Churchill: Walking with Destiny
by Andrew Roberts
Published: October 2018
Andrew Roberts’s biography “Churchill: Walking with Destiny” was published in the fall of 2018 and quickly became a bestseller in both the US and UK. Roberts is an award-winning British author and journalist who has written more than a dozen books including “Napoleon: A Life” (which inspired a BBC tv series), “The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War” and “House of Windsor.”
Within weeks of its release this book was hailed as one of the very best single-volume biographies of Winston Churchill ever published. Because this is the first biography of Churchill I’ve read, I am unable to offer an opinion on the matter. What is clear to me, however, is that Roberts’s biography of Churchill is magisterial, impressively thorough and keenly perceptive. It also benefits from the author’s access to personal papers and notes unavailable to previous biographers of Churchill.
Anyone familiar with Winston Churchill’s life will appreciate the difficulty inherent in compressing his remarkably eventful nine decades into a single volume. But Roberts seems to have accomplished the task with authority, clarity and precision. The book bursts with revealing observations and anecdotes and quickly proves a fruitful (if not effortless) reading experience.
Churchill is easy to lionize and while Roberts’s tome can occasionally feel like an instrument of praise, it is remarkably objective. The narrative critically embraces Churchill’s complexity and never fails to explore his personal faults as well as his professional mistakes. And the author’s attention to the lessons Churchill took from each misstep is as insightful as the description of the sins themselves.
The highlight of the biography for me: the final eighteen pages which are dedicated to the evaluation of Churchill’s life and legacy. Readers who may have overlooked or forgotten any of Churchill’s illustrious accomplishments or conspicuous flaws will find them carefully evaluated and fluently reviewed.
But in my experience, the very best biographies are found at the intersection of penetrating, insightful history and vibrant, captivating narrative. For all the well-deserved praise it has received, “Walking with Destiny” is superb as history but less successful as engaging literature.
Hardcore history enthusiasts might embrace a dry recitation of facts, but readers seeking a colorful exploration of Churchill’s life will find the narrative lamentably stiff. Anyone who has previously marveled at Churchill’s exceedingly interesting relationship with Franklin Roosevelt, for instance, will discover that much of the intangible magic surrounding their personal and professional connections is missing here.
Roberts does a remarkable job focusing on Churchill’s bubble – explaining what happened and often…but not always…why. But for readers new to Churchill and his surroundings this biography provides little context, almost no foreshadowing and only a fleeting sense of “the big picture.” As a result, this biography is most valuable to readers who are already familiar with Churchill’s life.
Overall, Andrew Roberts’s biography of Winston Churchill is a literary tale of two cities. Readers seeking a balanced, comprehensive and detailed history of Churchill’s life in a single volume will find this a biographical masterpiece. But anyone seeking to embrace this famously fascinating British politician through a narrative as captivating and colorful as Churchill himself are likely to find it somewhat disappointing.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars
Alec Rogers said:
Sorry you didn’t find it more engaging. I found Roberts to be one of the more engaging of Churchill biographers, but the challenge is that you need to include a LOT of details to both treat his career seriously and still capture his personality. I’m not sure you can fully do both in one volume.
This leaves Manchester, who had 3 volumes (with the assistance of Paul Reid in completing v.3) and shorter works. For instance, Walking With Destiny covers a single pivotal year of 1922, and includes all the personal details that make you feel you “know” him.
I think you’re spot-on. And part of the challenge for me is probably that some of the better FDR biographies I read did a fantastic job of describing the interaction between Churchill and FDR during a relatively brief but dramatic period of time. Roberts had a tremendous amount of ground to cover and did so with a minimum of embellishment or flourish. So, with the benefit of hindsight, what I’m after as it relates to Churchill is the thoroughness Roberts offers with the narrative engagement I expect from Chernow, Jean Edward Smith, etc. I can only imagine how many pages / volumes that would entail!
Get a hold of v.2 of Manchester (Alone) and just read the Prologue. You will not be disappointed.
Thanks – I may have to do that tonight 🙂
Terry Hutchinson said:
I’ve done a daily book review on the radio for more than 25 years. I’ve read a lot about a lot. The Manchester Churchill (esp. v. 2) are among the top five best books I’ve ever read on any subject! I enjoyed Roberts and it is the best one-volume on Churchill (as Chernow is the best one-volume on Washington), but the difference between the one and three volumes is where the author can wax more eloquent. After about page 400 of v. 3, Manchester’s work goes to Reid who is more workmanlike. In fact, i found Roberts’ account of the end of Churchill’s life better than Reid’s.
