London: George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd., 1933. First edition, first printing. Hardcover. This is a full, four-volume set of first printings of the British first trade edition of Winston Churchill’s monumental biography of his great ancestor, John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough. The edition is physically impressive. The books measure 9.25 x 6.25 inches (23.5 x 15.9 cm) and are roughly 2 inches (5.1 cm) thick. Each is bound in plum cloth with beveled edges and the Marlborough arms in gilt on the front cover. Moreover, each volume is profusely illustrated, bound with headbands, and gilt top edge. Unfortunately, the plum cloth binding of Volumes I-III proved highly susceptible to sun fading.
This full, four-volume British first trade edition set is reasonably elusive thus, very good overall featuring first printing volumes, all retaining a respectable amount of their plum hue on the spines. The volume I binding shows moderate overall scuffing, but compensates with clean contents that show only the most trivial hint of spotting, primarily confined to the fore and bottom edges. The sole previous ownership indication is an inscription “The Headmaster | from the Chairman” with attendant dates of “1930-32” and “1939-41” on the front free endpaper. A tiny Belfast bookshop sticker is affixed to the front pastedown. The gilt top edge is scuffed, the fore and bottom edges uniformly age-toned. Volume II shows some light overall scuffing and a little soiling, with a vertical strip of differential toning along the front cover fore edge. The contents are crisp and bright with no previous ownership marks. Trivial spotting appears confined to the first and final leaves and fore and bottom edges. The gilt top edge is still bright, the fore and bottom edges uniformly age-toned. Volume III shows light overall scuffing, small stains to the upper spine, and half a dozen small, shallow punctures on the rear cover that do not penetrate through the rear pastedown. The contents retain a crisp feel with light spotting to the first and final leaves and fore and bottom edges. The top edge gilt remains bright. Volume IV is the cleanest of the four volumes, the binding sharp with only trivial scuffing and mild spine toning. The contents are bright and crisp. Light spotting appears confined to the fore and bottom edges. The top edge gilt is bright and clean. The sole previous ownership mark is a surname inked on the front free endpaper recto. All four volumes are protected beneath clear, removable, mylar covers.
Marlborough was conceived a full 40 years before publication of the final volume. Churchill originally considered the idea of the biography in 1898, returning to it in earnest in 1928. Marlborough ultimately took 10 years of research and writing and is the most substantial published work of Churchill's "wilderness years" in the 1930s, which he spent politically isolated, often at odds with both his own party and prevailing public sentiment. Churchill passed into his sixties with his own future as uncertain as that of his nation. It is perhaps not incidental that Churchill’s great work of the 1930s was about a great ancestor. Churchill may have wondered more than once if the life history he was writing might ultimately eclipse his own.
It has been said that "To understand the Churchill of the Second World War, the majestic blending of his commanding English with historical precedent, one has to read Marlborough.” The work was well received. Two months after Volume I was published, T.E. Lawrence wrote to Churchill: “Marlborough has the big scene-painting, the informed pictures of men, the sober comment on political method, the humour, irony and understanding… discipline and strength: and great dignity. It is history, solemn and decorative.” When Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953, it was partly for “mastery of historical and biographical description” on the strength of Marlborough, which was specifically cited and quoted by the Swedish Academy.
Reference: Cohen A97.2(I-IV).a, Woods/ICS A40(aa), Langworth p.166. Item #006808