- - Thursday, March 28, 2013

By Michael Shelden
Simon & Schuster, $30, 383 pages, illustrated

Just when you think there can be nothing fresh to be said about the long life of Winston Churchill, along comes biographer Michael Shelden’s page-turner about Churchill from age 26 to 40 (1901-1915). His book begins shortly after Churchill returned to Britain following his extraordinary military adventures in India and Africa, all of which Churchill himself chronicled. The story ends with the Gallipoli disaster; Churchill became the scapegoat (the author implicates old Adm. Jacky Fisher, too, in whom Churchill put too much trust). Churchill resigned as first lord of the admiralty, rejoined the army as a major and headed off to trench warfare in France. “If he had died when he was 40,” says the author, “his story would still be one of the best of the century, in part a riveting drama of ambition, in part a sobering tragedy. Fortunately, there was a second act.”

Using correspondence and memoirs from private collections and libraries, as well as all the familiar sources, Mr. Shelden shows how Churchill set out to make his mark quickly in politics, convinced that his life would be short, like that of his father, who died at age 45. Mr. Shelden is such an entertaining writer that he can, for the most part, keep the reader’s interest as he describes Churchill’s schemes, once he had won a Conservative seat in Parliament, to uproot the old fogies in power. Churchill used his wit to attract attention to himself, as when he defined a political candidate as someone “who is asked to stand, wants to sit, and expected to lie.”

Mr. Shelden suggests that Churchill was not simply an opportunist but a true believer in free trade when he chose to oppose protectionist legislation proposed by the colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain. Chamberlain resigned in the face of Churchill’s opposition, but he more or less forced the younger man to leave the party. In May 1904, Churchill crossed the aisle to the Liberals’ benches and sat down next to Lloyd George. At 29, says the author, Churchill was “restarting his political career” and “aiming high again.”

In his spare time he was also writing a 1,000-page biography of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, who had aimed high and flamed out as chancellor of the exchequer, dying of syphilis. According to Mr. Shelden, Churchill discovered the truth about his father’s illness while Lord Randolph was still alive and, because venereal disease was a taboo subject, he was “forced in the biography to explain his father’s death in the most awkward euphemisms, saying that Randolph was the victim of a mysterious ‘ghastly disease’ that caused those ‘who loved him [to be] consumed with embarrassment and grief.” The author adds that the situation “was also heartrending to a son who wanted to idolize his father.”Beginning in 1907 under a new prime minister, Churchill, at age 33, began his rise in various Cabinet posts, starting with president of the Board of Trade. The author gives a mind-boggling description of how militant suffragists harassed Churchill’s by-election campaign, ringing loud bells and even attacking him with a whip and an iron bar. “It didn’t seem to matter that Churchill was in favor of their cause,” says Mr. Shelden. “They wanted to demonstrate their power to influence elections.” Churchill was lucky to escape serious injury, but he lost his contest in Manchester and had to find a safer seat in Dundee.Early on, Mr. Shelden enjoys describing Churchill’s fruitless pursuit of numerous beautiful women, including Ethel Barrymore, all of whom turned down his proposals of marriage but remained his friends throughout their lives. Even Violet Asquith, who, in contrast, pursued Churchill and suffered something of a nervous breakdown over his engagement to Clementine Hozier, remained a loyal friend. (It was Violet who recorded Churchill’s youthful self-confidence: “We are all worms. But I do believe that I am a glowworm.”)

Once the Liberals came into power in 1906, Churchill became undersecretary in the colonial office. While on holiday he took time out to suit up in a British cavalry officer’s uniform and observe the annual maneuvers of the German army as a guest of the kaiser. From his experience in the Sudan, Churchill knew that modern weapons could make short work of the German cavalry squadrons charging at full speed with their lances flashing, but he resolved to beware of military modernization by the Germans.

Mr. Shelden takes a sympathetic view of Churchill’s period as home minister, when he agonized over death-penalty cases but became persuaded that a life term in prison was worse — both from his own brief capture and imprisonment during the Boer War and as the result of a poignant suicide note left by a wrongdoer who was spared the death penalty but subsequently hanged himself.

At age 37, Churchill realized his long-time aspiration to become first lord of the admiralty, where he revised his previous view that Germany would try to avoid a war with Britain. After studying the advancements in German arms — “less pageantry, many more machine guns, and much better use of deadly artillery batteries” — he drafted a forecast of what the first 40 days of the next European war would look like. As Churchill himself would correctly point out after World War I, the author notes, the forecasts were right on target. But by 1915, of course, Churchill was no longer in the Cabinet, having been “largely written off as a man whose best days were behind him.”

Churchill’s life is the gift that keeps on giving, and many readers who assume they’ve read it all will find Mr. Shelden’s lively account a must-add for their groaning shelves.

Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer in McLean.

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