Between the Lines: Churchill’s True Views of Shaw

In addition to Best’s biography, the other work we relied on in Dr. Deveney’s Winston Churchill Writing Seminar was a book by Churchill himself: Great Contemporaries.  Each chapter is a short biography of another leading figure during the interwar years (the time when Churchill was writing).  It’s an excellent read, and this along with my next series of posts contains some of my pieces reacting to some of Churchill’s chapters.

What are words worth?  Surely, fiction is not to be taken literally.  Metaphors are clearly not to be taken at their word, but what of nonfiction?  When Winston Churchill published a collection of essays on those he deemed the Great Contemporaries of his time, was he being strictly literal throughout?  In his essay on George Bernard Shaw, Churchill uses some relatively positive language.  But to assume that Churchill personally liked Shaw is a mistake: Churchill’s feelings towards Shaw were nothing more than respect for a distinguished playwright.

The many who argue that Churchill admired Shaw have plenty of weapons at their disposal.  First of all, Churchill valued Shaw enough to include him in his book Great Contemporaries.  The title itself is enough indication that Churchill certainly held Shaw in high regard.  Churchill, a talented and well-paid journalist for all his life, certainly admired Shaw’s success with the pen.  Not only were Shaw’s plays critically acclaimed, they remained relevant across generations.  When Churchill finally had the chance to meet Shaw and talk to him, the former was thoroughly engaged by the latter, [1] no small fact considering Churchill’s gift of gab.  The two were, at different times of course, honored as Nobel Laureates in Literature.  Even the international community has deemed these two brothers.

But such evidence is merely a summation of pieces of data.  It is a collection of individual facts with little to no context.  To be so bold as to declare to know the inner workings of Churchill’s mind, who he liked and admired, requires more than the ability to copy and paste.  First, consider Churchill’s description of Shaw’s character.  For two pages, Churchill details a list of Shaw’s seemingly endless dualities and inconsistencies.[2]  This begs the question: could Churchill admire so fickle a man?  Churchill, the politician who risked his career not once, but twice, by choosing to change party affiliation rather than to sacrifice his personal beliefs and vote en masse. [3]  And what of Shaw’s political beliefs: surely a career statesman takes those into consideration when choosing friends.  Churchill notes that Shaw was, “a sincere Communist.”[4]  Even a novice historian can ascertain that Churchill detested communism with all his heart. [5]

To be fair, Shaw is not the only person Churchill had personal qualms over.  Consider the poor Mahatma: Churchill decried him as a fakir on the floor of Parliament almost daily![6]  At least Churchill respected Shaw; that goes uncontested.  It is when the line between observation and assumption is crossed that a higher level of analysis is required.  Churchill was a boastful and egotistical man.  From young age to old, regardless of what he was accomplishing at the time, Churchill firmly believed that even more greatness was in his future.[7]  In this light, perhaps Churchill’s lack of admiration for the great George Bernard Shaw is more a reflection of Winston Churchill himself.

[1] Winston Churchill, Great Contemporaries (Oxford: Macmillan and Co Ltd., 1942), 33.

[2] Ibid., 37-38.

[3] Geoffrey Best, Churchill: A Study in Greatness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 20-22.

[4] Churchill, Contemporaries, 38.

[5]Best, Churchill, 96-97.

[6] Ibid., 135.

[7] Best, Churchill, 12.