I first ran across Roberts in 1995 with his collection of essays called “Eminent Churchillians”. His skewering of Lord Mountbatten over the division of India and Pakistan was brilliant, as was his report on the Windsor’s attitude towards him and also the Tories who took quite a while to warm up to him. Roberts’ book, Masters and Commanders is brilliant as well. It just came out on Audible last month and explains a lot about the relationship between Churchill, FDR, Marshall and Alan Brooke. A kind of biography, but a revelation about the challenges in winning the War and establishing the necessary grand strategies to do so. Some of both of these books is included in Walking with Destiny, but these are areas that deserve more attention.
A daily book review for 25 years? OMG, I feel so…slow and behind! I can’t wait to read the Manchester series and for what it’s worth, I think Chernow’s bio of Washington is one of the very best single volume biographies of a US president…period. Any chance you’ve read his biography of Napoleon?
Terry Hutchinson said:
I’m working on it. His Churchill (and supporting cast) books are his best. Prior to Eminent Churchillians, he wrote The Holy Fox (on Lord Halifax). I’ve found that I rate his top books as follows:
1. Masters and Commanders
2. Churchill: Walking With Destiny (I also especially appreciated his report on how Churchill took over)–Sidenote (try “Dominion” by C. J. Sansom. A spy thriller set in a world where Churchill didn’t become Prime Minister.)
2. Eminent Churchillians
3. Napoleon (what I’ve gone through so far, I really like and I’ve learned a lot)
He also wrote The Storm of War, which I had high hopes for. Its a more traditional World War II history and I hoped it would be more of a book on how the Germans came to their grand strategy (in the manner of Masters and Commanders).
Additional Side Note: For a book on World War II Strategy, Weapons and Tactics, try The Second World Wars by Victor Davis Hanson.
Sorry for the firehose.
Your blogs have been very enjoyable over the years. My reports are only 3 minutes and you can take a deeper dive.
Russ Robinson said:
I’m currently reading The Vile and the Splendid by Erik Larson. So far it’s an outstanding view of Churchill and the Battle of Britain. I checked and didn’t see a review from you. I would recommend it and would be interested in your thoughts on it.
I’ve heard it’s excellent but it seems too narrowly focused for me at the moment. Nevertheless, I may have to break down and just read it “on the side” at some point and post my thoughts… 🙂
Larson’s books are excellent and – as you noted – very narrowly focused. I read Dead Wake about the Lusitania and it made me go back to read his prior books on William Dodd’s time in Germany during the rise of Hitler and The Devil in the White City. Splendid and Vile is up next in my queue (after finishing the recent book on TR and Morgan).
My son had to read Dead Wake for school and really enjoyed it. This is the same son who doesn’t typically enjoy reading anything longer than a newspaper article but who was also really excited by Candice Millard’s “River of Doubt.” So Larson’s book on
Oddly enough I haven’t heard anything about Berfield’s book although the description suggests it could be remarkably interesting.
And now that I’ve read Larson’s “Note to Readers” and first few pages of Splendid and Vile, I can tell I’m going to have to start multi-tasking and reading more than one thing at a time!
Interesting you mention Ms. Millard as I removed a comment from my note about their similar writing styles and projects.
Dr. Berfield’s book is interesting, but I would not put it at ‘remarkably interesting.’ It is essentially a tale at the intersection of labor, capital, and government drawn from the end of the Gilded Age. Reading some of the quotes and passages makes one realize similar problems are still with us. I quoted a section to my post-college daughter, then asked: 1895 or 2020? [In the WSJ, James Grant celebrates the author’s fine writing, but is not keen on her premise.]
The book and your review American Financier encouraged me to seek out a copy for followup. It will go well with the Carnegie bio I recently acquired. Your review was not very positive, but it is probably the best biography out there. Although I may break down and get a paperback of Chernow’s House of Morgan (hardcover copies are priced through the roof).
Andy G. said:
Both Larson & Millard are great narrative nonfiction writers. “The River of Doubt” was an amazing book that really nailed TR the person while focusing on an incredible story within his long life. “The Devil in the White City” is still one of my favorite books of all time. I recommend it to anyone who claims they don’t like history or nonfiction books.
While we’re on the topic of Churchill, I’m wondering if anyone has read Millard’s book “Hero of the Empire” about him.
