Churchill, the “Sham Augustan”

Winston Churchill’s reputation seems to be enjoying yet another renaissance. This may be due to political leadership fatigue in the English-speaking world. A recent book and two films are the latest examples of Churchilliana. An issue of The Tablet from earlier this month has a review of Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom by Thomas Ricks. In his review, Christopher Bray writes:

Ricks’ mission is to convince us that his two “vastly dissimilar” subjects were in fact cut from the same cloth. The high-born Tory romantic and the socialist scholarship boy were united in their belief that the twentieth century’s big- shot ideologues wanted to sound the death knell on individual freedom.

Another link is found in their writing careers:

In the end it’s literature that really yokes these two men together. Though they relied on very different tics and tricks, both were highly influential stylists. Orwell, who said that he wanted his prose to be “like a window pane” through which the reader would get an unadulterated view of the world, is the father of all subsequent serious journalism. Churchill was a more ornamental writer (Evelyn Waugh scorned what he called his “sham-Augustan prose”), but for all his rhetorical overdrive he had a way of cutting through.

Thanks to Milena Borden for sending a link to this article.

Two films of Churchill’s life are scheduled for this year. The first (entitled simply Churchill) has already been released and was recently reviewed on a weblog called Grouse Beater. Churchill is played by Brian Cox who receives high marks from the blogger, but the review has a few concerns about historic accuracy. The blogger also points out that:

Churchill was not well liked in his day. The novelist Evelyn Waugh disliked Churchill intensely. Through a character in his trilogy The Sword of Honour, Waugh’s alter ego, Guy Crouchback calls Churchill “a professional politician, a master of sham-Augustan prose, a Zionist, an advocate of the popular front in Europe, an associate of the press-lords and of Lloyd George”.

The other film Darkest Hour stars Gary Oldman as Churchill and will be released later this year. This will focus on the early days of WWII when there was a real threat of German invasion. The Brian Cox film seems to consider and contrast Churchill’s roles in both world wars.

For the most thorough explication of Waugh’s attitude toward Churchill, see the article by the late John Howard Wilson on this subject in Waugh without End, p, 247. Here’s what Wilson says (p, 251) about the charge of “sham Augustan” prose:

Churchill was fond of parallellism and abstraction, like many Augustan writers. Waugh believed that style was a matter of period, so any modern imitation was only “sham.”

Several critiques of Churchill’s historical writings are quoted from Waugh’s essays and letters to support his point.

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