What better reason to take a break from my Victorian history research than a newish book by Erik Larson? This is the fourth of his books I’ve read, and he is by far the most galvanic author of accessible history I’ve encountered. His books adhere to G.K. Chesterton’s old idea that the point of history writing shouldn’t merely be to provide facts and speculate on causes, but to give readers a sense of how it felt to live at a certain time.
The Splendid and the Vile puts you in the shoes of Londoners who lived through the Luftwaffe air raids. It’s not a Churchill biography, though many of the events are examined through the lens of his family and inner circle. It provides plenty of fascinating perspective on the wartime prime minister, but avoids most moral judgements about his character, which is probably wise.
Instead, this book, like all of Erik Larson’s work, focuses on vivid moments. The preface includes a warning that parts of the narrative will feel like fiction, but that no facial expression, gesture, dialogue, or emotion is included without drawing on a firsthand source.
I’m blown away (no pun intended, I swear) by Larson’s ability to find just the right sources for the right moments. You can hear statistics on how many tons of munitions were dropped during a certain raid, which national monuments were destroyed, and even how many people died. But the reality of war remains an abstraction until Larson provides a firefighter’s account of digging through the rubble of a sculptor’s studio and finding marble body parts sticking out of the debris, heads and arms glowing pale in the moonlight.
Larson also has a flawless sense of narrative rhythm, as good as any novelist’s. He could have layered tragedy upon tragedy to build his bleak picture of war-torn London. This story is not only about desolation, however, but about resilience and family. Larson staggers the accounts of air raids with descriptions of ordinary life: people fall in love, have picnics, go to dances.
Sometimes those human moments reinforce the tragedy, like the account of a debutante’s ball cut short when a bomb landed on the venue mid-dance. But then, sometimes the opposite occurs. The horrors of war yield to nobler things, like the saga of Churchill’s daughter, Mary, who risked her life to pursue meaningful causes outside the influence of her family. She wouldn’t have discovered that hidden strength and bravery if it wasn’t for the war.
People are at their best and their worst when faced with disaster.
Larson also reveals the rhythm of struggle between the allies and the axis. The viewpoints alternate between Churchill with his champions and Göring with his. There is stroke and counterstroke; offense and defense; success, disaster, and rebuttal. Erik Larson unveils the war of propaganda that unfolded alongside the dropping of physical bombs, and shows how it is the nature of bullies to pretend to be victims.
Ultimately, I think half the reason I’m drawn to histories of tumultuous times is because of what they reveal about people. The other half, as weird as it sounds, is that I find them reassuring: reading about the darkest moments in history reminds me that, no matter how bad things get, they’ve been bad before. In fact, they’ve been worse.
The main thing, if you’ll let me misquote Tolkien, is for all of us to decide what we’re going to do with the time we’ve been given.
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