical account and fictional novel for that time period. I suppose we don’t need something like that now, with people like you and me spewing our thoughts on the internet regularly hahha

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    • I’ve come across occasional mentions of the Mass Observation scheme before, but I think this is the first time I’ve seen an author use it to bring the “ordinary people” to life in this way. I believe it started a few years before the war and went on for a long time afterwards, so a major resource for research as you say. Haha, yes, splattering our thoughts all over the internet is one way to achieve immortality, I suppose… 😉

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