Never in the field of human biography can metaphor have been more epically mixed. Yet The New York Times regarded the lack of a sequel as a cultural event worthy of reverent coverage and a deferential editorial. The latter, unsigned, described the incomplete work as leaving "Churchill somehow suspended, poised in the midst of a great arc whose outcome we know but whose details we would like to savor over again in Mr. Manchester's words." Or, to put it another way, there can never be too much reinforcement of a familiar and useful morality tale. In the quite recent past at least two books have been published to general acclaim—Churchill: A Study in Greatness, by Geoffrey Best, and Five Days in London, May 1940, by John Lukacs, which assist in this ramming home of an already near unassailable myth. And these, together with Lord Jenkins's tome, only continue a process begun by Churchill himself when he annexed the papers of his time in office to write his own version of events. He could emerge as a historic figure—as he put it in one of his many and likeable moments of self-deprecation—by making sure of writing the history himself. The names of his early research assistants and drafters—Alan Bullock, F. W. Deakin—are testimony in themselves to what might fairly be called a conscription of the historians' professional mainstream. Yet upon reflection one might perhaps decide that the term "conscription" is unfair. "Churchill the historian," said the late Sir J. H. Plumb, "lies at the very heart of all historiography of the Second World War and will always remain there." Donald Cameron Watt commented dryly seven years later, in 1976, "For the bulk of the historical profession in America, Sir Winston Churchill's view of British policy before 1939 has hardly required a moment's critical examination." It would be no insult, then, to describe certain authors not as conscripts but as volunteers.
Manchester's series proposed itself modestly as only the condensed (or large-print) version of the ur-text of approved Churchilliana: the eight-volume official biography, by Sir Martin Gilbert, the doyen of Churchill historians. Unlike the grave and measured work of which it is the flickering Platonic shadow, Manchester's unfinished labor is overwrought in the sentimental, para-historical Camelot style that its author helped to originate. Once again, action is judged by reputation rather than reputation by action. In an extraordinary gesture Manchester rendered Churchill's wartime speeches as blank verse, with carefully incised line breaks and verse settings. This was to make explicit what had been latent heretofore, and it was also to pay Churchill the compliment he would probably have most valued and desired. (Remember that he received his 1953 Nobel Prize for literature.) In the English-speaking world, at any rate, his lapidary phrases and rolling flourishes have achieved the familiarity and renown enjoyed by some passages of the King James Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and the "kingship" plays of William Shakespeare. These excerpts or verses have the peculiar and potent faculty of recurring to our minds in time of trouble or when they seem relevant or poignant (or simply useful). And they are associated above all with fortitude, staunchness, and stoicism, salted with a little gallows humor. Imperishability of that sort descends on human beings very rarely indeed. And the audience does not mind a little exaggeration if the aim is flattering to the groundlings. "After he had spoken to them in the summer of 1940 as no one has ever before or since," Isaiah Berlin wrote in this magazine, in one of his many courageous stands for the conventional wisdom, "they conceived a new idea of themselves which their own prowess and the admiration of the world has since established as a heroic image in the history of mankind." How true. In bidding a gracious farewell to Neville Chamberlain, Churchill nobly called him "the packhorse in our great affairs." Accepting the compliment, Chamberlain pointed out that the line comes from Richard III and not, as Churchill had alleged, from Henry VI. But no matter. The thing is not to be right about Shakespeare. The thing is to be Shakespearean. Blood, toil, tears, sweat—and some immodest populism.
In the flush of the "finest hour" in 1944 Laurence Olivier produced and starred in his patriotic movie version of Henry V. This film constituted (and still constitutes) subliminal propaganda of a high order. Shakespeare, Saint George, and the Almighty are yoked together against minatory Continental power. Some deference to contemporaneous Gallic sensibilities resulted in a downplaying of the original quarrel over the Salic law and the French throne, and the scene at Agincourt involving the ruthless massacre of all Prince Hal's civilian and military prisoners was thoughtfully excised. Indeed, who today cares about the true foundation of Henry's opportunistic claim, or about the heaps of dead on both sides, or the eventual ruin of his plan for the mainland? What is this when set beside the marvelous evocation of the Feast of Crispin, or the five-to-one numerical odds against the English at Agincourt ("we few, we happy few"), or the splendid words in which the terms of surrender are twice refused by Harry, or the glorious and seductive notion that sacrifice and wounds are to be envied and that "gentlemen in England, now a-bed / Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here"?