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Summary and book reviews of The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson

The Splendid and the Vile

A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz

by Erik Larson

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson X
The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson
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  • Published:
    Feb 2020, 608 pages

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Book Summary

The #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Devil in the White City and Dead Wake delivers a fresh and compelling portrait of Winston Churchill and London during the Blitz.

On Winston Churchill's first day as prime minister, Adolf Hitler invaded Holland and Belgium. Poland and Czechoslovakia had already fallen, and the Dunkirk evacuation was just two weeks away. For the next twelve months, Hitler would wage a relentless bombing campaign, killing 45,000 Britons. It was up to Churchill to hold his country together and persuade President Franklin Roosevelt that Britain was a worthy ally—and willing to fight to the end.

In The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson shows, in cinematic detail, how Churchill taught the British people "the art of being fearless." It is a story of political brinkmanship, but it's also an intimate domestic drama, set against the backdrop of Churchill's prime-ministerial country home, Chequers; his wartime retreat, Ditchley, where he and his entourage go when the moon is brightest and the bombing threat is highest; and of course 10 Downing Street in London. Drawing on diaries, original archival documents, and once-secret intelligence reports—some released only recently—Larson provides a new lens on London's darkest year through the day-to-day experience of Churchill and his family: his wife, Clementine; their youngest daughter, Mary, who chafes against her parents' wartime protectiveness; their son, Randolph, and his beautiful, unhappy wife, Pamela; Pamela's illicit lover, a dashing American emissary; and the advisers in Churchill's "Secret Circle," to whom he turns in the hardest moments.

The Splendid and the Vile takes readers out of today's political dysfunction and back to a time of true leadership, when, in the face of unrelenting horror, Churchill's eloquence, courage, and perseverance bound a country, and a family, together.

Chapter 44

On a Quiet Blue Day

The day was warm and still, the sky blue above a rising haze. Temperatures by afternoon were in the nineties, odd for London. People thronged Hyde Park and lounged on chairs set out beside the Serpentine. Shoppers jammed the stores of Oxford Street and Piccadilly. The giant barrage balloons overhead cast lumbering shadows on the streets below. After the August air raid when bombs first fell on London proper, the city had retreated back into a dream of invulnerability, punctuated now and then by false alerts whose once-terrifying novelty was muted by the failure of bombers to appear. The late-summer heat imparted an air of languid complacency. In the city's West End, theaters hosted twenty-four productions, among them the play Rebecca, adapted for the stage by Daphne du Maurier from her novel of the same name. Alfred Hitchcock's movie version, starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, was also playing in London, as were the films The Thin Man and the ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
In order to provide reading groups with the most informed and thought-provoking questions possible, it is necessary to reveal certain aspects of the story line of this book. If you have not finished reading The Splendid and the Vile, we respectfully suggest that you do so before reviewing this guide.
  1. The book's title comes from a line in John Colville's diary about the peculiar beauty of watching bombs fall over his home city: "Never was there such a contrast of natural splendor and human vileness." How do you think a tragedy like this could be considered beautiful? Why do you think Larson chose this title?
  2. The Splendid and the Vile covers Winston Churchill's first year in office. What are the benefits of focusing on this truncated time...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Erik Larson is not capable of writing anything less than a gripping account of historical events as he has already demonstrated in his past books. This one is no exception. I found myself emptying the dishwasher and thinking, I can't wait to get back to WW2 (Peggy A)! Lots of World War II novels and histories have been published lately, but Larson's is a compulsive, stay-up-way-past-bedtime read. He makes Churchill's political brinkmanship so thrilling, it's easy to forget everything you learned about history and turn each page waiting to see how each maneuver will turn out (Sarah M)...continued

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Media Reviews

Washington Post
Larson, sadly, falls for the old propaganda, rendering this a rather old-fashioned book. He carelessly uses England and Britain interchangeably, never bothering to explain the subtle but important semantics of a diverse kingdom. He writes of Hitler’s bombing campaign against England, as if Welsh and Scottish cities were not also attacked....The Splendid and the Vile reveals the dangers of an author parachuting into a dramatic moment of British history without a full understanding of the context.

New York Times
Through the remarkably skillful use of intimate diaries as well as public documents, some newly released, Larson has transformed the well-known record of 12 turbulent months, stretching from May of 1940 through May of 1941, into a book that is fresh, fast and deeply moving.

Lit Hub, "Most Anticipated Books of 2020"
This book is peppered with eye-popping details...A deeply compelling work of history...Without resorting to heroism, it makes one long powerfully for real leadership.

NPR
There are many things to admire about The Splendid and the Vile, but chief among them is Larson's electric writing. The book reads like a novel, and even though everyone (hopefully) knows how the war ultimately ended, he keeps the reader turning the pages with his gripping prose. It's a more than worthy addition to the long list of books about World War II and a bravura performance by one of America's greatest storytellers.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
[P]ropulsive...While the story of Churchill's premiership and the Blitz have been told in greater historical depth, they've rarely been rendered so vividly. Readers will rejoice.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
A captivating history of Churchill's heroic year, with more than the usual emphasis on his intimates.

Booklist (starred review)
Larson's skill at integrating vast research and talent for capturing compelling human dramas culminate in an inspirational portrait of one of history's finest, most fearless leaders.

Reader Reviews

Christine P. (Gig Harbor, WA)

Dense and Detailed
When I saw that Erik Larson was writing a book about Winston Churchill and his first year as Prime Minister, I was thrilled. This past fall I was in London and visited the Churchill War Rooms so it was an opportunity to revisit what I had seen and ...   Read More

Claudia G. (Orange City, FL)

Churchill & family during the Blitz
Erik Larson, author of the "Devil in the White City" has, once again, made a memorable period of history come alive for readers of all ages. "The Splendid & the Vile" documents Churchill and his family's experiences during the Blitz. Larson shows ...   Read More

Eileen C. (New York, NY)

Churchill and the Blitz
It is easy to forget that the outcome of World War Two wasn't inevitable and that the United States wasn't particularly eager to become involved. Larson has written a gripping, well-researched book which humanizes historical figures who have become—...   Read More

Kathrin C. (Corona, CA)

On the Brink
Erik Larson will take you on a meticulous backstage journey through Winston Churchill's opening year as Prime Minister just as WWII breaks all out. And he does it in such a way that will totally engage you to revisit the Blitz that nearly brought ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

The Bombing of the Café de Paris

Café de Paris Erik Larson's The Splendid and The Vile recalls how the Café de Paris, a London nightclub, was bombed shortly before Winston Churchill's daughter, Mary, arrived there for a planned night of dancing.

The incident, which killed at least 34 people and wounded many others, was part of the Blitz, a prolonged bombing effort carried out by the Germans against the United Kingdom during WWII that lasted from September 7, 1940 to May 11, 1941. The bombs that struck the Café de Paris were dropped on the evening of Saturday, March 8, 1941. Other bombs were dropped that night in the general area of the West End where the club was located, between Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus.

The Café de Paris had previously catered to...

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