Before He Was Churchill: New Biography of Young Winston

Sir Winston Churchill as a young man; circa 1900. Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis

When Winston Churchill entered Parliament following the 1900 general election, he was 26, and already famous. He had reported on or served in no fewer than four bloody conflicts, in Cuba, Afghanistan, Sudan, and South Africa—and there’s something eerie about the way the scenes of his early adventures would still be haunting us more than a century later.

These had been the material for the five books he had already published (one of them his only novel, Savrola), as well as copious and lucrative journalism. He enjoyed dramatic adventures in the Boer War, taken prisoner before escaping, and then returned to tell the world about these escapades, touring the country with a lantern-slide lecture—the PowerPoint of its day—titled “The War As I Saw It,” which could have stood as the subtitle for later, more famous multi-volume chronicles of two world wars.

No sooner was he an M.P. than he set off to make more money (though less than he hoped) on an American lecture tour. He returned to the political fray, and a startling switchback ride. Elected as a Tory, he attacked his own party and then bolted to the Liberals in 1904. Less than two years later the Liberals won a landslide election, and Churchill held salaried ministerial office for almost 10 years. By 1908 he was in the cabinet; by 1911 he was First Lord of the Admiralty. And by the end of 1915, after he had directed the greatest fleet on earth at the outset of the greatest war in history, his career had collapsed, a 40-year-old man with a great future behind him.

This is the dramatic story told in Young Titan. Michael Shelden has made his name as a literary biographer, with a series of books on the outstanding generation of English writers born in just that first decade of the last century when Churchill was forging his career: Graham Greene, Cyril Connolly, and George Orwell. His new book is a departure, but a distinguished one. He gives a vivid portrait of a young man on the make, as ambitious as he was gifted, and keen on money: not one person in a million of his age, he boasted to his mother, “could have earned £10,000 without any capital in less than two years.”

As Shelden describes him, Churchill was looking for a wife as well as a career and money, and looking at first without much success. He lived in the shadow of his father, the splenetic Lord Randolph Churchill, who had recklessly ruined his own political career and then, aged only 45, when Winston was 20, had died of syphilis, as his son surely knew. And there was also Lady Randolph, Jennie Jerome of Brooklyn by birth, Winston’s spendthrift, flighty, and exasperating mother.

There is no record of bachelor dalliances on Winston’s part, and one concludes from Shelden as from other biographers that lust wasn’t his thing. At any rate, both Pamela Plowden and Ethel Barrymore turned him down before he met Clementine Hozier. Churchill had already formed a close friendship with Violet Asquith, daughter of the prime minister, and Violet had a low opinion of Clementine when Churchill married her in 1908.

Winston Churchill Winston Churchill perambulates through the capital as he mulls his advice to the Mayor of London. PA

But that might have been jealousy, and Clementine proved to be one of Churchill’s better choices in life. “I wonder how I have lived 23 years without you,” she told him, and that outrageous adventurer Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, himself an almost comically active adulterer, was surely right when he saw in the Churchills an unusually happy couple. In the years covered by Young Titan, Clementine had her first two daughters and a son, Randolph, who would turn into a problem.

While Shelden takes us through some of the bitter controversies of that turbulent age and Churchill’s part in them, from women’s suffrage to Irish Home Rule, he neglects some other great political causes of the age. But then Churchill himself, without any religious instinct or conviction, took little interest in the fierce battle over sectarian education that pitched Tories and the Church of England on one side against Liberals and the Dissenting chapels.

wheatcroft-om04-churchill-third Churchill’s wife; Clementine; in 1909. SZ Photo/Scherl/The Image Works

For all that, Churchill’s protean personality is impossible to categorize ideologically; Shelden makes clear that he was an instinctive rather than a reflective politician. Some of his instincts were decent. He was always an imperialist and, by our standards, a racist, but he deplored the “murdering of natives and stealing of their lands.” He was not a social egalitarian, but he did the spadework, as Shelden rightly says, for what became the 1911 National Insurance Act, which laid the foundations of state welfare.

Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill 'Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill' by Michael Shelden. 400 pp. Simon & Schuster. $30.

He stood for law and order, including capital punishment. But he said “it weighed on me” when he had to sign his first death warrant as home secretary, and, as George Orwell later said, he was the best friend prisoners ever had, exceptionally humane in his concern for the welfare of men, and children, held in squalid British prisons.

To say that this admirable book is better than the worshipful trilogy by William Manchester, recently completed by Paul Reid, would not be saying much, but it compares in some ways favorably with most other Churchilliana. Now and again there are lapses. There is no “attorney general of Great Britain,” and to write that Andrew Bonar Law, the Tory leader, “seemed to enjoy the religious fervor of the Ulster Protestants” is wrong. For all his upbringing as a son of the Presbyterian manse, Bonar Law was a skeptic without sectarian bigotry.

wheatcroft-om04-churchill-fourth Suffragettes fighting for vote in 1912. Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis

So was Churchill, among other things. He always divided opinion, with warm admirers and bitter detractors, and Shelden veers toward admiration. But he could have done more to explain the dislike and distrust Churchill inspired, seen as an unprincipled opportunist (“of the American type” was the most damning additional epithet).

Churchill is particularly hard to defend at the time of his “Last Stand,” as Shelden calls his concluding chapter after the Great War begins in 1914. He devotes no more than a paragraph to the calamitous Gallipoli campaign, of which Churchill was not the sole sponsor but which he did encourage and which nearly ended his career for good: “With astounding suddenness, his meteoric career flamed out.” We may be grateful that it later revived, but this enthralling account helps explain why that was a near thing.