restricted access A Commentary (Jan 1934)
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Part I Essays,Reviews, Commentariesand PublicLetters This page intentionally left blank [ 3 A Commentary The Criterion: A Literary Review, 13 (Jan 1934) 270-78 I am quite willing to believe that Mr. Winston Churchill is an honester historian than Macaulay;1 that his facts are indisputable, and his judgement of motive and character sound. His Marlborough may, for aught I know, deserve to the full the encomiums pronounced upon it by reviewers with no uncertain voice, the roses strewn with no niggard hand.2 In the foregoing sentence I have endeavoured to trace a mimic miniature of the virtues of Mr. Churchill’s prose style. Ours is said to be an age of specialization ; and for specialized departments of thought, we find specialized kinds of second-rate prose. On this level of expression, Mr. Harold J. Laski is in one department an acknowledged master; in another, we might award the palm to Mr. F. L. Lucas;3 but in that of popular historical exposition, Mr. Winston Churchill is not easily to be surpassed. A characteristic which all of these varieties of writing have in common is deadness; but death can assume various expressions. The historical style, as developed by Mr. Churchill and others has one quality not shared with the literary or the philosophical: it is the style of a man accustomed to public speaking − to oratory, an art largely concerned with evoking stock emotional responses. It is sometimes maintained that practice in speech is excellent preparation for writing; this may be so, but the kinds of speaking and of writing must be taken into account; and furthermore no kind of speaking is without its dangers as well as its benefits. In a style formed by oratory, we must never expect intimacy; we must never expect the author to address us as individual readers, but always as members of a mob. The mob of course may be assumed to possess every intellectual and moral virtue, as mobs addressed by orators usually do;itmayevenbeaselectmob.ThataddressedinthepagesofMarlborough is a kind of Whig-Tory amalgam, men of the world of course, used to good manners and to downright plain speaking, virtuous but tolerant of the morals of Restoration times; recognizing the importance of good blood, but a little cynical about ancient pedigrees (“All this was very fine, but . . . we enter a rather shady phase,” p. 33). What is more important, however, than the particular constitution of the audience addressed by Mr. Churchill, is that characteristic of his kind of writing, which consists in constantly Essays, Reviews, Commentaries, and Public Letters: 1934 4 ] pitchingthetonealittletoohigh.Attheendofaperiodweseemtoobserve the author pause for the invariable burst of hand-clapping. Here, for instance, is the situation of England at the beginning of Chapter IV: But for the storm-whipped seas which lapped the British islands, our fortunes would have followed the road upon which our neighbours had started. England had not, however, the same compulsive need for a standing army as the land Powers. She stood aloof; moving slowly and lagging behind the martial throng. In the happy nick of time her Parliament grew strong enough to curb the royal power and to control the armed forces, and she thus became the cradle, as she is still the citadel , of free institutions throughout the world. There she lay, small, weak, divided, and almost unarmed. [65] It is obvious that Mr. Churchill is on the right side, the side of his readers: stout royalists except on such occasions as Charles I’s oppression of wealthy landed gentry; and strong Parliamentarians except when too many of the rabble get in. There is one subject on which Mr. Churchill’s mind is not evenly balanced, and that is Popery; but the audience, although reasonably indifferent about such matters at the present time, is always ready for an outbreak of applause when sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Popery is mentioned in the right tone. Since the days of Queen Elizabeth and the Spanish Armada, Spain had been the bugbear of Protestant England. Many devout families, suffering all things, still adhered to the Catholic faith. But deep in the hearts of the English people from peer to peasant memories of Smithfield burned with a fierce glow which any breeze could rouse into flame. And now Spain was in decrepitude, insolvent, incoherent, tracing her genealogies and telling her beads. [67] (Perhaps it is over-fastidious to observe that other people besides decrepit Spaniards tell their beads, and that Mr. Churchill has devoted some pages to his own...