Hi, everyone! I hope you are all doing well, and staying safe. With the success of the post on How-to Host a Book-Club with A Gentleman in Moscow, thanks to the author, Amar Towles and Metropol Hotel who have liked the post on Instagram. So, I thought, why not do a book-club kit on The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson.
Best-Selling author, Erik Larson’s latest novel, The Splendid and the Vile, which delivers humour, is well-written and very informative, that is about Winston’s Churchill’s first day as Prime Minister, and how he had brought Britain back from the brink.
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.
Book Club Questions
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 period?
3. Larson draws on many sources to provide a vivid picture of Churchill’s home and family life in his first year as prime minister. What struck you most about his family dynamic? Considering how powerful he was at the time, was his relationship with his family what you would have expected it to be? Why or why not?
4. Churchill’s most trusted advisers spent many long days and nights with the prime minister, so much so that they became like members of his family. Why do you think Churchill had such close relationships with his political advisers? What do you see as being the key advantages and disadvantages of running a government office in this way? Which of Churchill’s political relationships was the most interesting to you?
5. Larson provides various perspectives in the book, from diaries by Mary Churchill and Mass-Observation participants to the inner workings of both Churchill’s and Hitler’s cabinets. How did these different perspectives enhance your understanding of life in 1940 and 1941?
6. Reading about how war was waged and discussed by the public in 1940, do you see any similarities to how we talk about warfare today?
7. How did you feel reading about the raids? How would your daily life and your priorities change if your country were experiencing similar attacks with such frequency?
8. The book includes anecdotes about a vast array of characters around Churchill, such as his daughter-in-law Pamela, his children Randolph and Mary, and his wife, Clementine. What are the benefits of including various stories about the people related to Churchill—like Pamela’s affair, or Randolph’s gambling habits—in a book discussing his first year in office? Which of these characters did you find to be the most interesting? The most surprising?
9. Mary Churchill recounts the evening when the Café de Paris—where she and her friends had planned to go dancing—was bombed. After the initial shock, her group decides that the dead would have wanted them to continue their evening of gaiety and dancing elsewhere, and they move on to another location. What did you think about this choice? What do you think you would have done in their situation?
10. Discuss Mary Churchill’s portrayal in the book. Do you feel she grows and matures throughout this tumultuous year? Why or why not?
11. What was the most surprising thing you learned about Churchill? Why did it surprise you?
12. While England rationed food, gasoline, and other supplies during the war, Churchill and his cabinet received extra provisions. What did you think about this policy? Do you think government officials are justified in implementing such measures during a time of crisis? Why or why not?
13. Were there any decisions Churchill made over the course of his first year as prime minister that you disagreed with? If so, which? Which of his decisions were you most impressed with?
14. Do you think there has been another leader as universally beloved in their day as Churchill was in his? If so, who? If not, why not?
Hosting Inspiration for The Splendid and the Vile
Churchill and his guests regularly enjoyed Champagne. Whether you and your guests are enjoying a Pol Rogers, a Churchill favourite, or if you wanted to mix it up by incorporating champagne cocktails, then you will love these!
Pol Roger Brut Champagne
And, to top it off with Churchill’s favourite dessert, Stilton-Stuffed Baked Pears.