The Splendid and The Vile
By Erik Larson
The Splendid and The Vile is an intimate look at Winston Churchill, his inner circle, and relations with the U.S. during the London Blitz of 1940-1941. It takes you through the personal and political of World War II using archival materials and a narrative style that has you rooting for England even though you already know the outcome. Larson strikes again as a historical storyteller that weaves together diaries, governmental documents, and personal correspondence to humanize stories learned through history.
The Personal Angle
Years ago I stumbled on Erik Larson‘s book Devil in the White City as I was preparing to move to Chicago. I instantly became a Larson fan as he led me around the deathly corners of the serial killer’s house and the jubilant grounds of Chicago’s World’s Fair. When I made a visit home and began gushing about Larson’s book, my father and sister were not surprised. They had already read some of Larson’s other books—Dead Wake and In the Garden of Beasts. It seemed as if I was late to the party.
Larson’s latest book, The Splendid and The Vile, reinforces his claim to being one of the best historical narrative authors currently writing. He depicts London during the blitz in vivid detail through the accounts of Churchill’s family and his inner circle. Accounts from Germany and the perspective of key Third Reich leaders are included in the book. These German additions add complexity to the story and highlight how one side’s tale is not always the same on the other side.
One of my favorite aspects of The Splendid and The Vile is the insight you get into the personal lives of various actors. Larson explores the financial problems Churchill accrued and how the gambling and spending issues of Churchill’s son Randolph led to the dissolution of his marriage. You also learn more about Clementine, Churchill’s wife, a figure I knew very little about before. Like Winston, Clementine was a force to be reckoned with. The book also lets the reader encounter the romantic drama of unrequited love, broken engagements, illicit affairs, and the sexual rendezvous of a blacked-out London.
The Splendid and The Vile does not read like another war time biography of Churchill. In fact, the picture of Churchill is painted by those around him in Larson’s telling. The reader hears more from Churchill’s aid, private secretaries, family, and cabinet members than from the prime minister himself. In this way, Larson offers a personal look at Churchill not represented by any other biographies of the man.
In fact, Larson explains in the “Sources and Acknowledgements” section his intention in finding the tales not usually included in Churchill books:
“With arc in hand, I set out to hunt for the stories that often get left out of the massive biographies of Churchill, either because there’s no time to tell them or because they seem too frivolous. But it is in frivolity that Churchill often revealed himself, the little moments that endeared him to his staff, despite the extreme demands he placed on all.”
A Definite Read — The Splendid and The Vile
I 100% recommend The Splendid and The Vile!
Of course I should add a couple caveats and describe who this book is for rather than blanket recommend it.
Readers who love history or who have liked any of Larson’s other books would find The Splendid and The Vile to be an enjoyable read. The story does not move quickly, but delves deep into the intricacies and personal eccentricities of Churchill’s first year as prime minister. However, the story does move along at a good pace and I did not feel as if I was over-bogged by details or that any one part was dense or slow.
I also recommend this book to anyone interested in WWII history. The book provides a different perspective on the London Blitz than you would normally find in a political biography or a recounting of historical events. I really enjoyed the different observations made through Larson’s use of archival material and particularly the diaries. My favorite discovery while reading The Splendid and The Vile was the Mass Observation diary project that took place in the UK from 1937-1950. The diaries kept by various people across the isle provide the color of daily life you won’t find in other factual history books.
I don’t suggest this as a book you expect to finish in a week unless you have nothing but free time. The book is long, at 503 pages, and to really enjoy it takes time.
It took me awhile to finish The Splendid and The Vile, but I don’t think this can be attributed only to the book’s length (503 pages) or the circumstances of my reading it (a chapter or two a day at night after working on my dissertation). I believe part of me did not want to let go of the book. I was talking with my dad through reading it. My father passed away a year and a half ago and he was my best friend in many ways. A lot of my interests I learned from him and this includes my love of reading and history. Reading Larson’s latest book, knowing my dad and I were both fans of his, made him feel a little bit closer. My first thought upon reading the last words in The Splendid and The Vile were of my father. He would’ve enjoyed this book. I would’ve enjoyed talking to him about it.
Here are a couple of my favorite quotations from The Splendid and The Vile.
“Tow meetings, two country homes, one lovely weekend in March, with victory suddenly seeming a bit more near: Of such moments are great family upheavals sown.” — Erik Larson
“When I look back on the perils which have been overcome, upon the great mountain waves in which the gallant ship has driven, when I remember all that has gone wrong, and remember also all that has gone right, I feel sure we have no need to fear the tempest. Let it roar, and let it rage. We shall come through.” — Winston Churchill