Larson’s ‘The Splendid and the Vile’ gives a new look at one man for and against the world

As Americans deal with the Coronavirus pandemic, stories about the hardships of quarantining abound. To quote a famous line spoken by Ygritte in the TV series Game of Thrones, “You know nothing, Jon Snow.” That was the first thing I thought when I finished Larson’s book about one momentous year in the complex life and career of Winston Churchill.

Imagine being subjected to “fifty-seven consecutive nights of bombing, followed by an intensifying series of nighttime raids over the next six months. [pg. XI]” Imagine being in a night club where people had gathered despite the air raid sirens because the sirens went off so often they became commonplace. Just as you are about to catch the big act, the band leader you’re a fan of is killed when a bomb crashes through the roof of the club. Kenrick “Snakehips” Johnson was decapitated as he performed for fans in March, 1941 at the Café de Paris in London.

How brave would we Americans be under those circumstances? [Article continues after photo.]

Bombed area of London showing homeless children (Sept. 1940) National Archives

If one man deserves to have his name immortalized in history, that man would be the subject of Erik Larson’s latest book The Splendid and the Vile. The book recounts one year in the life of the prime minister who in many ways fought The Third Reich alone until the world acknowledged the threat that regime posed to freedom and humanity. The preface, “A Note to Readers”, carries a quote often proved true to any reader who loves history.

Larson wrote, “[History] is a lively abode, full of surprises.” Nowhere is that statement more manifest than in The Splendid and the Vile. [pg. XII]

If your impression of Winston Churchill is that of a plump, staid, and boring Brit, you will close the last page of this book with a completely new impression. The prime minister who would save England, and to some degree the rest of the world as well, “was flamboyant, electric, and wholly unpredictable.” Churchill would by necessity build rapport with the US president Franklin D. Roosevelt, and that would prove a challenge. For one thing, Roosevelt’s ambassador to Britain, Joseph Kennedy, patriarch of US royalty, didn’t care for Churchill at all, and “he repeatedly filed pessimistic reports. [pg. 26]”

Larson doesn’t just tell Churchill and his family’s story in this book. He tells the story of Britain during that dark time by recounting stories about famous people like Virginia Woolf, actor David Niven, and Graham Greene. Younger readers may not recognize that last name, but Greene was a popular author and writer known for works such as Orient Express and The Third Man. Woolf should need no introduction to any serious reader. In one passage, Larson also explains the real inspiration for the fictional character of secret agent James Bond created by Ian Fleming. Fleming’s brother Peter was also a writer.

The Splendid and the Vile doesn’t just recount wartime experiences in Britain, the book plops the reader directly into the conflagration of bombs dropping even as regular citizens go about their business. One objective of the Nazis included killing Churchill. The Third Reich knew how important an adversary Churchill was, and for good reason. Had Winston Churchill not become prime minister at a pivotal moment, Britain would not exist as it is today. While there is much direct description of Churchill’s idiosyncracies and larger than life personality, Larson includes the stories of those in Churchill’s sphere, from journalists who kept diaries of life in wartime to officials who served in some capacity in government. Mystery and intrigue, romance and affairs, secret Nazi technology, and gaming the bureaucracy are all part of the mix.

If you’re a word lover, you’ll delight in Churchill’s use of terms like scarify, a word Larson described as “a six-hundred-year-old word that only Churchill would use in crucial diplomatic correspondence. [pg. 88]”

Historians and official biographers have committed Churchill’s life to print, but no one can tell a tale like Erik Larson. You know exactly how this story ends, but as you read, you don’t care. It is in every sense a page turner, and when you’re finished with the book, you feel like you’re saying goodbye to a cherished friend. By the time the bombing of Pearl Harbor occurred, giving FDR political justification for the US to enter the war Britain was pretty much fighting solo, the reader just wishes there was more to come.

Even as Churchill doggedly plotted defense against the Axis Powers, in a truly bizarre instance of history, the United States was still permitting Japan to purchase oil products* from West Coast refineries. Many such instances of wartime quirks have been buried to protect FDR’s image, but as time goes by, we learn so much more about the man who would, once he won his third term, finally agree to help Britain to prevent the potential for Nazis coming to US shores.

As of December 31, 1940, at least 13,596 people in London had died [pg.334] during German bombing raids. And that was just the beginning.

In today’s political arena, political correctness holds sway in the minds of many different media actors who hold in high esteem the slick, theatrical image of a leader. Never mind what actions the leader takes, what’s important is the image.

When the world was at war, however, what mattered was survival. Churchill bucked the establishment, and in the beginning, the public, because he knew what lay ahead. There were times when he must have felt completely alone, and many private moments are documented via his daughter Mary’s diary.

There is a passage in Larson’s book that, for me, evoked the poem James Dickey wrote for Jimmy Carter’s presidential inauguration in the US years after World War II. Dickey’s poem was titled, “The Strength of Fields,” and it ends with this:

    “My life belongs to the world. I will do what I can.”

Of course Carter was no Winston Churchill, not by a long shot. Churchill was known for dashing to rooftops to watch bombs drop, for calmly strolling through mayhem as bombs whistled their way to Earth, for being the man brave enough to flamboyantly defy the political establishment and inept bureaucracy that had made Great Britain so vulnerable.

In one sense Churchill stood against the world in order to save it.

Churchill’s friend Violet Bonham Carter had begged Churchill’s wife Clementine to keep the prime minister from “venturing into dangerous zones”:

“It may be fun for you—but it is terrifying for the rest of us. Please realize that for most of us this war is a One-Man Show (unlike the last) & treat your life like a guarded flame. It does not belong to you alone but to all of us.”

Good advice, that, and the free world is still fairly viable because of that “One-Man Show.”

If you’re looking for a page turner that will take you deeper into turbulent history, written by an author whose creative nonfiction has no equal in the literary arts today, The Splendid and the Vile is your ticket.

Larson gives credence to words written by Britain’s King George in February, 1941. Of Churchill, the king said, “I could not have a better prime minister. [pg. 371]” Larson’s book does the prime minister justice.

Photo of aftermath of Nazi bombs dropped on London; US Library of Congress

Print Reference [information unavailable on the Web] ‘still permitting Japan to purchase oil products*’: Day of Deceit by Robert B. Stinnett; Touchstone, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2000; pg. 19.

Photo credits:

  • Children in the rubble of London after a Nazi bombing raid; photo from National Archives, US Information Agency (creator).
  • Officials and children after a Nazi bombing raid in London; photo by Tony Frissell.

(Kay B. Day/May 4, 2020)

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Evening comes out back. Photo by Indie Art South

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