Romilly (née Mitford), with her ten-month-old second daughter, and to tell her that Esmond – previously supposed to be missing – was almost certainly dead. He handed her an envelope with $500 in it but she left screaming furiously and crying at the same time.
Lovell charts the rise of the Churchill dynasty from the f ir st Duke of Marlborough through to the present eleventh duke and his fourth duchess. But Winston and Clementine’s own family is the psychological heart of this book. Winston’s adoring relationship with his only son, the handsome and charming Randolph, is central to the drama and painful to read. Clementine had periods when she was not on speaking terms with Randolph. His sister, Mary, said he was so difficult that he would on occasion pick an argument with a chair. Yet Winston, determined to do better than his own abusive and absent father, could never bear to criticise Randolph. When he discovered the boy had been sexually abused at school he was angrier than his children had ever seen him before. Winston, ever forgiving towards Randolph, also protected him as an adult in wartime by telling army chiefs that if Randolph were killed he would not be able to continue
HE MADE A SPLASH SIR WALTER RALEIGH: IN LIFE AND LEGEND
By Mark Nicholls and Penry Williams
(Continuum 378pp £25)
CELEBRITY CULTURE IS no creation of the contemporary media age, for Sir Walter Ralegh – Mark Nicholls and Penry Williams concede the conventional spelling of the name for their book’s title, but insist on this more authentic form in the text – was nothing if not a celebrity. Unlike so many modern celebrities, however, Ralegh was famous for more than just being famous. Courtier, privateer, entrepreneur, explorer, poet, historian: he was a Renaissance man even among t he men o f t he Renaissance. His fame also lasted considerably longer than Warhol’s statutory fifteen minutes, intensifying in the years after his death and becoming, by the nineteenth century, the stuff of English schoolboy legend.
Even in our own times, Ralegh has hardly lacked for either scholarly or popular interpreters; this new biography, learned and accessible in equal measure, is nonetheless highly welcome. It will surely become the standard starting-point for anyone interested in his career and writings. The authors are two distinguished scholars of Elizabethan and Jacobean history, ably qualified to place Ralegh in his historical and literary context. They provide us with no clues as to how they approached the as Pr ime Minister. In 1939, one of his fir st acts on assuming office as First Lord of the Admiralty was bringing the Duke and Duchess of Windsor back from France on HMS Kelly. He summoned Randolph to take part in the secret mission.
For whatever reason, his children – with the exception of the youngest, Mary (now Lady Soames) – endured periods of desperate unhappiness. Diana, after her second marriage to Duncan Sandys finally collapsed (she had put up with multiple infidelities), took her own life. Sarah became a ‘fully fledged alcoholic’, was arrested more t han once and mar r i ed t h re e t imes, while Randolph, after two failed marriages, fell in love with a woman he could not marry. Lovell has unearthed many fascinating details about life in the Churchill family; bringing them all together reveals that, while calling on the nation for every last ounce of effort, Winston himself was being personally drained. One of the most extraordinary details is not only that he died on the same date (24 January) as his father, Lord Randolph, but that he forecast to Jock Colville that he would do so. To order this book for £20, see LR Bookshop on page 29
task of co-writing, but if they parcelled it out, it is virtually impossible to detect the joins. The prose is never less than lucid, and the book’s structure – a succession of thematic chapters with a forward chronological momentum – is sensible and effective. Inevitably, some of the facts that everyone knows about Sir Walter Ralegh turn out to be wrong. The famous episode in which he gallantly covered a puddle with his cloak, so that Queen Elizabeth could walk across it, is likely to be apocryphal, first recorded decades after the supposed event. Nor did he introduce either the potato or tobacco into England, though he probably helped make smoking fashionable at court. Yet Nicholls and Williams eschew the temptation to present themselves as buccaneering myth-busters and pioneering revisionists, offering, for example, a very balanced assessment of Ralegh’s supposed atheism. They scrupulously recognise where they are indebted to previous scholarship, and when they dissent from it they do so with courtesy and sensitivity. This makes their picture of Ralegh all the more persuasive and, in places, all the more devastating.
For the Ralegh who emerges from these pages is far removed f rom the upstanding hero hailed by the Victor ians. He could be cynically opportunistic and remarkably ruthless, overseeing a massacre of prisoners in Ireland in 1580 and brutally overrunning the Spanish headquarters in Trinidad in 1595. There was, Nicholls and Williams suggest, ‘an abiding dark heart to his character’. His loyalty to friends and followers was always less than absolute. When his final voyage to the New World in 1617–18 – a desperate bid to regain the lost favour of James I – inevitably failed to find the El Dorado of
LITERARY REVIEW April 2011