The #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Devil in the White City and Dead Wake delivers a fresh and compelling portrait of Winston Churchill and London during the Blitz
On Winston Churchill’s first day as prime minister, Adolf Hitler invaded Holland and Belgium. Poland and Czechoslovakia had already fallen, and the Dunkirk evacuation was just two weeks away. For the next twelve months, Hitler would wage a relentless bombing campaign, killing 45,000 Britons. It was up to Churchill to hold his country together and persuade President Franklin Roosevelt that Britain was a worthy ally—and willing to fight to the end.
In The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson shows, in cinematic detail, how Churchill taught the British people “the art of being fearless.” It is a story of political brinkmanship, but it’s also an intimate domestic drama, set against the backdrop of Churchill’s prime-ministerial country home, Chequers; his wartime retreat, Ditchley, where he and his entourage go when the moon is brightest and the bombing threat is highest; and of course 10 Downing Street in London. Drawing on diaries, original archival documents, and once-secret intelligence reports—some released only recently—Larson provides a new lens on London’s darkest year through the day-to-day experience of Churchill and his family: his wife, Clementine; their youngest daughter, Mary, who chafes against her parents’ wartime protectiveness; their son, Randolph, and his beautiful, unhappy wife, Pamela; Pamela’s illicit lover, a dashing American emissary; and the advisers in Churchill’s “Secret Circle,” to whom he turns in the hardest moments.
The Splendid and the Vile takes readers out of today’s political dysfunction and back to a time of true leadership, when, in the face of unrelenting horror, Churchill’s eloquence, courage, and perseverance bound a country, and a family, together.
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About the Author
Erik Larson is the author of five national bestsellers: Dead Wake, In the Garden of Beasts, Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City, and Isaac’s Storm, which have collectively sold more than nine million copies. His books have been published in nearly twenty countries.
Date of Birth:January 1, 1954
Place of Birth:Brooklyn, New York
Education:B.A., University of Pennsylvania, 1976; M.S., Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, 1978
Read an Excerpt
On a Quiet Blue Day
The day was warm and still, the sky blue above a rising haze. Temperatures by afternoon were in the nineties, odd for London. People thronged Hyde Park and lounged on chairs set out beside the Serpentine. Shoppers jammed the stores of Oxford Street and Piccadilly. The giant barrage balloons overhead cast lumbering shadows on the streets below. After the August air raid when bombs first fell on London proper, the city had retreated back into a dream of invulnerability, punctuated now and then by false alerts whose once-terrifying novelty was muted by the failure of bombers to appear. The late-summer heat imparted an air of languid complacency. In the city’s West End, theaters hosted twenty-four productions, among them the play Rebecca, adapted for the stage by Daphne du Maurier from her novel of the same name. Alfred Hitchcock’s movie version, starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, was also playing in London, as were the films The Thin Man and the long-running Gaslight.
It was a fine day to spend in the cool green of the countryside.
Churchill was at Chequers. Lord Beaverbrook departed for his country home, Cherkley Court, just after lunch, though he would later try to deny it. John Colville had left London the preceding Thursday, to begin a ten-day vacation at his aunt’s Yorkshire estate with his mother and brother, shooting partridges, playing tennis, and sampling bottles from his uncle’s collection of ancient port, in vintages dating to 1863. Mary Churchill was still at Breccles Hall with her friend and cousin Judy, continuing her reluctant role as country mouse and honoring their commitment to memorize one Shakespeare sonnet every day. That Saturday she chose Sonnet 116—in which love is the “ever-fixed mark”—and recited it to her diary. Then she went swimming. “It was so lovely—joie de vivre overcame vanity.”
Throwing caution to the winds, she bathed without a cap.
In Berlin that Saturday morning, Joseph Goebbels prepared his lieutenants for what would occur by day’s end. The coming destruction of London, he said, “would probably represent the greatest human catastrophe in history.” He hoped to blunt the inevitable world outcry by casting the assault as a deserved response to Britain’s bombing of German civilians, but thus far British raids over Germany, including those of the night before, had not produced the levels of death and destruction that would justify such a massive reprisal.
He understood, however, that the Luftwaffe’s impending attack on London was necessary and would likely hasten the end of the war. That the English raids had been so puny was an unfortunate thing, but he would manage. He hoped Churchill would produce a worthy raid “as soon as possible.”
