The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson
Published by Crown
Publication date: February 25, 2020
Genres: Biography, History, Non-fiction
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It’s May 1940, but Hitler is already on the move, invading and collecting countries like Monopoly properties. In Great Britain, Prime Minister Chamberlain has lost the confidence of his party and is going to be replaced. It is a momentous time in the world and in British history. Winston Churchill fulfills his lifelong dream of being Prime Minister when he is chosen as the political representative of the last country in Europe to face off against the Nazi onslaught. None of this is new or unknown, but in his latest book, The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson uses his inimitable style to bring to life not just Churchill, but many of the smaller, but still important people around him at a time when the world was poised on the brink of destruction.
At the time Churchill is 65, an age when most are winding down in their careers. Instead, he is about to embark on the most harrowing and demanding years of his life. While his mind absorbed and processed massive amounts of data with agility, spitting out precise instructions and decisions easily, he was a man of rigid routine and demands. A cigar was seldom far from his lips—which accounts for the fact that in several of his historic speeches his diction is muddied. He was morbidly obese due to a love of fine food, lots of whiskey and champagne, had to have two baths a day and was as likely to work from bed as a desk. These are just some of the man’s idiosyncrasies, Larson details even more—many of which I’d never heard before.
While Churchill is at the forefront of The Splendid, Larson looks to the people around him to give the book broader context. There are the expected key players: Hermann Göring, as the commander of the Luftwaffe (who stole over 2,000 pieces of artwork from Jews and invaded countries); Lord Beaverbrook, the man responsible for rallying the unorganized British airplane industry to a degree that allowed the RAF to not only fight but retaliate; and Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda. He uses the diary and letters belonging to Mary Churchill, his youngest daughter to highlight how privilege shielded people of a certain class and how she chafed against it as the war took its toll on the country. On the professional side, there is the journal of John Colville, one of Churchill’s private secretaries. This was particularly fascinating, not only for its personal aspects (he was oddly in love with a woman who had no intention of marrying him, but continued to encourage him), but also because, in his position, such a journal was expressly forbidden.
Because I’ve read so much historical fiction about WWII I know more about the human stories than the shocking facts of the war—especially regarding Great Britain. A few that jumped out at me:
- In preparation for the war, 38 million gas masks were distributed to the population.
- In one month alone, 400,000 TONS of shipped goods were destroyed by submarines, aircraft, or mines.
- In the 1940 air raid on Coventry the Germans, using 500 tons of bombs and 29,000 incendiary devices, razed the entire city to the ground.
On the opposite side of the stats, one of my favorite parts of The Splendid, was Larson’s inclusion of excerpts from the journals of people across Britain. The Mass-Observation project began two years before the war started and was sociological in nature. Hundreds of average citizens were given diaries and were told to write about their everyday lives as the war progressed. These entries are tender, humorous, and give a real sense of the human psyche in the midst of long-term intense conflict.
This should not come as a surprise, but The Splendid and the Vile is not a quick read. It is shorter than expected because about 20% of the book is bibliography and sources. Still, if The Devil in the White City is the only Larson you’ve read, then this book may drag a bit. But, really, how can anything compete with a sadistic serial killer at a World’s Fair? That’s a very specific, visceral terror, but Larson captures the unremitting psychological terror of incessant bombing and the disruption of every single mundane aspect of life—sleeping, eating, working—in a way that is compelling. For years, the British soldiered on alone, with nothing but weak excuses from America and no aid. All while waiting for the war in the air to turn into a land invasion. If you can adjust your expectations, The Splendid and the Vile is packed with intimate and unusual details making it great additional reading for anyone interested in WWII.
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