Name a British Edwardian of high rank and I probably am interested in them. Margot Asquith, wife of the Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith, and step-mother to Violet (Asquith) Bonham-Carter, the overthrown love of Winston Churchill and future Grandmother of actress Helena Bonham-Carter. Add in Anne de Courcy, as author and you have a must-read for me. Sadly, it languished on my shelf. Looking for an audio for this past week’s commute, I found it on Hoopla through my library.
The Asquiths photo credit
Margot Tennant met Herbert Asquith at a dinner party (Cue Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary in season one asking “How many times must I marry the man I sit next to at dinner?” and mother, Cora replying, “As many times as it takes.”) He was widowed, with young children. She was free-spirit with a group of friends who came to be known as “The Souls.” He, by comparison, was a rube, but a powerful one. She waffled about marrying him, partly due to his daughter, Violet, who since her mother’s death had had her bed in her father’s room and was his main confidant in spite of being young enough to require a nanny’s care. Her other hesitations were two former loves–both “Souls.” Eventually the married and like, another much younger Prime Minister’s wife who also sat next to her future husband at a dinner party (Clarissa Churchill Eden) she began doing the wifely behind-the-scenes work of a politicians career: sucking up, entertaining, letter writing, spinning, and schmoozing. In spite of her reservations, she came to adore her husband. Sadly, daughter Violet almost never left them alone.
Free-spirited to the core, Margot even insisted on calling her husband by his middle name, “Henry,” since she did not like “Herbert.” His first wife had based their lives in the family home, outside the world of society (“She lives in Hampstead and has no clothes” was how Margot explained HH’s former life), Once properly introduced into real London society, HH took off–and in many ways, left Margot behind. Thanks again to daughter Violet, he went on to fall in love with her bestie, Venetia Stanley, a move that nearly destroyed Margot. In spite of this, and in spite of spending about as much time alone with their own children as Charles and Diana spent together before marriage, the couple had their times of happiness. Margot thrived on politics and loved being involved in the gamesmanship of it. They also had great sadness of another kind: Like another later aristocrat of much renown (Debo Mitford aka Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire) Margot had a horrible time losing 3 out of her 5 children. It was the life-threatening effects of another pregnancy and the doctor’s order of “no more [fun]” that spurred HH to “pounce” on Venetia. (Today HH would be looked at the way the Left looks at Trump with women}.
I came to all but loathe HH, but I could also see why Margot adored him. The power, the position, the charm, the deepness with which he fell in love, his sense of romance–used for good or bad they were all attractive points. I also felt sorry for Margot and the legions of other women whose life depending on an empty side of the bed at night. Women, as was told in the book, were seen as fraught and emotionally unbalanced. Well, ya think? [Fun at night] is an important part of physical and mental health. How pathetic that though both were needed to cause a life-threatening pregnancy, only the one spouse was expected to remain celibate? Margot, who could go a bit overboard in things, realized, big-heartedly, that HH being under such stress in 10 Downing needed that blessed release. As she was also under a mountain of stress, I’m sure it would have helped her outlook too! In her diary, quoted in the book, she remembers “what fun” they had had in bed together. How she kept from killing step-daughter Violet, I’ll never understand. I’m afraid HH and I would have had a very “fraught and unbalanced” come to Jesus meeting over that little minx very soon after marriage–if not before! Boundaries much, H?
Violet and HH at the wedding of his daughter Violet to Edwin “Bongie” Bonham-Carter. The bride and groom would eventually be the grandparents of actress Helena Bonham Carter. Bride Violet has her arm around pageboy Randolph Churchill, son of Winston and Clementine. Photo credit.
Anne de Courcy is one of my favorite social historians. She nails it every time. I also have Margot’s diaries and so plan to skim them a little this weekend for added insight and fun of another kind.
4.0 Stars [or should that be 4 red dispatch boxes??]
Margot at War: Love & Betrayal in Downing Street, 1912-1916 by Anne De Courcy is currently on sale for Kindle for $3.99. The author’s other books are also on sale for Kindle right now.
For more on “The Souls” see Those Wild Wyndhams