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Churchill’s Novel Savrola (Part 2)
Savrola: continued from Part 1
Savrola is not primarily an imaginative novel that entertains the emotions. As Churchill acknowledged, it was “destitute of two elements which are rather popular…squalor & animal emotions. But for all that I have hopes it may be attended with some success.”40
First and foremost, Savrola is a dramatic account of Churchill’s philosophical understanding of the principles of reason governing democratic statesmanship. In letters to his mother written at the time, he makes this clear: “All my philosophy is put into the mouth of the hero.”41 In fact, the hero Savrola is in some sense a philosophic type whose living quarters are described as “the chamber of a philosopher.”42
Moreover, at least 50% of the most noteworthy volumes in Savrola’s library are by philosophers. Schopenhauer and Kant vie with Hegel, as well as Plato. In his description of Savrola’s character, Churchill repeats the distinction he made in his own education between metaphysical/religious and moral/ political philosophy—and his preference for the latter. He distinguishes between the philosopher understood either as a “frigid, academic recluse” or as “a man, a human man, who appreciated all earthly pleasures, appraised them at their proper worth, enjoyed, and despised them.”43
Savrola is presented as the more human philosopher. His reflections include both public actions—the people’s affairs—and the private activity of watching the stars, to come under the “power of the spell that star-gazing exercises on the curious, inquiring humanity.”44 But the two realms of philosophical inquiry are not of equal worth to Savrola. His metaphysical investigations into nature and the afterlife occur only intermittently, usually at night. They come apart from the public world, as he tells Lucile Molara, when the rest of Laurania is asleep.45
Prudence and self-discipline
Savrola concedes that “to live in dreamy quiet and philosophic calm in some beautiful garden, far from the noise of men and with every diversion that art and intellect could suggest, was a more agreeable picture.” But this is not his preferred view of the philosophic life.46 The metaphysical and religious dimension of philosophy is secondary. Savrola tries to settle “all the problems of the universe.”47 By preference, and temperament, Savrola is more a man of political action.
Churchill’s draft title was Affairs of State, and the Macmillan’s serialization sub-title was A Political and Military Romance.48 These suggest Savrola is more inclined to nurture a “wise and philosophic character” in a life of public action. There, “ambition was the motive force.”49 The effect of philosophic reflection on Savrola’s “vehement, high and daring” temperament is more readily reflected in his public deportment, which is “calm and serene as ever.” His words are “studiously moderate.” He expresses distaste for “blind enthusiasm and devotion.”50 “I contain myself,” he says, “when nothing is to be gained by giving way.” This demonstrates the moral and political benefit from moderate self-discipline based on philosophical self-knowledge.51
Savrola’s political prudence is best expressed in his preference to see Laurania’s ancient civic liberty restored and extended by democratic, constitutional means. He agrees to use force against the tyrannical Molara only as a last resort. Even then he tries to restrain it, and to avoid the extreme of killing Molara. His attachment to the constitutional perspective distinguishes him from the radical extremes of the despotic President Molara and the communist Kreutze.
Five pairings of the classics
The moderation of a politically ambitious yet morally restrained Savrola derives from his sober, “balanced education.” This Churchill describes as the Pantheon of Literature.”52 Savrola’s books are arranged on his library shelves in a deliberate sequence of five pairings. These reflect his (and Churchill’s) understanding of the human condition.53
In the first pairing, the philosophers Kant and Hegel, armed with their metaphysical systems of humanity’s moral and political progress, are separated (thus divided and weakened) by the pessimistic and individualistic will-to-power perspective of Schopenhauer. Then, as if to indicate that an even more extreme optimism is possible, Hegel’s work jostles the memoirs of Saint-Simon, the radical secular architect of perfect social order, and “the latest French novel.”
Next come two modern fictional works supporting Schopenhauer’s pessimism about any improvement of the human species. They are Rasselas, with its critique of unwarranted optimism about happiness and perfection, and La Curée, with its realist expose of human corruption.