I did and it was a great narrative as one would expect. After reading Churchill’s accounts of his escape in London to Ladysmith and My Early Life, it was good to see a biographer tackle the journey. The context she provides about life in the British Army during the late 19th century and Churchill’s personality are wonderful.
J. Gonzalez said:
I read Manchester’s 3 volumes on Churchill a few years ago. It was about 3,000 pages total and covered a lot of details over his entire life. I’m not sure I will read this new biography at this time, since I got my fill of Churchill already.
I’m curious what you thought of Manchester – the series is sitting in front of me *begging* to be read although I’ll probably wait a bit before re-visiting Churchill given the large number of folks with potentially great biographies.
Per my note above, just pick up v.2 and read the Prologue. Nothing else. Just the Prologue.
I was happy to see your review of this book, because I’m currently reading it! I’m on page 700-and-something. It’s the first Churchill biography I’ve read (though like you, I’ve previously encountered him in an FDR bio and other books). I actually think it does a great job of revealing Churchill’s wit and personality. But I don’t have other bios to compare it to.
Steve – If you’re looking for narrative flourish, then look no further than William Manchester’s 3 volume set on Churchill and his magisterial biography of Douglas MacArthur, ‘American Caesar’. The third volume of his set on Churchill lacks the same engaged narrative as the first two volumes as he was unable to fully complete the volume.
On another note – I’m currently completing Manning Marable’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography on Malcolm X. This book is quite good and offers a lot of insight into the 1950-1960s Civil Rights movement as well as the internal struggles of the Nation of Islam. You may find this book interesting as well.
Your Machester insight is helpful – thanks! And I do have Marable’s bio of Malcolm X on my “master master list” but until now hadn’t heard from anyone who has actually read it so I’m glad to hear it holds promise!
I will second Jared’s note on Marable’s Malcolm X. It is controversial as it contradicts certain elements/themes of Malcolm’s autobiography. Taylor Branch’s works on MLK still hold the mantle for the civil right narrative in my opinion. Malcolm X illustrates the movement wasn’t necessarily homogeneous.
Christopher Saunders said:
Marable’s book is pretty good. I understand that Malcolm’s family hated it but I thought it was a very balanced look at someone who remains extremely controversial. And yeah Taylor Branch’s books (especially Parting the Waters) are a must-read.
Steve, you are a continued source of wisdom and inspiration for all of us who follow your blog. I share your assessment of Roberts’ Churchill biography. I recently read his Napoleon biography (which I enjoyed thoroughly) and will be curious to read your review when you get around to it.
I am currently reading Richard Norton Smith’s biography on Thomas Dewey and cannot put it down. Dewey is a fascinating figure and I am surprised that he has faded into obscurity. I realize you have quite the list of follow up books, but it is a good read, particularly if you want to read about crime in New York during the 1930’s.
Thanks for everything you do. Stay safe and keep up the good work!
Ray, I appreciate your note and am intrigued by his Napoleon biography (to say the least). Dewey has, indeed, faded into the background and other than a bridge or a highway (I can’t even remember which) I’m not sure anyone born in the last two decades has a meaningful chance of recognizing his name. But he, like dozens of others I ran into reading about the presidents, were huge figures in their time…and quite interesting as you point out. I don’t believe I have Dewey on my master sheet of people to read about, and I hadn’t ever put two and two together to conclude that RNS’s bio of him would be worthwhile – so thanks for making the point! I enjoyed reading Caro’s “The Power Broker” so some of Dewey’s life will be familiar and those were certainly fascinating times!
Humbly disagree. I am not sure what you mean by this book being good literature. The story is engaging and well written. It is not just a listing of facts. It does everything a good biography should do. I think it does a biography better than Washington’s Chernow (which is still great, personally 4 1/2 stars), it presents the facts without holding the readers hand. Washington by Chernow repeatedly analyzes its subject might have thought, might have feeled, or gives judgement on the authors own feeling of a matter. That might make it a more digestible read but it doesn’t let the readers connect the dots for themselves and come to their own conclusions. I agree with many readers that have read dozens of Churchill biographies, that is the best single volume on Churchill written. 5 stars.
The wonderful thing about books (not unlike flavors of ice cream or boxed chocolates) is that different people can take away different things from the same experience. In this particular case I realize I’m swimming against the tide somewhat…but Roberts’s biography of Churchill was too antiseptic for me to consider “perfect” (5 stars). The ultimate test of a great biography for me is whether I can resist putting it down. In this case I found that too easy too often. Loved it as history but only partially satisfying as a way of seeing the world through Churchill’s eyes and becoming engrossed in his life.
