Erik Larson, The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of
Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz
Copyright © Erik Larson 2020
ISBN (hardcover) 978-0-385-3871-3
Erik Larson has a deserved reputation for writing excellent works of non-fiction (In the Garden of Beasts; The Devil in the White City among others) and The Splendid and the Vile may be his best yet. He takes us on an almost day-by-day trip through the period from the collapse of the British and French armies in 1940 to the U.S. entry into the war in 1941. His focus is on England—where the people, from the famous (Churchill) to ordinary citizens of London and other cities are challenged by the destruction and death (29,000 dead, another 29,000 injured) and destruction (Coventry basically destroyed; thousands of homes and businesses destroyed in cities throughout England) resulting from the bomber raids that struck the country continually. But in emphasizing the effects on England, he does not neglect the German side of the equation, relying heavily on Göbbles’ diary entries for insights into how Germany saw the war.
What makes The Splendid and the Vile so striking is the wealth of material available, mostly from diaries and letters, that allows us to follow the events as the appeared to the people experiencing them, not as they might be recalled years later. But there is a cost to this reliance, albeit a minor one: the voices are mostly those of the powerful and the rich. There was an organized effort by the government (and I am blanking on the agency) to acquire information from the population in general. Whichever agency it was recruited a fairly large number of people to participate in the “Mass Observation” diary” project (which actually began in 1938); the diarists were often prompted to respond to specific events. But the story is mostly that of the rich, the powerful, and the well-connected.
And Larson tells the story very well. For the 500 pages of the text, my interest did not wane; despite knowing how the story ended, the level of detail, and the mix from very personal stories (falling into and out of love; dances and parties) to high strategy kept me engaged throughout.
That’s not to say that it is perfect. I’ve mentioned the almost inevitable concentration on the upper classes. Most of the deaths, most of the injuries, and (probably) a disproportionate share of the suffering, were not among the elite. And, although we know that Larson is not trying to write a history of the war, he’s trying to capture the period in which the outcome was truly unknown, the ending seemed to me to a disappointment. But one thing that I truly did moss was and attempt to provide any visuals to accompany the text. I realize that including photos with the text would have added much to the length and expense of producing the book, but there is (these days) an option: Create a website with a collection of photos and link to that through a url in the book.
Whatever reservations I have, however, The Splendid and the Vile is truly a splendid book.