New York Times Review
AMONG THE MANY stories about Winston Churchill that may or not be true is the one of him barking grumpily at a waiter, "Take this pudding away; it has no theme!" In "Churchill and Orwell," the Pulitzer Prizewinning writer Thomas Ricks (who is now the Book Review's military history columnist) clearly has a theme. Both subjects, he tells us in this page turner written with great brio, are "people we still think about, people who are important not just to understanding their times but also to understanding our own." Nonetheless, given that Churchill and Orwell seem never to have met, the question is not so much if this dual biography has a theme but more whether there is actually a pudding in the first place. It hardly needs to be said that Ricks has chosen two historical figures who are still in the news. Orwell's most famous novel, "1984," enjoyed a renewed wave of attention in the days after the inauguration of Donald Trump. And as the new president moved into the White House, among his first gestures was to restore the famous Jacob Epstein bust of Churchill to the Oval Office. He is even said to model a scowl on that of Britain's wartime leader. Given their pervasive influence today, it is worth remembering that in the 1930s, before either reached the heights of reputation, both men were in disgrace. Churchill was a political pariah, alienated from his own Conservative Party by his opposition to the appeasement of Hitler. Frederic Maugham, Lord Chancellor in the national government, suggested that Churchill should be "shot or hanged." Similarly, when the socialist Orwell wrote "Homage to Catalonia" (1938), a coruscating indictment of both leftand right during the Spanish Civil War, he was denounced by many on the British left. His usual publisher, the Communist fellow-traveler Victor Gollancz, refused even to put out the book. The "lower-upper-middle-class" Orwell and the aristocratic Churchill were both children of the Empire, yet they shared a certain contempt for the snobbery of British society. "For a popular leader in England it is a serious disability to be a gentleman," Orwell wrote in 1943, adding admiringly, "which Churchill . . . is not." Only after war broke out in 1939 did Churchill and Orwell find common cause, seeing the conflict in similar terms even if they did not work together. For Churchill, this was a war "to establish, on impregnable rocks, the rights of the individual, and it is a war to establish and revive the stature of man." For Orwell, "If this war is about anything at all, it is a war in favor of freedom of thought." In that struggle, centered as much on individual freedom as national survival, Ricks finds the ingredients for the "pudding" that gives substance to his theme. It is no coincidence that in 1940 Orwell welcomed Churchill's premiership as much-needed "government with imagination." He recognized it in the series of speeches Churchill made that summer urging the British people toward "their finest hour." "Who would have believed seven years ago that Winston Churchill had any kind of political future before him?," Orwell marveled, as he watched the transformation from has-been to savior of the nation. Rejected by the army "because of my lungs," Orwell ended up at the BBC during the war, where he raged against the "continuous dithering" and "the impossibility of getting anything done." A conference room at the BBC offices where Orwell endured endless dreary meetings, would subsequently reappear as Room 101, the torture chamber in "1984." Yet Orwell, Ricks points out, "like Churchill, was energized by the war." In 1940 alone he produced more than 100 pieces of journalism. For both Churchill and Orwell, language mattered at every level. "Even while overseeing a sprawling war of survival," Ricks notes, "Churchill paused to coach subordinates on writing." During the Battle of Britain he issued a directive on brevity, ordering his staffto write in "short, crisp" paragraphs and to avoid meaningless phrases. "Most of these woolly phrases are mere padding," the prime minister complained, "which can be leftout altogether, or replaced by a single word." Anyone who has read Orwell's famous six "elementary" rules on writing, including " Never use a long word where a short one will do," knows that on this matter the two men were of one mind. Orwell's admiration of Churchill, while not uncritical, is clear enough. Not only does Winston Smith, the protagonist of "1984," share a name with Churchill, but in the last piece published before his death in January 1950 (his review of a volume of Churchill's war memoir, "Their Finest Hour") Orwell praised the former prime minister not just for his "courage but also a certain largeness and geniality," and also for his writings, which were "more like those of a human being than of a public figure." What Churchill thought of Orwell is less clear. In truth, he probably did not think about him much at all while the younger man was alive. He read "1984" more than once and thought it "remarkable." But it had only been with that novel, published in 1949, and its predecessor "Animal Farm," published in 1945, that Orwell had become a household name. As the British- American writer Logan Pearsall Smith teased his old friend Cyril Connolly after reading "Animal Farm," Orwell had come from nowhere "to beat the lot of you." By the time he did, the war was won and Churchill was out of office. When Churchill returned to 10 Downing Street in 1951, Orwell was dead. Much of the connection then between Churchill and Orwell is suggestive rather than explicit. In 2002, Simon Schama artfully used the two as a framing device for the final episode of his landmark television series, "A History of Britain," employing them to make a powerful statement about the relationship between tradition and radicalism through the ages. For Ricks, the relationship is essentially about freethinking. He doesn't always force connections or contradictions for readers; for example, the link between Winston Smith's job rewriting history, much as the former prime minister was doing in his own memoirs, goes undeveloped. ("History will be kind to me," Churchill once said, "for I intend to write it.") But what comes across strongly in this highly enjoyable book is the fierce commitment of both Orwell and Churchill to critical thought. Neither followed the crowd. Each treated popularity and rejection with equal skepticism. Their unwavering independence, Ricks concludes, put them in "a long but direct line from Aristotle and Archimedes to Locke, Hume, Mill and Darwin, and from there through Orwell and Churchill to the 'Letter from Birmingham City Jail.' It is the agreement that objective reality exists, that people of good will can perceive it and that other people will change their views when presented with the facts of the matter." In other words, we don't have to love Big Brother. Churchill and Orwell were children of the Empire, yet they shared a contempt for British snobbery. RICHARD ALDOUS, the author of the dual biography "Reagan and Thatcher," is Eugene Meyer professor of British history and literature at Bard College.
