I never understood how perilously close England came to invasion and defeat during World War II. I’ve read books that described the devastation of London during the Blitz, such as Kate Atkinsons’s Life After Life, with its visceral images of bombs, fires, buildings, and bodies. I knew the war years were horrible, but in experiencing them through the filter of fictional characters, I somehow missed the larger history lesson. From spring 1940 through most of 1941, before the United States entered the war as its rich and powerful ally, England was on the brink, anticipating the same fate that had already befallen many countries on the European continent, from Czechoslovakia to France.
The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson’s chronicle of Winston Churchill and the year of the Blitz, reveals that devastation across England—body counts, buildings destroyed, deprivations endured—as experienced by real people and recounted in news reports, official documents, and personal recollections.
Churchill, as prime minister and indefatigable leader of England’s Herculean efforts to mount a defense against Nazi Germany, is the central figure, of course. But Larson uses a vast array of sources to create a picture of Churchill, and England, during the early years of the war. His approach (as it has been in his previous books) is to present many voices that, as a chorus, tell the story of a time and a place—and in this case, of a remarkable, though very human, statesman. And it is a story, with an engrossing plot, fascinating characters, and details that evoke everyday concerns and epic challenges. Highly readable, and all true—as Larson points out in his A Note to the Reader: “Although at times it may appear to be otherwise, this is a work of nonfiction. Anything between quotation marks comes from some form of historical document, be it diary, letter, memoir, or other artifact; any reference to a gesture, gaze, or smile, or any other facial reaction, comes from an account by one who witnessed it.”
There are appalling statistics: between September 1940 and May 1941, when the Blitz ended, almost 29,000 citizens of London were killed, and 28,556 seriously injured. Dreadful human equations: “The odds that any one person would die on any one night were slim, but the odds that someone, somewhere London would die were 100 percent.” Some of the characters display petulant gamesmanship, such as Lord Beaverbrook, in charge of air force production, who regularly threatens to quit his post. Some fall in love—one romance features Churchill’s daughter Mary while another involves one of Churchill’s private secretaries, John Colville. Life is a game of chance; one night in March, 1941, some Londoners visit an underground nightclub and are bombed to smithereens, while members of the uppercrust attend a debutant “basement ball” and are spared.
Through it all, Churchill tries to convince U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt to provide more aid, makes memorable speeches in Parliament and to the citizens of England via the wireless, plans his schedule around the full moon (best time for the Nazis to hit their targets), drinks too much, suffers from bronchitis, and visits the sites of bombings. The fate of the city of Coventry is especially horrendous: in a single night’s bombing in November, 1940, 568 civilians were killed, 865 were seriously wounded, 2,284 buildings were destroyed, and 45,704 more buildings were damaged, including the city’s famous Gothic cathedral. (Afterwards, causing such devastation to an area by bombing came to be known, by both the Nazis and the Allies, as “coventration.”) Churchill’s intelligence and courage, as well as his peccadillos and missteps, are on full display, as witnessed by people who adored him and by those who saw him more realistically. It’s hard to imagine England being led by anyone else through its darkest days.
I love fiction, with all its beauties and truths brought to life through the author’s imagination. But writing great nonfiction requires a particular talent: being true to the facts (Larson’s list of sources is exhaustive) while telling a great story. As with other Larson books I’ve read (The Devil in the White City, Dead Wake, and In the Garden of Beasts), I finished The Splendid and the Vile with a richer sense of a period in history as experienced authentically by men and women in the midst of it.