Churchill's World Crisis

Finest Hour|Fall 2018

Churchill's World Crisis
Today, whenever major political leaders come to the end of their careers, we have learned to expect an announcement at no distant point that a contract has been signed for the publication of their memoirs, with large advances mentioned.
Peter Clarke

A hundred years ago, there was no such expectation. Indeed the Armistice can be seen as triggering the inception of a golden century in the modern memoirs industry, signing up authors with the usual motives of political vindication and— not least—financial reward. In this respect, as in many others, Winston Churchill was a pioneer. Moreover, the five volumes that he published under the title The World Crisis (1923–29)—there was later a sixth on the Eastern Front—were not the work of a retired politician. They were begun when he was still in his late forties, written in the midst of an active career. His cabinet colleague Arthur Balfour, a generation older, called it an autobiography disguised as a history of the universe.

That Churchill felt in need of money at this time will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his incorrigible spending habits. He was a cabinet minister in Lloyd George’s postwar government (1918–22) with a salary of £5000 a year, which would be worth over two hundred thousand pounds today. But this was not enough, in his eyes, to provide for the education of his four children nor to fulfil his ambition to purchase a country house of his own. Politics was indeed his vocation but, as I see it, writing was his profession, in the sense that his highly professional commitment as an author always provided an indispensable source of income.1

Before the First World War, quite apart from publishing volumes of his political speeches, Churchill had himself written half a dozen books that brought in substantial earnings. The most serious of these, in every sense, was his biography of his father Lord Randolph Churchill (1906), for which he got an advance of £8000, say half a million pounds in today’s money. In 1920 he built on his prior reputation as an author, as well as upon his current notoriety as a politician, in asking for more; and he got it. The deal that his agents put together offered advances of no less than £27,000, and although the pound was now worth less than pre-war, this would be at least three-quarters of a million pounds at today’s values.

Big History

Little wonder that, although a busy cabinet minis-ter, Churchill pressed on with his literary commit-ment. Previously his books had been drafted in his fluent longhand; but the exercise of government responsibility had brought with it a panoply of administrative and clerical support that he learned to use and indeed to rely upon. Henceforth his books were all to be dictated, taken down in shorthand and then typed up by his secretaries in drafts, and even set up in proofs, all of which he would subject to extensive revision. In this sense, the volumes of The World Crisis provide the template for all of Churchill’s subsequent published books, as well as an increasing flow of well-paid articles. “I lived in fact from mouth to hand,” as he liked to say.2 This undoubtedly affected his literary style: not only in tempting him to rely upon extensive quotation from documents but also in licensing sonorous passages that often lacked the spare rigour that had previously disciplined his handwritten composition.

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Fall 2018