About the Author
Michael Dobbs served as one of the chief advisors to Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and has also been a BBC presenter, Deputy Chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi, and columnist for the Mail on Sunday, and during the Watergate years, a correspondent working in Boston for The Boston Globe. His previous novels include the bestselling House of Cards which was made into a highly popular TV series in England. He has a doctorate in nuclear defense studies, and lives not far from a prominent church in Longshire.
Reading Group Guide
In this stunning novel, political insider Michael Dobbs brings alive the curmudgeon persona of Winston Churchill. It is 1941, a year of desperation for England battered by the war. Churchill has only one hope, that the U.S. will come to his country's aid, but Roosevelt is unable to do so because America is wedded to isolation.
The prime minister's agony is compounded by a very personal dilemma. Pamela, the wife of his dissolute son, Randolph, has fallen in love with FDR's special envoy to England, Averill Harriman. With England threatened by a German invasion and a desperate Russia devastated by the advancing Nazi onslaught, Churchill must convince America his cause is theirs. How he does so is so damning he will take the secret to his grave. Following his acclaimed Churchill novels Never Surrender and Churchill's Triumph, Dobbs' taut reimagining makes England's feisty prime minister jump off the page.
1. Dobbs writes that Churchill’s “gastronomic demands were notorious,” and that while “the prospect of starvation hovered over every meal” for the rest of the country, the kitchen table in Churchill’s house was “piled high like that of a medieval court,” filled by “an entire smoked salmon, half a dozen lobsters, and several pots of duck terrine.” And that’s just the first course. Do you think that there is a reason for leaders to live by different standards during a war, or that this is simply an abuse of power?
2. Randolph Churchill’s dissolute behavior is a product of “the pampering of the privileged class.” Yet Winston Churchill’s father was an influential politician, and Winston was raised in the same upper class environment as his son. Are the differences between father and son caused simply by different genetic temperaments, or do you think there are deeper reasons for the huge gulf between their behaviors?
3. Randolph says the Americans have bled the English dry and “filched every last penny from our pockets.” While Winston never uses language as strong, he too clearly feels the Americans are being less than generous. Do you think the US was taking advantage of a country in desperate straits, and couldn’t reject whatever terms it was offered? Or that the Americans were being the best friends they could be without entering the war?
4. Churchill is completely comfortable with half-lies and often massages the truth. As valuable and necessary as this skill was for Churchill then, would you want a political leader today to act in the same way?
5. Churchill says that America “worships before the alter of Mammon,” the New Testament term for material wealth and greed. If it was true then, do you think the same could be said of the United States today?
6. What do you think of Churchill’s relationship with his servants? Did his apparent view of the lower-class strike you as a relic of colonial-era attitudes, or is he a broader-minded character?
7. Throughout the book, many people believe that Churchill’s ideas about the war are wrong, and he has crippling moments of self-doubt. What gives him the strength to continue with the conviction that he was right?
8. Warfare destroys priceless artifacts in the form of great churches, works of art, and other objects of deep symbolic value and beauty. Many believe these things belong to our global heritage. Should an enemy be conscious of their value to mankind and avoid their destruction during times of war?
9. In modern warfare, staying alive seems to be largely a matter of luck; no one can survive the deadly explosion of a bomb, or predict where it will land. How does this affect the psyche of the British people, and of Churchill himself?
10. At one point, Dobbs describes government officials who disagreed with Churchill as “abandoned housewives queuing up to complain over the garden fence.” With bombs dropping over England, and no sign of victory on the horizon, it seems this metaphor does not quite do justice to the seriousness of these officials’ complaints. Do you feel that Churchill gives short shrift to people with viewpoints different than his own?
11. Unfaithfulness is a recurring theme in the book. There are many reasons for Pamela’s unfaithfulness to her husband, Randolph: his abusive and unloving treatment of her, the extreme stress of London during the blitz. Can you imagine an event or excuse that legitimizes deceiving someone close to you?
12. Churchill’s betrayal is even greater than Pamela’s. If you had been in Churchill’s position, would you be able to forgive yourself for looking the other way while many innocent men from a friendly nation were slaughtered, in order to save your own country?
13. Churchill’s words are stirring. They bring confidence to a tired and battered country. Are there any contemporary leaders who you feel have this same gift for oratory? Do you feel this gift is an asset in a politician, or that it is used to distract us from the very real problems we face?
14. When Churchill sees Averell Harriman fall for Pamela, he has to decide which principal is more important, loyalty to his country, or loyalty to his family. Do you think his act should be read as a political decision, or an act of generosity toward a woman he knew was treated cruelly by his own son?