Sunday, August 16, 2020

Churchill's Novel

Churchill in 1895.
Not yet the bulldog
he became later.
Did you know there were two Winston Churchills? I didn't until recently. I was reading Mencken's A Book of Prefaces (1917) and he kept talking about Winston Churchill as a well-known American novelist. This threw me off. In the usual Mencken way, he referred to Churchill dismissively, as kind of a hack, though maybe not the worst hack. Really? I thought. Churchill? 

I knew Churchill's mother was American, but still this seemed odd. Some googling later and I realized there was an American Winston Churchill (1871-1947) who wrote a bunch of novels and was once upon a time more famous, and the Winston S. Churchill we all know wrote one novel, a Ruritanian romance, in 1897.

I'm a sucker for Ruritanian romances and Project Gutenberg was there for me.

In Savrola, A Tale of the Revolution in Laurania, General Antonio Molara is well on his way to becoming president for life. Five years earlier there was a revolution; Molara led it and seized power. Molara has no real intention of going away. But the country is growing restive and demands the restoration of elections. Molara agrees, but cuts the voter rolls in half, figuring if he can get rid of the wrong sort of voter he can still win an election. (Where have I heard that sort of thing?)

The Reform Committee comes to the presidential palace to register a formal protest but are dismissed with nothing. Savrola is the leader of the Reform Committee. A magnetic figure, with a Europe-wide reputation, Molara needs to know just how close Savrola is to the people who are ready to pick up guns. Arresting Savrola would be bad publicity, possibly dangerous. He sends his wife Lucile, beautiful and lively, to flirt with Savrola and pick up what information she can. Just how far does Molara intend for his wife to go? Lucile assumes it's just to talk to the man.

Savrola knows who the men with the guns are--Strelitz is just across the border with his rebel troops itching to return--but he would prefer a more peaceful change of power. Lucile learns little, though, and returns impressed with Savrola. 

Events intervene.

Laurania is somewhere on the Mediterranean; the names are mostly Spanish-sounding or Italian. The country has a colony on the east coast of Africa, reachable only via the Suez Canal. A crisis precipitated by the U.K. means that the navy has to steam off to solve that. The navy is loyal to Molara; nobody's sure about the army. With the navy leaving, Strelitz crosses the border, and the revolution, against Savrola's wishes, begins. 

Churchill writes well about the house-to-house fighting in the capital; the siege of the palace is well-handled, I thought. Well, he was a war correspondent at the time. The politics are reasonably well thought out. The romance part of it was OK, but not as good. You can see the outlines of the triangle Molara/Lucile/Savrola in my description of the setup, but there wasn't much surprise there. The final ending of the revolution owed more to realism than romance. Anthony Hope (The Prisoner of Zenda, the original Ruritanian romance) has nothing to worry about. At the same time the politics showed nothing of the sophistication found in that novel set in Costaguana

Ah, well. Wikipedia tells me that Churchill wrote in a volume of his autobiography, "I have consistently urged my friends to abstain from reading it." He was doing himself a disservice--it's better than that. If you like the Ruritanian, Graustarkian, Orsinian, Fenwickian sort of story, the Lauranian isn't a bad addition.


  1. how interesting! i think i read at least one of the American WC maybe 40-50 years ago but i've never rassled with the PM one: sounds worthwhile, tho, as i really liked the AH books (have you read the second one in the series about Prince Rupert?) i'll have to download this one, tx...

  2. i forgot to mention the movie of Prisoner, the old black and white one: it's got the greatest sword-fight in it ever filmed...

    1. Rupert of Hentzau is pretty great, too, and I even liked the Princess Osra book, though there was a bit of falling off.

      The Ronald Colman movie is a lot of fun & the sword fighting was great.

  3. What fun! You're quite a dedicated Project Gutenberg reader, it seems. Even though the first epubs I read were classics (which were all that I could easily find when I got my first cell phone), since then, I've felt strange reading classic books on a screen (and now I so rarely read on screen that it's barely relevant) but I love how much is available on their site and in so many different formats!

    1. I prefer reading on paper even to my Kobo, though I find the Kobo OK. I'm really desperate if I'm reading something on my phone.

      It's nice though the things you can get on Gutenberg. If I'd seen a reference to Savrola & it wasn't on Gutenberg I just wouldn't have read it. A physical copy is probably expensive & library copies I suspect are hard to come by.