Ruthless Young Man
- Churchill: 1874-1922 by Frederick Earl of Birkenhead, edited by Sir John Colville
Harrap, 552 pp, £19.95, August 1989, ISBN 0 245 54779 7
A review of this book has to start with its tragic and complex history. The official Life of Churchill was originally to be in five volumes. Randolph Churchill died in 1968 when only the first two of these had been published. The Trustees of the Chartwell Papers then invited Martin Gilbert to complete this multi-volume work, and the second Earl of Birkenhead to complement it with a one-volume Life. While Martin Gilbert and his team were at work Lord Birkenhead was to be the only other person given access to the Chartwell Papers: his book was not to be published until the last of Gilbert’s volumes had appeared.
Biographical work projected on such a scale is unlikely to be completed quite as planned. Randolph’s scheme had been to publish a volume each year. His successor increased the main volumes to eight; and publication of these has been spread over 21 years. The companion volumes of documents multiplied; the seven which had appeared by the end of 1973 brought events only to December 1916. Frederick Birkenhead had not gone far before he became mortally ill. He died in June 1975 having taken the narrative to the 1922 Election, and written most of a chapter on Churchill’s life at Chartwell during the Twenties and Thirties. His son, the third Earl, who took over the work, died tragically young in 1985. Robin Birkenhead’s draft extended to the end of 1940. It had been shown to Sir John Colville, who was asked to finish the story. He declined, but wrote an epilogue giving his own view of the Churchill he had known. He died suddenly in October 1987, having just completed the Foreword to the book now published. Robin Birkenhead had never enjoyed his father’s advantages, in that he had not known Churchill. Moreover, except for his completion of the Chartwell chapter, his work was no more than a draft. It was therefore decided that, while Frederick Birkenhead’s work should be published, his son’s would be issued privately. What now appears was thus all completed, editorial corrections apart, by 1975, except for the Foreword and the jointly written Chartwell chapter.
In retrospect, Frederick Birkenhead’s enterprise seems brave but ill-judged. John Morley said he had been daunted almost to despair only twice in his life. The first occasion came when he entered Dublin Castle on becoming Chief Secretary for Ireland, the second when he was shown the Gladstone Papers. The Churchill archive is of Gladstonian proportions. Frederick Birkenhead was committing himself to working through this vast mass before the papers had been arranged and published. If he completed only half of his superhuman task he would have no advantage over other biographers, since anyone bent on describing Churchill’s earlier career had only to wait until Gilbert’s companion volumes reached the required date. All the documents, not merely from the Chartwell papers but from the other relevant collections, would then be available beautifully edited, and the task of delineating Churchill to the mid-career point would become manageable. The studies of Churchill by William Manchester and Ted Morgan, published in 1983, were produced in this way, the first extending to 1932 and the second to 1915. Both authors were careful to acknowledge their debt to the official volumes. Neither seems to have suffered under copyright constraints.
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[*] Martin Pugh, Lloyd George (Longman, £12.50 and £5.95).