A forum for the discussion of biography in the 21st century.

Bogdanor on Churchill

May 30th, 2011 | Posted by Ray Monk in Discussion

An interesting recent New Statesman article here.

Leaving aside his implicit (and, I believe) false assumption that there is such a thing as a “definitive biography,” Bogdanor has some interesting reasons for dismissing some of the biographies of Churchill written so far. I was especially struck by his dismissal of Gilbert’s huge, multi-volumed life as a mere “chronology.” Is that fair?

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2 Responses

  • Adrian Smith says:

    I’ve waited patiently for others to chip in, but feel that I can’t leave Ray on his own any longer. I don’t think Vernon Bogdanor really does believe that the ‘definitive biography’ can ever be written. Not that this dissuades some publishers from conveying the impression that because a biography has been authorised then it must be definitive – full access to family papers is no guarantee of the full story; and Robert Skidelsky at the commencement of his first volume on Keynes highlights the difficulties that can arise because the family has particular expectations of a biographer granted privileged access. The early volumes of Churchill’s official biography were written by Randolph Churchill, with filial responsibility over-riding any duty to criticise. Once Martin Gilbert took over then the level of scholarship improved markedly, and there was a clearer sense of critical detachment. Not that Gilbert has ever hidden an obvious admiration for Churchill (the TV series veered dangerously close to hagiography). By producing spin-off publications (e.g. a distilled single-volume life) Gilbert felt he could leave the original enterprise as a fairly solid, unglamorous biography of record, i.e. endeavour to include as much as possible, and where this proved editorially impossible then include additional material in the companion volumes. Bogdanor is right to higlight the absence of authorial intervention – we learn one hell of a lot about Sir Winston but precious little about Sir Martin – but the multi-volume life was a remarkable achievement (and the companion volumes are even in a digital age extremely useful document collections). This in many respects was a hangover from another age – all those worthy Whiggish tributes to ‘great parliamentarians’ that Victorian readers never quite got round to taking off the shelf. Can you imagine any publisher taking on such a project today, however distinguished the subject?

  • David E. Martin says:

    I suspect the use of ‘definitive’ – only in the subheading – is an editorial one by the NS. Bogdanor just refers to the lack of a ‘satisfactory’ biography of Churchill, which is perhaps too severe a judgement of two or three of those that have been written. (Incidentally, would any biographer be much gratified by a reviewer’s opinion that his or her work was ‘satisfactory’?)

    Bogdanor hints at one reason why no biography (or other form of historical writing) can ever be definitive when he writes: ‘In that part of our world [the Balkans], warring neighbours need a common home. Membership of the European Union seems the only way in which their ancient conflicts can be overcome.’ Because concerns about present-day issues ebb and flow, earlier biographers tend to disappoint due to their perceived failure sufficiently to address those issues. Similarly, the work of more recent biographers is likely to appear dated after a few decades. There is also of course the probability of new material becoming available – as well as, especially for figures like Churchill, the mass of information a biographer has to deal with.

    In his NS piece Bogdanor also writes: ‘Perhaps the most perceptive of the biographies was one by Robert Rhodes James, published in 1970. Provocatively entitled Churchill: a Study in Failure, it skilfully used the recently released cabinet papers to show why Churchill was so widely distrusted by his contemporaries. James’s critical approach distressed the family, however, and prevented his appointment as official biographer.’
    This puzzles me. By 1970 Martin Gilbert was already ensconced as the official biographer. By then he had worked for several years with Randolph Churchill, who died in 1968, two years before he could (as he almost certainly would have!) taken offence at Rhodes James’s biography.

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