Then and Now, 1906
This review was first published in the TLS of January 5, 1906.
With a single exception, Lord Randolph Churchill’s rise to the first place in the House of Commons is the most dazzling personal triumph in English Parliamentary history. No parallel can be found to it except that which goes far beyond a parallel, the amazing victory which, exactly a hundred years before, the genius and courage of a boy of twenty-four won over the united forces of all the veterans of the House of Commons. That achievement stands alone; and its equal is not likely to be found, even though the House of Commons should live another five hundred years. But such parallel as there is anywhere is to be seen in the career of Lord Randolph Churchill. In January, 1781, Pitt was only a proud boy, who had inherited the greatest of all political names. Three years later he was Prime Minister. In 1881 Lord Randolph Churchill was the leader of a party of four, and he and his party were the established political joke of the day. In 1886 he was the leader of the House of Commons, with every eye fixed on him as the man of the future. But there, except for the brevity of the two lives, the parallel ends altogether. The swiftness of Pitt’s rise to power was scarcely more remarkable than the tenacity with which he retained it. Lord Randolph’s fall was even swifter than his rise. And it was final. When Pitt died in 1806, of the forty-six years of his life nearly twenty had been passed as Prime Minister. Lord Randolph was also on the point of being forty-six when he died; but he had known only a year of office and only six months of power. Perhaps the story that Mr Winston Churchill tells in this book loses nothing from the sense of the impending catastrophe which must be in the mind of every one who reads it. There is, indeed, in Lord Randolph’s career a comedy, a history, and a tragedy; a comedy of irresponsible youth — Blenheim Hariers, and rehearsals at hunt dinners of the “Jack the Giant Killer” impudences, which were afterwards to stagger more important assemblies; next, from 1883-86, a history in which, with Napoleonic vigour, speed, and ruthlessness, he transforms his party, leads it to victory, and becomes himself the most powerful man in England; and then, from 1887 to 1895, a tragedy in which those ancient forces — fate and a too free will — both play their parts, till the curtain falls on the last sad months in which the indomitable courage of the victim only increases the pain of those who watch him die. Never was there a case in which we so inevitably think the thoughts which an obscuror political tragedy drew from Burke: — “What shadows we are, and what shadows we pursue.”