In Search of Churchill
A Historian's Journey
by Martin Gilbert

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Wiley: New York, 1994
338 pages, photos

July 2006


In Search of Churchill by Martin Gilbert is stuffed with fascinating historical tidbits. We may not think at first blush that a historian's memoir can convey much either in the realm of significant facts or of passionate enthusiasm, but Gilbert does both.

His central subject is Winston S. Churchill (1874-1965), the heart of Martin Gilbert's lifelong studies. Gilbert took over writing of the great multi-volume Winston S. Churchill biography after the death of WSC's son Randolph in 1968.

I am interested in the writing of history as well as the making of it. That is: the research, assembly, and comprehension rather than the historian's prose style — although the latter certainly is worth our attention. Gilbert takes us down highways and very obscure byways of historical research, of diligent and imaginative hunts and persuasions leading to discoveries of documents and photos in odd nooks and files or almost hidden in plain sight. He provides some insight on how to organize this truly huge mass of material covering tumultuous events of several generations. And he shares how his own understanding of these times grew and deepened.

We naturally have glimpses of Churchill himself as a major historian and biographer:

Work continued [on A History of the English-Speaking Peoples] throughout 1939. 'It is hard to transport oneself into the past', Churchill wrote to [Maurice] Ashley that spring, 'when the future opens its jaws upon us.'

The new book had a serious purpose.

'In the main', [Churchill] wrote to Ashley, 'the theme is emerging of the growth of freedom of law, of the rights of the individual, of the subordination of the State to the fundamental and moral conceptions of an ever-comprehending community. Of these ideas the English-speaking peoples were the authors, then the trustees, and must now become the armed champions. Thus I condemn tyranny in whatever guise and from whatever quarter it presents itself. All this of course, has a current application.'

There are wonderful personal anecdotes of historical figures who helped substantially with the huge WSC biography by providing diaries or oral recollections, including Prime Ministers Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson. Researchers, secretaries, family members, Parliamentary colleagues, serving military officers who brought Churchill critical information on Britain's unpreparedness during the 1930s — many of these speak in their own voices here. There is a lot on the Dardanelles campaign and its shadow persisting long after WSC was forced from his Cabinet position as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1915; WSC's love of painting and the joy it brought him; and Churchill's handiwork on his beloved house and grounds of Chartwell in Kent.

Figures sketched range from T. E. Lawrence to Jackie Fisher to Venetia Stanley (Clementine Churchill's cousin) — who was romantically pursued by Prime Minister H. H. Asquith, and whose rejection of Asquith came right as the Dardanelles push most needed the Prime Minister's backing of Churchill. WSC's son Randolph is a living presence throughout much of the book.

Which leads to another layer here, history within history, because within In Search of Churchill we also frequently are looking at WSC himself organizing research and writing (Marlborough and A History of the English-Speaking Peoples as well as Parliamentary speeches), and Randolph S. Churchill (the multi-volume Winston S. Churchill as well as others in passing). So we see working methods of three historians. Not only fine writers, but master organizers all.

I was thinking as I read In Search of Churchill that such a memoir, almost a secondary commentary, might not be so enjoyable to those who have not read much Churchill biography or in history from about 1895 through 1955. The Boer War, World War I, the interwar years which the locusts had eaten, World War II — Churchill was deeply involved. A massive, complex, subtle skein of history. So while I would not dissuade you from reading Gilbert's memoir, I might urge postponement until you are comfortable with the history and personalities of those vivid times which are the grandparent and parent of our own.

Yet — no; Martin Gilbert's In Search of Churchill might be the very work which leads you into, or more deeply into, these very exciting vistas of history. There are insights into history, into the lives of Churchill and his contemporaries, that you will not find elsewhere. Such a personal tribute, so well done, carries its own enthusiasm. And there are two emergent themes, overarching and complementary, in Gilbert's memoir: the brilliance, energy, and cheerful determination despite all, of Winston S. Churchill; and the great love and lifelong loyalty borne by so many of those who worked with and for him.


© 2006 Robert Wilfred Franson

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