The third and middle pairing combines Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire with Boccaccio’s Decameron. Together they provide a continuous account of the decline of morality from the Roman Empire through the Renaissance.
In the fourth pairing Charles Darwin’s optimistic but tough secular account of the origins of species and the survival of the fittest offsets the pessimism of the ancient Biblical account of creation, man’s fall and the need for divine salvation.
The catalogue of books ends with Plato’s Republic, and its teaching that the just life brings happiness. This is counterbalanced by Thackery’s tale, in Vanity Fair, of Becky Sharp’s corrupt but happy life. Alongside is Lecky’s equally pessimistic History of European Morals.
Moral and political balance
Savrola’s library encompasses a range of perspectives about the human condition and its possibilities for improvement or decline. These have been entertained throughout the history of our civilization. Essentially, the books move from the most modern philosophical and literary works to the most ancient Christian theological and Greek philosophical perspectives. The theme unifying the pairings seems to be the question of whether or not humanity can and will improve. On this, of course, there have always been diverse opinions.
The central, and thus perhaps the most important work for Savrola is Gibbon’s history of Rome’s decline. Like Roman history itself, Gibbon mediates between the modern and ancient sources of civilization. Gibbon separates the metaphysical works of the first two pairings from the moral and political works of the last two. In metaphysical matters, Savrola-Churchill seems to prefer the most pessimistic modern perspective. On moral and political matters, he respects the pagan and Biblical views of human nature, tempered by Darwin and Thackery.
Overall, the library conveys the impression of Savrola’s civilization as a dialogue of counterbalancing perspectives about human conditions. It marks an educated man whose reading of such balanced works balances his expectations about the possibilities for moral and political perfection.
Gibbon vs. Macaulay
Churchill was impressed with Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, less so with Macaulay’s History of England. He read both while composing Savrola.54 It is not immediately clear how these works on ancient and modern empires influenced his novel’s composition. Laurania is presented as a city more comparable to an ancient Greek polis than to the Roman or British empires. It is a republic rather than a monarchy. Yet Savrola’s efforts at restoring Laurania’s ancient civic liberties do come to mind in Gibbon. In the last line of Savrola, Churchill quotes the historian: “Such princes deserved the honor of restoring the republic, had the Romans of their days been capable of enjoying a rational freedom.”55
Likewise, Savrola’s leadership resulted in the democratization of Laurania, just as Macaulay’s England gave birth to what Churchill calls in his Malakand Field Force “the Imperial Democracy of England.56 But, the real connection of Savrola with these historians concerns political decline, and the possibility of its reversal.
On his way back to England from India, Churchill hoped to spend a few days in Italy. To his mother he refers to Rome. It is “the Imperial City around which my reading for so many months has centered.”57 Churchill understood Gibbon’s claim that the fall of Rome was “a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth.”58 Likewise, Churchill saw Macaulay’s England as parent of the empire to which he dedicated his life, which he believed might succeed Rome as the greatest ever known. The challenge for Britain was to avoid repeating Rome’s decline and fall.
Is Savrola Savanarola?
In his first political speech at Bath, Churchill seems to dismiss those who view Victoria’s Jubilee year as the zenith of England’s glory and power.59 In the novel, Lucile tells Savrola that the presumption of modern nations about the permanent triumph of their moral superiority over barbarism is no more enlightened than that of the Romans, who “in the summit of their power thought that, too.”60 Savrola agrees, but suggests that the Romans were mistaken because they had only their swords to fall back on. For Savrola/Churchill, modern civilization can be more enduringly triumphant.
Churchill’s political antidote to civilizational decline seems clear. It is the message of a democracy—which Rome never was—organized and unified by the exceptional leader. In the novel, this is Savrola and his leadership of Laurania’s democratic movement.
It is impossible to miss the striking similarity between Savrola and the Renaissance Florentine democrat Savonarola.61 Both are of a small city, not an empire. Both restore the original republic and its ancient liberties by overthrowing adictator: Molara or Medici. Both rely on the power of rhetoric to unify their forces. Both establish a more democratic political order.
