It was with some trepidation that I began yet another biography of Winston Churchill. Book shelves around the world literally collapse under the weight of books about the great man, but author Michael Shelden of Indiana State University has done the seemingly impossible. He has written a fascinating and fast-paced book that actually includes new material.
The focus of his book is the early manhood of Churchill, the period from 1901 to 1915, when he aged from 27 to 41. And age he did. Starting as a baby-faced youth at the books’ beginning, Shelden follows him to what seemed to be the end of his career when he was thrown out of his job as First Lord of the Admiralty.
“Now forty, he suddenly looked older than his years. He walked with a more pronounced stoop, and his eyes grew dull. He was like a complex piece of machinery that had been roaring away for ages and was suddenly cut back to a slow spin.”
Fortunately this is not a sad book, as it concentrates entirely on the “roaring away” years. And we all know his career did not end there, but it would be another 25 years before he became Prime Minister when the world needed him most.
Of course in such a short book much has to be omitted. For a detailed look at his career as Home Secretary, dealing just with prison reform, for example, there is an entire book by Baxendale (also reviewed in the Sun News Miami). To Shelden’s credit, he includes that book in his extensive bibliography.
For those who don’t want to read such nitty-gritty details, this is the best book available dealing with Churchill’s early political career. It follows him from his faltering efforts at getting elected to Parliament (no, he didn’t always win) to his first cabinet posts and his dramatic change of political party from Conservative to Liberal. It was only many years later he abandoned the Liberals and became a Conservative again.
“Once Churchill joined the Cabinet everything changed. Winston was the spark that ignited the change from the old liberalism of the Campbell-Bannerman administration to the more radical agenda of the Asquith years. Winston made it clear that he was not there to do business as usual,” writes Shelden. “I intend to make myself damned disagreeable!” he said in 1908. Along the way he ruffled more than few feathers and made many enemies, an aspect of his career that is well documented here.
Two Asquiths features very prominently in the book- the PM and his lovely daughter Violet. It seems that she had her heart set on marrying Winston, a subject he certainly pondered many times. But when he fell for Clementine Hozier, it was all over for Violet.
That, at least, is what previous biographers have written. Shelden has dug deeper and found that immediately after his engagement, Winston rushed from London to a remote castle in Scotland (a round-trip of 1,100 miles) to be with Violet. Clementine nearly called off the engagement.
Of Slains Castle in Scotland, Shelden writes “there couldn’t have been a more romantic setting. At the castle they were never far from a door that led directly to the cliffs. They spent hours walking, discussing their lives as they explored the countryside.”
Violet skipped the wedding between Winston and Clementine, and exactly one week later “seems to have suffered a nervous breakdown. She continued to show signs of manic behavior, especially in any matter connected with Winston.” She actually disappeared one night, prompting a huge person-hunt for her in the dark. Many feared she had thrown herself onto the rocks far below the castle, but she was found safe. “I escaped death narrowly in about 5 different ways” she wrote confidentially.
Of course Violet was not the only one who was criticized for outrageous behavior. In 1908 Churchill gave a campaign speech from the top of a limousine. “No one had ever seen anything like it before,” says Shelden. “His critics weren’t surprised. To them, it was just another example of Winston’s reckless determination to make a spectacle of his life.”
Filled with dramatic events related in lucid prose, Shelden’s book is a delight to read, and one that should find its way onto the Churchill shelf- even if you have to buy another bookcase.
Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill (383 pages including 36 pages of notes and bibliography) is $30 from Simon & Schuster. Visit their website: SimonandSchuster.com