Thursday, 7 May 1998

A.L. Rowse: The Early Churchills (1956)

Edition: Penguin, 1969
Review number: 42

A.L. Rowse attempted to do something slightly different with this book; not a biography of an individual, which often ignores much of their family background, nor a genealogical record of the family history, which often ignores much of the character of the members of the family. The family chosen for this is that of the early Churchills (i.e. up until the point where the Marlborough title passed through the female line to the Spencers who took the surname of Churchill). The idea doesn't really work, as the book actually ends up reading like a set of short biographies; the principal ones here are Winston Churchill, who really founded the fortunes of the family and was a prominent lawyer and MP during the early years of Charles II; Arabella Churchill, mistress of James II; John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough and easily the most famous member of the family; and Sarah Churchill, his wife and the most interesting member of the family.

Although praised at the time (there is praise, for example, in J.P. Kenyon's The Stuarts), the book today seems old-fashioned. I gained this impression particularly from the eagerness with which Rowse turns anything he can into praise for the twentieth century Winston Churchill; every quality he mentions - and the Churchills he talks about were entirely praiseworthy according to Rowse - is also shown in the character of the prime minister.

Basically, in the nineties I think we want more critical biographies than are provided in this book.

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