As the only daughter of Herbert Asquith (Prime Minister 1908-1916) and the stepdaughter of Margot Asquith (leading light of the Souls), Violet Bonham Carter was catapulted straight into the heart of Edwardian society and British politics. Her letters and diaries, admirably noted and edited, provide a most lively and entertaining commentary on both, and prove that, as regards intellect and wit, she was easily the equal of her four brothers, who were famed for their scholarship and charm.
The closeness of her early relationships with her father and brothers (borne out in frequent affectionate letters) goes some way to explain her later fearlessness and ease amid masculine society, an ease which sometimes led her into hot water. With the exception of Venetia Stanley (with whom her father was to conduct his own intense correspondence), her friendships and correspondents were almost exclusively male. Margot Asquith, whom Asquith married when Violet was four, plays a significantly offstage role in this volume.
In 1904 seventeen-year-old Violet found herself living in Paris (the first of many bouts of travel Germany, Italy, Switzerland, America, the Sudan, were to follow) accompanied by her brother ‘Oc’ (Arthur) and a maid, taking meals the Casaubons’ famous pension, attending classes at the Sorbonne and enjoying, or rather enduring, visits to the Rothschilds’ chateau, whose stultifying atmosphere of hothouse luxury (‘Semitic patronage and hot rooms, constraint and orchids and champagne’) was anathema to her. Already she writes with remarkable sophistication – fluent and vivid, with a gift for the bon mot and the well-turned phrase. A few years later some uncongenial fellow guests are described as ‘lying about marringly like orange peel by the sea’.
In 1905 she came out, a rite of passage which she entered into with gusto:
The human side of life is to me so intensely, engrossingly interesting; I feel unless one was possessed with rare creative faculties and could contribute something new to the thought or art of the world one ought to measure the success of one’s life by the amount of love one had given and taken, by one’s capacity for establishing oneself quickly on a personal basis with all with whom one comes into contact… I can see no horizon to my powers of loving (as yet!) and ‘corning out’ gives scope and freedom and the power of mapping out more or less one’s own life.
Along with the balls and the weekends in such grand houses as Taplow and Stanway came a court of admirers.
Violet soon discovered that ‘establishing oneself quickly on a personal basis’ entailed unwelcome proposals of marriage, or ‘lashers’ as she called them (one of the incidental pleasures of this volume is the airing of such Edwardianisms – a ‘dentist’ was a tête-a-tête of which Violet was particularly fond). Repeated ‘lashers’ came from Arnold Ward, Felix Cassel, Hugh Godley, Lord Compton; all became devoted correspondents, even in rejection. Occasionally, the emotional strain became too much – ‘I feel momentarily in utter collapse from balls and tears and lashers,’ she writes to Venetia Stanley in 1907.
Exactly where Violet’s own heart lay is not always clear. But in 1909 Archie Gordon, the son of Lord Aberdeen, was fatally injured in a car accident and the two became engaged as Archie lay dying (though only months before she had seriously considered a ‘lasher’ from Hugh Godley). Their twenty-four hours of romantic, deathbed bliss are described with cloying, but excusable, sentimentality: ‘I told him how proud I was of his heroism and how like a knight he had covered my name with glory by his prowess.’ Violet, although aware of Archie’s fineness of character in life, became deeply devoted to him in death, conducting a curious posthumous romance in her diary, which henceforth is addressed to him – ‘My Own darling’ – in letter form. She set up a boy’s club in Hoxton in his memory. Only in 1913 does Archie fade from her diary, while her letters to Maurice Bonham Carter (whom she married in 1915) take on a more urgent note of affection.
Her passion for friendship was equalled by that for politics. As a staunch supporter of her father and of Liberalism, she took, from 1911, to campaigning and speech-making herself. The suffragette movement, opposed by Asquith, was a particular bête noire with Violet, despite her sex and her love of independence. On several occasions she physically defended her father from suffragette attacks, once administering a timely ‘wrist-twist’, which she records with satisfaction.
‘I haven’t either patience or self-control enough to hover for long on conventional borderlands where mutually uninteresting opinions are delivered on. mutually uninteresting subjects – people might as well be lumps of blancmange.’ Her refusal to ‘hover’ lead her to judgments of lightning speed and withering content (often later revised). Of Lord Crewe (friend and adviser to her father), she writes: ‘I give him 20 for Impossibility. Besides looking as if he’d been made in Harvey and Nichols he never utters a word except to say ‘Really’ and ‘Isn’t it?’ I tried him on every subject – Ireland – sense of humour – the Papacy – sleeping out of doors – mangos – wearing jewels in one’s teeth – or teeth in one’s jewels – and had a more dismal failure than I can ever remember.’ She was just nineteen at the time. She is similarly dismissive of Lloyd George and Roosevelt.
Winston Churchill, on the other hand, was an admired friend. She greeted the news of his engagement to Clementine Hozier (referred to as an ‘ornamental sideboard’) with initial coolness: ‘Winston confided to me that Clemmie had more to her than met the eye. I thought I got out rather well from a point of view of combined truth and emollient as I cloyingly reiterated –“But so much meets the eye!”’ She was, no doubt, as entertaining in person as she is on the page.