Moreover, the name “Laurania” recalls not only the laurel Romans used to honor triumphs, but the Laurentian Library of the Medici family. Their patronage nurtured the same life of learning in Florence that Savrola found in his own library. Finally, both Savonarola and Savrola enjoy an intensely private life of eros, be it through religious contemplation and prayer, philosophical reading, contemplation of the stars, or love of a woman.
To restore liberty
Churchill is never specific about his sources for the location and characters of his novel.62 We cannot rule out the possibility that he intended to associate the Florentine and Lauranian situations. Savrola’s library includes Boccaccio’s Decameron, which takes place near Florence, reflecting Churchill’s interest in the political life of post-Roman Italy. Also, Churchill announced to his mother in April 1898 that among his next writing projects would be a biography of Garibaldi, the popular 19th century democratic revolutionary.63
Clearly Churchill is preoccupied at this time with the challenge confronted by the popular leaders Savonarola or Garibaldi who, in post-Roman Italy, headed democratic efforts to restore and extend ancient Roman liberties, and who encountered resistance from the democratic population they would benefit and elevate.
Dr. Powers is editor of an upcoming new edition of Savrola including the famous 1950 woodcut illustrations by André Collot. This three-part article is based on his introduction.
Patrick Powers, “Savrola, Part I: Polestar of a Statesman’s Philosophy.”
Antoine Capet, “Savrola: Churchill’s Novel and Its Most Beautiful Appearance.”
40 Randolph S. Churchill, ed., The Churchill Documents, vol. 2, Young Soldier 1896-1901 (Hillsdale, Mich.: Hillsdale College Press, 2006), 884.
41 Ibid., 779, 815, 840. See also 878, 924.
42 Winston S. Churchill, Savrola, Second American Edition (New York: Random House, 1956), 31.
44 Ibid., 34.
45 Ibid., 82-87, 116-19.
46 Ibid., 32.
47 Young Soldier, 925.
48 For “Affairs of State” see Young Soldier, 779, 922, 924, 931, 936, 942. For the subtitle “A Political Romance,” see 942 and “Savrola,” Macmillan’s Magazine, May 1899, 67.
49 Savrola, 28, 32, 52.
50 Ibid., 26, 28.
52 Ibid., 30f.
54 James Welldon, his old Harrow Head Master, advised Churchill that Gibbon was the greatest of historians: Young Soldier. 682, also 714, 724-37, 746. For Macaulay see Ibid., 724-30, 733f, 742, 746, 757.
55 Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. I (New York: The Modern Library, 2003), 70. Hereinafter cited as Gibbon, History.
56 Winston S. Churchill, The Story of the Malakand Field Force (New York: Norton, 1990), Chapter 9.
57 Young Soldier, 749.
58 Gibbon, History, vol. 1, 1; vol. 2, 1457.
59 Young Soldier, 774.
60 Winston S. Churchill, Savrola, p. 82.
61 Pasquale Villari, “Girolamo Savonarola,” Encyclopedia Britannica (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1966), vol. 20, 21-24.
62 Young Soldier, 942. Churchill never followed through on adding a Latin motto regarding his selections of materials. At one point, he says that all the names are provisional, but that he intends to make them all Austro-Bulgarian names and to localize Laurania on the Balkan Peninsula: Young Soldier, 931, 942. At the same time, Churchill refers to Laurania as “my hypothetical state”: Young Soldier, 779, 815. In fact, the names are a mixture of Balkan, Italian, French, German, Spanish and Portuguese. Indeed, while composing Savrola, Churchill refers in correspondence to the Portuguese Ambassador to London, Soveral, and the Portuguese military leader in the Africancolonies, Colonel Machado. These Portuguese names are very close to Savrola especially, but also perhaps Molara. See Young Soldier, 776.
63 Young Soldier, 922.