New York Times
May 23, 2017
Among the many stories about Winston Churchill that may or not be true is the one of him barking grumpily at a waiter, “Take this pudding away; it has no theme!” In Churchill and Orwell, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Thomas Ricks (who is now the Book Review’s military history columnist) clearly has a theme. Both subjects, he tells us in this page turner written with great brio, are “people we still think about, people who are important not just to understanding their times but also to understanding our own.” Nonetheless, given that Churchill and Orwell seem never to have met, the question is not so much if this dual biography has a theme but more whether there is actually a pudding in the first place.
It hardly needs to be said that Ricks has chosen two historical figures who are still in the news. Orwell’s most famous novel, 1984, enjoyed a renewed wave of attention in the days after the inauguration of Donald Trump. And as the new president moved into the White House, among his first gestures was to restore the famous Jacob Epstein bust of Churchill to the Oval Office. He is even said to model a scowl on that of Britain’s wartime leader.
Given their pervasive influence today, it is worth remembering that in the 1930s, before either reached the heights of reputation, both men were in disgrace. Churchill was a political pariah, alienated from his own Conservative Party by his opposition to the appeasement of Hitler. Frederic Maugham, Lord Chancellor in the national government, suggested that Churchill should be “shot or hanged.” Similarly, when the socialist Orwell wrote Homage to Catalonia (1938), a coruscating indictment of both left and right during the Spanish Civil War, he was denounced by many on the British left. His usual publisher, the Communist fellow-traveler Victor Gollancz, refused even to put out the book.
The “lower-upper-middle-class” Orwell and the aristocratic Churchill were both children of the Empire, yet they shared a certain contempt for the snobbery of British society. “For a popular leader in England it is a serious disability to be a gentleman,” Orwell wrote in 1943, adding admiringly, “which Churchill … is not.”