Hero of the Empire. Candice Millard.

Millard, Candice. Hero of the Empire. Doubleday, New York, 2016. NF; 7/17.

This history of the early adult life of Winston Churchill didn’t have what I took to be its expected effect on me. I wasn’t (as some of the literary world appears to be) impressed with Ms. Millard’s writing. I don’t know how much of a contribution she’s made to the jam-packed world of Churchill scholarship, but it looked to my uneducated eye like she was into a pretty focused level of detail. Still much as I’ve always thought what a remarkable human being Churchill must’ve been, the man she portrayed looked arrogant and foolhardy, but above all incredibly lucky. What was Ms. Millard trying to do?

The Boer War seems to have been a dreadful thing, fought in South Africa between Dutch expatriates exhibiting Dutch and expatriate determination, astuteness, and a kind of reverse-snob self-importance, and the British who were at the end of the 19th century in the full glory of their imperial arrogance. Hard to know which side you’d have wanted less to be on.

Millard shows us Winston Churchill as he certainly was in his youth, an enormously ambitious self-confident aristocrat whose father Randolph had been a powerful government official who went unpleasantly eccentric at the end of his life. The mum, Jeanette, was a gorgeous headstrong interpersonal powerhouse who commanded the awe of every social butterfly and steamroller in England. Winston never hesitated to use mum’s influence to further his ambition of becoming not just a member of Parliament but Prime Minister.

Strangely from the point of view of today’s world that has been through the 20th century, war was still considered romantic in the 1890s. Young men, almost in the style of today’s Islamic radicals, couldn’t wait to risk and sacrifice their lives to maintain Britannia’s godlike superiority. No exception, Churchill’s plan was to win popular approval by glorious success in battle. He started as a correspondent and then wheedled his way into real fighting where the bullets, as if in some old romantic movie, always seemed to whiz past his ears rather than arriving a few inches nearer and blowing his head off.

(Plot alerts are inappropriate here because everybody can grab an online history and know exactly what happened.) Captured by the Boers during an ill-advised armored-train trip into enemy territory (again braving like someone determined to be spattered all over the side of a railway car a hail of bullets and cannon fire, soldiers falling dead and maimed all around him), he landed in a Boer prison in Pretoria. Two much less self-absorbed friends meticulously planned an escape which Churchill insisted on being included in (although his colleagues knew he would be more trouble than he was worth). Petulantly fed up with waiting for the right moment, plucky Churchill scrambled over the wall without the others, boldly marched through the streets of Pretoria, made it out into the countryside and hopped a freight with no idea where it was going. His escape, disregarding his friends, made it next-to-impossible for them to escape subsequently but that didn’t seem to faze the Hero of the Empire.

The train could’ve been headed in the wrong direction. When he jumped off after falling asleep it could’ve been in a thousand wrong places any of which would have meant arrest and probably being shot and never being heard of again. But once on foot he walked in the dark up to a house and knocked on the door and lo the occupant was a sympathetic Englishman running a coal mine (!) This patriotic guy hid Churchill from Boer agents trying to find him and then arranged for him to be transported into friendly territory hidden in a cargo of bales of wool.

The rest, along with the preceding, is history. Churchill was hailed as a hero for his bravery, brilliant prison escape, and audaciously and meticulously planning getting himself out of harm’s way. But this apparently historically accurate account shows him playing Russian roulette with himself a dozen times and being almost unbelievably lucky, a self-absorbed and arrogant mama’s boy born into Blenheim Castle with a solid gold spoon in his mouth being as presumptuous as the Pope, pursuing his advantage by leaving dear friends to rot in prison, all the while smoking cigars and drinking as much whiskey as he could get his hands on.

Simple fellow that I am I’ve often wondered to what extent great men (and now properly women too) are just ridiculously lucky. There must have been hundreds or even thousands of brilliant nobly-born young men among the 30 million people in England in 1900 who would have made inspiring statesmen. But practically all of them would have, taking the same risks Churchill took over and over again, been shot dead, died of infectious diseases, and/or just not been anywhere close to the right place at the right time. Like in peril of death walked up to the one house of thousands that contained someone happy to risk his life to get him out of trouble.

I don’t know what to make of Ms. Millard’s point of view unless Hero of the Empire is wildly ironic. But her language (especially once she gets past the boring first 20% or so of this story) is archaic and sounds Churchillian, as if she’s caught up in the spirit of this famous man’s success. Either the whole thing is a sophisticated tease to subtly draw attention to the odious nature of a great man (and possibly the ethics of a great empire) or she just has a tin ear. Or both. My reading and every critique I’ve seen suggest it’s at least the former. Check out American reviews and then a couple of British ones. I’m with the Brits: this author is weirdly Anglophile without much depth of ambiguity.

For me, it’s a 7.1/6.9.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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One Response to Hero of the Empire. Candice Millard.

  1. Never knew about the capture and escape from the Boers!

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