Review: The Splendid and the Vile
November 11, 2020

There is no denying that The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz is an exceptionally good and well-written book. More than anything, it is an extremely human account of Britain’s wartime prime minister, those closest to him, and the daily life of the English during such a dramatic time in history. Author Erik Larson expertly weaves daily life details of Londoners in with military strategy and events, skipping from underground bunkers to Churchill’s weekend home and back, creating a vivid image of this period from many angles.

The Splendid and the Vile covers roughly two years of WWII, ending with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the United States joining the war. Readers are treated to not just the nitty-gritty of war stuff and Churchill’s life—that’s actually a fairly small portion of the book. Diary and letter entries from Churchill’s wife, his teenage daughter, his closest confidantes, and various British citizens give a well-rounded image of life during that time—the highs and the lows, the darkest days and the longest nights.

This book was difficult to put down and I certainly didn’t expect to laugh out loud as often as I did while reading this book. Crammed in between the horrifying and intimate details of bomb raids are a collection of Winston Churchill’s many quirks, making for a very entertaining read. From only a few pages into the book, it’s hard not to adore Churchill, the master orator and inspirer of bravery that history remembers as a hero to many.

It’s quite clear that Larson admires Churchill greatly but it’s my opinion that he should have at least mentioned his deeply problematic side, rather than give in to blind idolatry. This Washington Post review outlines how Larson’s admiration made him skip over Churchill’s flaws. As this was the first book I’ve ever read about Winston Churchill, I had to do a bit of clicking around to learn how much really was left out of this book.

That Washington Post review above, like Larson’s book, does not mention how Churchill’s actions during the war indirectly caused the starvation of millions of Indians during the 1943 Bengal Famine. It’s a bit complicated and not an area of history I’m ultra familiar with, but you can learn more about it in this BBC article and at this Guardian article.

The Splendid and the Vile spends perhaps a little too much focus on silly Churchillian idiosyncrasies and none on his racist beliefs. There is an entire Wikipedia article about it. (Content warning.)

Rating this book is… tricky. When I closed the back cover, I was very ready to write a glowing review as I really did enjoy this book for what it is: an entertaining slice-of-life book through a very, very tight lens. Larson is a gifted author and I will likely read his other books because The Splendid and the Vile really was a delight to read and I do recommend it.

However, Larson’s questionable decisions with painting Churchill as an eccentric champion of the people gives me pause. All people, especially politicians, are not all bad and not all good, I realize that. I just wish this particular depiction had been more honest.

RATING: 4/5 stars

Jillianne Hamilton is a history enthusiast and the author of The Spirited Mrs. Pringle (historical fiction), The Hobby Shop on Barnaby Street (historical romance), and The Lazy Historian’s Guide to the Wives of Henry VIII (non-fiction). Jill launched The Lazy Historian in 2015. She lives in Charlottetown on Canada’s beautiful east coast. Learn more.

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3 Comments

  1. I believe the author does delve into Churchill’s shortcomings and idiosyncrasies. The novel is not meant to be a bashing of a great prime minister, but rather to reveal Churchill’s human side; his intellect, humor, temperament and determination. Every famous leader has their less-than-perfect moments in history, including Presidents who were slave owners. The Splendid and the Vile is wonderfully written. Larson is clever in how he presents historical facts, and it held my interest far longer than one of his previous novels.

    Reply
  2. Lol…Churchill racist?……tell that to the billions of people he rescued from Nazi slavery. I’m sure you mean well but your article is asinine.

    Reply

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Hi, I'm Jillianne.

I'm a historical fiction writer, a lover of history, and a hoarder of books. I'm the author of The Spirited Mrs. Pringle, The Hobby Shop on Barnaby Street, and The Lazy Historian's Guide to the Wives of Henry VIII.

The Lazy Historian is a history blog featuring stories from the past with sass. With a focus on Western European and women's history, I delve into anything fascinating. Learn more.