Sounds good. That’s what I look for when I rate biographies too. Information dense but reading the book feels like a window into their world. By the end of the book, it feels like I have known the person. Like you said people take away different experiences from books. It might be how they are viewing life at that moment or their current state of mind: are they are happy or depressed? I feel; that really impacts my perspective or enjoyment of a book. For example, I was reading a biography which I was really enjoying didn’t make me “not want to put it down.” I felt like I had to force myself to keep reading. I took a break from it and a couple of years later I picked it up again and then read it every day until I finished it.
This was my first book on Churchill, and it was everything I had hoped it would be, fully realizing that no single volume is going to capture the essence of such a giant in history. I have a few supplemental books to fill in the gaps, including Jon Meacham’s “Franklin and Winston”, and I’ve already read read Candice Millard’s “Hero of the Empire.” I read this ahead of a meet-and-greet with Roberts at the 50th anniversary of the opening of the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri, near where I live. So the book was part of a larger experience for me.
I read Robert’s bio of Napolean as a light-reading break between reading bios of the US presidents. I enjoyed it a lot, but found it a bit dry in places. I didn’t know much about Napolean to start, so that also may have colored my experience. I haven’t read his Churchill book yet, but I heard on NPR that Roberts got access to new archives, some of which revealed more private thoughts about Churchill’s true feelings regarding the alliance with the US, and not all of it was rosy.
Like many others here, I loved Manchester’s trio on Churchill. But having read your site in detail for over 3 years, I actually think you’ll enjoy the first volume tremendously. It covers his early life and sets the foundation for the series.
As an American, I never fully got the gist of the English infatuation with their royalty, but Manchester’s presentation gave me a different perspective on this, and now I think I understand it. Manchester explores Victorian culture and Churchill’s place in it, so later references to Churchill’s being a “man of a different era” really resonates.
As others have suggested, I believe the third book isn’t as lofty as the first two, since Manchester died before it really got going (he had plenty of notes and research prepared). I found it was a solid effort, if not quite as eloquent.
The trio is a broad history, with plenty of context, and Manchester does a fine job of building narrative and telling a great story. By the end of the series, you feel as though you’ve just been through an epic adventure.
David Hanna said:
I didn’t read all the comments above, but my vote for the best biographies of Churchill would be the first two (but not the third) volume of William Manchester’s efforts. Volume II, especially, is one of my favorite books. (I have read it several times as it has an inspirational message.) Then I would switch to Max Hasting’s “Winston’s War” for a continuation of the tale. It does an excellent job of detailing Churchill’s relationship with FDR–not as harmonious as seen at the time (and later). Honorable mention would go to Roy Jenkins’ more than fair single volume given that Mr. Jenkins was a member of the Labour Party.
I enjoyed Mr. Robert’s book, but I did think he went a bit overboard in defending some of Churchill’s dubious decisions. For example, most historians fault WSC for sending troops to aid Greece when the Germans invaded. The mission was doomed from the start. Mr. Robert’s, although acknowledging the disaster, claims it delayed the German invasion of Russia. Most historians believe the delay was caused by bad weather and equipment shortages.
Thanks again for your blog. I visit it regularly and have used your reviews to guide my own reading of US presidents.
While you are now on to biographies, do you have any of Bismarck in your list? I just finished a book on the Franco-Prussian War, and wanted to learn more about the key players.
If anyone else here has any ideas for a good bio on Bismarck, please let me know.
Interesting question…and no, I don’t have a Bismarck bio on any of my lists (published, sticky-note for further follow-up, etc.). I’ll be interested to see if anyone posts a comment with a suggestion-
I read a small biography on Bismarck written by AJP Taylor (<300 pages). Written brilliantly (as expected), provided great information, yet was too short for such a massive historical character. I imagine Christopher Clark's 'Iron Kingdom' on the rise and fall of Prussia from 1600-1947 would cover Bismarck's rule is great detail. Happy hunting!
On another note, I'm reading Kenneth Whyte's new book 'The Sack of Detroit: GM and the End of American Enterprise'. After reading his book on Herbert Hoover, I jumped at the chance to read this new release. Whyte writes very well. Book is combination history of the automobile industry (GM in particular) and the rise of consumer protection (through a mini biography on Ralph Nader). About 1/3 thru…