Library Journal Review
Former British prime minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965) was a rotund, boisterous, blue-blooded Conservative who led Britain to victory in World War II. George Orwell (1903-50) was a gaunt, taciturn leftist and commoner; a foot soldier who took a fascist bullet in the Spanish Civil War, and author of the classic novels Animal Farm and 1984. What links these contrasting biographies? Former military correspondent Ricks (Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq) presents Churchill and Orwell as champions of freedom-the right of the individual to be free of totalitarian control by the state, whether fascist or communist. Notwithstanding, Orwell sometimes rehashed anti-Semitic stereotypes, while Churchill was a die-hard imperialist; consistency was neither man's hobgoblin. For his part, Ricks skirts controversy. In one memorable passage, contemporary wit Evelyn Waugh called a benign tumor removed from Churchill's dissolute son, Randolph, "the only part of him not malignant." Superficial and piquant, this quote is typical of the narrative. Churchill and Orwell's stories are fascinating and segue wonderfully into their times-or indeed, any times: Orwell leaped to the top of the best seller lists in reaction to the 2016 election of President Donald Trump. VERDICT A colorful recounting of two proclaimed freedom fighters, which is sure to entertain and intrigue almost any reader. [See Prepub Alert, 11/14/16.]-Michael Rodriguez, Univ. of Connecticut © Copyright 2017. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Publishers Weekly Review
Winston Churchill, the great WWII British prime minister, and George Orwell, celebrated author of 1984 and Animal Farm, never met. There's no evidence that Churchill ever read a word by Orwell, and the latter never held public office. But they admired each other from afar and worked for the same purpose: to save the world from totalitarianism. Ricks (The Gamble), two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, brings the two men together in a book whose model is assumed to be Plutarch's Parallel Lives, side-by-side sketches of people whose existence never overlapped. In vivid prose, Ricks entwines the biographies of two figures who fought in strikingly different ways to achieve similar goals. What is new in this portrayal is their juxtaposition between a single book's covers, though it's unclear on what grounds Ricks chooses to do so. Other politicians roused their people; other writers warned of the Nazi and Soviet menaces. However, even if Ricks isn't convincing in his pairing of the two men, he superbly illustrates that Churchill and Orwell made enduring cases for the necessity of moral and political fortitude in the face of authoritarianism. This is a bracing work for our times. (June) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Booklist Review
*Starred Review* Winston Churchill and George Orwell seem like odd allies in the cause of truth-telling, but Pulitzer Prize finalist Ricks argues that these two one an extrovert politician, the other an introverted writer were twin pillars of the struggle against the totalitarian threats of fascism and communism. They had things in common. Both blurred the line between soldier and journalist, Churchill in the Boer War, Orwell in the Spanish Civil War. Both were superb writers. Both loved England, though Churchill showed his affection by spelling out to the English just how bad things were in the early days of WWII. This grim talk did not dismay the British people. Instead, it braced them, Ricks writes. Orwell, author of Animal Farm and 1984, was the visionary, predicting the rise of the all-seeing state and politicians who masterfully twist the truth. His literary method was to discover the facts and lay them out, Ricks writes. 1984 has sold 50 million copies, with a burst of recent sales to readers grappling with the implications of fake news. The genius of Ricks' method is to tell the story of an ongoing struggle through the lives of two extraordinary men.--Gwinn, Mary Ann Copyright 2017 Booklist
Kirkus Review
A joint biography of two men who "led the way, politically and intellectually, in responding to the twin totalitarian threats of fascism and communism" in the mid-20th century.As dual biographies pour off the presses, authors stretch to find a suitable pair. That includes Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ricks (The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, 2012, etc.), who takes an odd tack with subjects who were neither friends, colleagues, rivals, nor enemies. Nonetheless, given the author's abundant skills, readers will thoroughly enjoy the result. Since Churchill and Orwell never met, Ricks writes separate biographies and then works hard to deliver a common theme. He succeeds because these two men made cases for individual freedom better than anyone in their century. During 1940, at a time when everyone agreed that Britain's destruction was imminent, Churchill treated Neville Chamberlain and the appeasers (who were largely responsible) with respect, ordered no mass murders or arrests, and never assumed that, in this crisis and, of course, temporarily, Britain needed a touch of Nazi ruthlessness. Orwell has always been the conservatives' favorite Marxist, although he was a faithful socialist all his life. An obscure journalist until his breakthrough with Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), he hated totalitarianism in all forms but reserved special ire for the cant and fabrication that all governments employ and that his colleagues on the left accepted when it suited their beliefs. Everyone approves of Orwell's classic statement that a lie in the service of a good cause is no less despicable than in the service of a bad cause. Yet it's never caught on; our leaders routinely announce bad news as good news, and plenty of activists consider lying a useful tactic. A superb account of two men who set standards for defending liberal democracy that remain disturbingly out of reach. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.