Every day offered a new challenge, tempered now and then by more pleasant distractions. At one meeting that week, Goebbels heard a report from Hans Hinkel, head of the ministry’s Department for Special Cultural Tasks, who’d provided a further update on the status of Jews in Germany and Austria. “In Vienna there are 47,000 Jews left out of 180,000, two-thirds of them women and about 300 men between 20 and 35,” Hinkel reported, according to minutes of the meeting. “In spite of the war it has been possible to transport a total of 17,000 Jews to the south-east. Berlin still numbers 71,800 Jews; in future about 500 Jews are to be sent to the south-east each month.” Plans were in place, Hinkel reported, to remove 60,000 Jews from Berlin in the first four months after the end of the war, when transportation would again become available. “The remaining 12,000 will likewise have disappeared within a further four weeks.”
This pleased Goebbels, though he recognized that Germany’s overt anti-Semitism, long evident to the world, itself posed a significant propaganda problem. As to this, he was philosophical. “Since we are being opposed and calumniated throughout the world as enemies of the Jews,” he said, “why should we derive only the disadvantages and not also the advantages, i.e. the elimination of the Jews from the theater, the cinema, public life and administration. If we are then still attacked as enemies of the Jews we shall at least be able to say with a clear conscience: It was worth it, we have benefited from it.”
The Luftwaffe came at teatime...
Reading Group Guide
In order to provide reading groups with the most informed and thought-provoking questions possible, it is necessary to reveal certain aspects of the story line of this book. If you have not finished reading The Splendid and the Vile, we respectfully suggest that you do so before reviewing this guide.
1. The book’s title comes from a line in John Colville’s diary about the peculiar beauty of watching bombs fall over his home city: “Never was there such a contrast of natural splendor and human vileness.” How do you think a tragedy like this could be considered beautiful? Why do you think Larson chose this title?
2. The Splendid and the Vile covers Winston Churchill’s first year in office. What are the benefits of focusing on this truncated time period?
3. Larson draws on many sources to provide a vivid picture of Churchill’s home and family life in his first year as prime minister. What struck you most about his family dynamic? Considering how powerful he was at the time, was his relationship with his family what you would have expected it to be? Why or why not?
4. Churchill’s most trusted advisers spent many long days and nights with the prime minister, so much so that they became like members of his family. Why do you think Churchill had such close relationships with his political advisers? What do you see as being the key advantages and disadvantages of running a government office in this way? Which of Churchill’s political relationships was the most interesting to you?
5. Larson provides various perspectives in the book, from diaries by Mary Churchill and Mass-Observation participants to the inner workings of both Churchill’s and Hitler’s cabinets. How did these different perspectives enhance your understanding of life in 1940 and 1941?
6. Reading about how war was waged and discussed by the public in 1940, do you see any similarities to how we talk about warfare today?
7. How did you feel reading about the raids? How would your daily life and your priorities change if your country were experiencing similar attacks with such frequency?
8. The book includes anecdotes about a vast array of characters around Churchill, such as his daughter-in-law Pamela, his children Randolph and Mary, and his wife, Clementine. What are the benefits of including various stories about the people related to Churchill—like Pamela’s affair, or Randolph’s gambling habits—in a book discussing his first year in office? Which of these characters did you find to be the most interesting? The most surprising?
9. Mary Churchill recounts the evening when the Café de Paris—where she and her friends had planned to go dancing—was bombed. After the initial shock, her group decides that the dead would have wanted them to continue their evening of gaiety and dancing elsewhere, and they move on to another location. What did you think about this choice? What do you think you would have done in their situation?
10. Discuss Mary Churchill’s portrayal in the book. Do you feel she grows and matures throughout this tumultuous year? Why or why not?
11. What was the most surprising thing you learned about Churchill? Why did it surprise you?
12. While England rationed food, gasoline, and other supplies during the war, Churchill and his cabinet received extra provisions. What did you think about this policy? Do you think government officials are justified in implementing such measures during a time of crisis? Why or why not?
13. Were there any decisions Churchill made over the course of his first year as prime minister that you disagreed with? If so, which? Which of his decisions were you most impressed with?
14. Do you think there has been another leader as universally beloved in their day as Churchill was in his? If so, who? If not, why not?