In 1897, the young (23 year old) Winston Churchill, on an ocean voyage from Britain to India to rejoin the army in the Malakand campaign of 1897, turned his pen to fiction and began this, his first and only novel. He set the work aside to write The Story of the Malakand Field Force, an account of the fighting and his first published work of non-fiction, then returned to the novel, completing it in 1898. It was serialised in Macmillan’s Magazine in that year. (Churchill’s working title, Affairs of State, was changed by the magazine’s editors to Savrola, the name of a major character in the story.) The novel was subsequently published as book under that title in 1900.
The story takes place in the fictional Mediterranean country of Laurania, where five years before the events chronicled here, a destructive civil war had ended with General Antonio Molara taking power as President and ruling as a dictator with the support of the military forces he commanded in the war. Prior to the conflict, Laurania had a long history as a self-governing republic, and unrest was growing as more and more of the population demanded a return to parliamentary rule. Molara announced that elections would be held for a restored parliament under the original constitution.
Then, on the day the writ ordering the election was to be issued, it was revealed that the names of more than half of the citizens on the electoral rolls had been struck by Molara’s order. A crowd gathered in the public square, on hearing this news, became an agitated mob and threatened to storm the President’s carriage. The officer commanding the garrison commanded his troops to fire on the crowd.
All was now over. The spirit of the mob was broken and the wide expanse of Constitution Square was soon nearly empty. Forty bodies and some expended cartridges lay on the ground. Both had played their part in the history of human development and passed out of the considerations of living men. Nevertheless, the soldiers picked up the empty cases, and presently some police came with carts and took the other things away, and all was quiet again in Laurania.
The massacre, as it was called even by the popular newspaper The Diurnal Gusher which nominally supported the Government, not to mention the opposition press, only compounded the troubles Molara saw in every direction he looked. While the countryside was with him, sentiment in the capital was strongly with the pro-democracy opposition. Among the army, only the élite Republican Guard could be counted on as reliably loyal, and their numbers were small. A diplomatic crisis was brewing with the British over Laurania’s colony in Africa which might require sending the Fleet, also loyal, away to defend it. A rebel force, camped right across the border, threatens invasion at any sign of Molara’s grip on the nation weakening. And then there is Savrola.
Savrola (we never learn his first name), is the young (32 years), charismatic, intellectual, and persuasive voice of the opposition. While never stepping across the line sufficiently to justify retaliation, he manages to keep the motley groups of anti-Government forces in a loose coalition and is a constant thorn in the side of the authorities. He was not immune from introspection.
Was it worth it? The struggle, the labour, the constant rush of affairs, the sacrifice of so many things that make life easy, or pleasant—for what? A people’s good! That, he could not disguise from himself, was rather the direction than the cause of his efforts. Ambition was the motive force, and he was powerless to resist it.
This is a character one imagines the young Churchill having little difficulty writing. With the seemingly incorruptible Savrola gaining influence and almost certain to obtain a political platform in the coming elections, Molara’s secretary, the amoral but effective Miguel, suggests a stratagem: introduce Savrola to the President’s stunningly beautiful wife Lucile and use the relationship to compromise him.
“You are a scoundrel—an infernal scoundrel” said the President quietly.
Miguel smiled, as one who receives a compliment. “The matter,” he said, “is too serious for the ordinary rules of decency and honour. Special cases demand special remedies.”
The President wants to hear no more of the matter, but does not forbid Miguel from proceeding. An introduction is arranged, and Lucile rapidly moves from fascination with Savrola to infatuation. Then events rapidly spin out of anybody’s control. The rebel forces cross the border; Molara’s army is proved unreliable and disloyal; the Fleet, en route to defend the colony, is absent; Savrola raises a popular rebellion in the capital; and open fighting erupts.
This is a story of intrigue, adventure, and conflict in the “Ruritanian” genre popularised by the 1894 novel The Prisoner of Zenda. Churchill, building on his experience of war reportage, excels in and was praised for the realism of the battle scenes. The depiction of politicians, functionaries, and soldiers seems to veer back and forth between cynicism and admiration for their efforts in trying to make the best of a bad situation. The characters are cardboard figures and the love interest is clumsily described.
Still, this is an entertaining read and provides a window on how the young Churchill viewed the antics of colourful foreigners and their unstable countries, even if Laurania seems to have a strong veneer of Victorian Britain about it. The ultimate message is that history is often driven not by the plans of leaders, whether corrupt or noble, but by events over which they have little control. Churchill never again attempted a novel and thought little of this effort. In his 1930 autobiography covering the years 1874 through 1902 he writes of Savrola, “I have consistently urged my friends to abstain from reading it.” But then, Churchill was not always right—don’t let his advice deter you; I enjoyed it.
This work is available for free as a Project Gutenberg electronic book in a variety of formats. There are a number of print and Kindle editions of this public domain text; I have cited the least expensive print edition available at the time I wrote this review. I read this Kindle edition, which has a few typographical errors due to having been prepared by optical character recognition (for example, “stem” where “stern” was intended), but is otherwise fine.
One factlet I learned while researching this review is that “Winston S. Churchill” is actually a nom de plume. Churchill’s full name is Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, and he signed his early writings as “Winston Churchill”. Then, he discovered there was a well-known American novelist with the same name. The British Churchill wrote to the American Churchill and suggested using the name “Winston Spencer Churchill” (no hyphen) to distinguish his work. The American agreed, noting that he would also be willing to use a middle name, except that he didn’t have one. The British Churchill’s publishers abbreviated his name to “Winston S. Churchill”, which he continued to use for the rest of his writing career.
Churchill, Winston S. Savrola. Seattle: CreateSpace, [1898, 1900] 2018. ISBN 978-1-7271-2358-6.