The evening was getting on and the clock was closing in on ten as the old man bid good night to his guests. Walking slowly through the hallways of his rambling country house, he paused for a moment at the bottom of the back staircase to clear his head from the lingering after-dinner drinks.
The narrow stairs that loomed before him had posed no challenge when he’d purchased the house years earlier. Then, he’d been an unimaginably young forty-eight. Now he was a far less sprightly sixty-three.
More than the passage of years, the house had also witnessed a major change in his fortune. A large house, though modest in comparison to his family home, the old man had purchased the country property to add some peace and beauty to a thriving career of government service. Now, with old age settling in, his career was in tatters, the job was gone, and he was reduced to paying bills with magazine and newspaper articles.
But how long could his articles continue to sell? His wife was terrified. She’d been distraught when he purchased the house; even at the peak of his career the expense and upkeep was beyond them. Now they lived a hand-to-mouth existence, and each day she dealt with more bill collectors.
Maybe, the old man thought as he began to climb the stairs, things were beginning to turn his way. The dinner party had ended on a happy note. He’d announced the signing of a major book contract for a sum that would finally put him back on his feet. Tonight, at the top of the stairs, in rooms at the end of the hall, the hard work to bring that book to life would begin.
In fact, as Winston Churchill was to discover, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples would not arrive in bookstores for another twenty years. Perhaps as prophetic about the turbulence of authorship as world events, Churchill told his dinner guests on that evening in 1937: “‘I doubt if I shall finish it before the war comes.’ If he does and an English victory is ‘decisive,’ he says, ‘I shall have to add several more volumes. And if it is not decisive no more histories will be written for years.”¹
As foretold by Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples grew in scope - eventually encompassing four volumes focused on the history of the British Empire and the United States across a span of time from Julius Caesar’s victory in the Gallic Wars of 58-51 B.C. to the beginning of WWI. The first two volumes: “The Birth of Britain" and “The New World,” as their titles imply, address the emergence of England and the British Empire. The second volume, “The Age of Revolution” is focused on the American Revolution, and a substantial portion of the fourth volume, “The Great Democracies,” addresses the American Civil War.
The completion of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples was interrupted by conflicts in Churchill’s schedule even the most rigid publisher would be hard pressed to challenge. In 1939, the year initially targeted for the book’s completion, Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, and in 1940, he became Prime Minister and Minister of Defense – a role held until the end of WWII in 1945. Churchill then wrote “The Second World War,” the sixth and final volume of which was published in 1953 – the same year in which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
While an immediate best-seller, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples did not escape criticism. Reviewers noted the focus and narratives of the volumes were highly reflective of Churchill’s personality: long on military conflicts; short on such seismic events as the agricultural and industrial revolutions. Clement Attlee, a political rival who succeeded Churchill as Prime Minister in 1945, observed the book would have been more accurately titled “Things in History That Interested Me.”
That said, Attlee’s perspective may have been influenced by the barbs of Churchill’s infamous characterization of him: “Mr. Attlee is a very modest man. Indeed he has much to be modest about.” Churchill’s dig at Attlee may, or may not, have been accurate. But it could never have been said about him, and that explains why these volumes by Churchill continue to both hold their place in literature and command our attention. They are written by a man capable of understanding how history had shaped the times into which he was born, intuitive in grasping where history was headed, and dynamic enough to shape the age in which we all now live.
¹The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill; Alone: 1932-1940; Little, Brown; William Manchester; page 29