CHURCHILL OUT OF HIBERNATION, WEEK 20
Two weeks after turning in his seal of office as Chancellor of the Exchequer after the fall of Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative government in June 1929, Winston Churchill began working on a monumental biography of his forebearer John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough; a book he had wanted to undertake for almost thirty years. We visit it next, in our voyage around the works of Winston Churchill.
“In order to make sure of accomplishing the task within three years instead of leaving it to drag on indefinitely,” Churchill explained to his wife Clementine at the outset, “I am going to spend money with some freedom upon expert assistance.” Initially, the money was there; Churchill’s decision to embark on a major biography of his illustrious ancestor generated immediate remunerative interest: a £10,000 advance in Great Britain from publisher George Harrap, a £5,000 advance in America from Charles Scribner, plus another £5,000 from Lord Camrose for serial rights in the British Empire.
Churchill hired a research assistant, Maurice Ashley, a young Oxford history graduate recommended to him by his son Randolph’s university tutor. The bulk of Ashley’s initial research work was in the archives at Blenheim Palace, where Churchill’s cousin Sunny, the reigning Duke of Marlborough, granted access to never before published original documents.
During the summer of 1932, while retracing Marlborough’s battlefield footsteps in Bavaria for his biographical research, Churchill fell ill with paratyphoid fever. He recuperated at a Salzburg sanitarium, heedlessly resumed his workload upon his return to Chartwell in September, and relapsed severely. Marlborough: His Life and Times still somehow proceeded.
Churchill’s finances, however, now began again to flirt with disaster. In August 1933 his bank account was overdrawn by £9,500. Only the publication of the first volume of Marlborough in October 1933 saved him from bankruptcy.
The appearance of more massive Marlborough volumes became an almost annual event over the next five years. Meticulously researched and majestically written, the final four-volume work constituted a towering literary achievement when completed in 1938, perhaps the greatest of Churchill’s career.
“When a man’s achievement is obvious, emphasis upon it seems commonplace to posterity,” wrote Desmond McCarthy in his review of the final volume in The Sunday Times. “The half-successful are more interesting. As with a very high mountain, the reputation of Marlborough was recognizable at a glance as belonging to the higher ranges; but it is only when one starts to walk up such a mountain and looks down from its top upon the imposing protuberances that one realizes its real mass and altitude. And this is what Mr. Churchill has enabled us to do.”
We persist in wishing you good health and safety, and an opportunity soon to look down and realize the real mass and altitude of the mountain we are climbing.