No Man’s Mistress

Stephen Koss

  • Margot: A Life of the Countess of Oxford and Asquith by Daphne Bennett
    Gollancz, 442 pp, £12.95, May 1984, ISBN 0 575 03279 0

Christened Emma after her mother, whose later influence upon her was slight, the 11th of Sir Charles Tennant’s 15 children – three were born after he had remarried at the age of 75 – was to become famous and indeed notorious as Margot. W.E. Gladstone, allegedly more captivated by the challenge of the rhyme than by the personality of the 25-year-old woman who visited him at Hawarden in 1889, composed four stanzas of decidedly un-Homeric verse, each revolving around her name: ‘Though young and though fair, who can hold such a cargo/Of all the good qualities going as Margot?’ George Curzon, a Soulmate nearer her own age, was moved that same year to proclaim that, however ‘wide you may wander and far go ... you never will beat’ the wit of dear Margot. (‘Emma’, presumably, would have posed a dilemma for both of them.) Gladstone also resorted to ‘far go’, but won higher marks by extending his ‘argot’ to embrace ‘embargo’. For all his ingenuity, however, the Grand Old Man did not use ‘farrago’, a term which Daphne Bennett’s new biography shows to have been singularly apposite.

Although Margot wrote no fewer than seven assorted books about herself, she has hitherto lacked a full-scale biographical appraisal. One of the reasons, more daunting to serious scholars than the illegibility of her handwriting, has been the unavailability of certain sources. Margot kept a diary, from which she quoted tantalising passages in her memoirs. At one point, she considered publishing it, possibly with a preface by Mary Gladstone Drew, whose ‘spiky’ response inspired second thoughts. In the event, Margot decided to reserve her diary as a ‘hostage against misfortune, the one thing her children might be able to turn into money ... when times were hard’. Those children, Elizabeth (Princess Antoine Bibesco) and Anthony (‘Puffin’), both died without cashing in on this legacy. The diary, accompanied by an undisclosed quantity of private correspondence, thereupon passed into other family hands. Mark Bonham Carter, who holds the copyright, permitted Michael and Eleanor Brock to consult – but, one may infer from their cautious phraseology, not to draw directly on – these materials in the course of preparing their splendid edition of Asquith’s letters to Venetia Stanley. Others have been allowed comparable privileges, but the archive technically remains closed. There have been welcome rumours that Mr Bonham Carter will either edit or commission a published version of the diary. Meanwhile, as Gladstone might have put it, Margot stays under embargo.

Consequently, Mrs Bennett has worked under a serious disadvantage, though she hasn’t seen fit to complain. The best one can say is that she has produced a necessarily interim account, likely to require substantial revision when the diary ultimately surfaces. To compensate for this glaring deficiency, she had deployed a wealth of previously unpublished letters which she located in other manuscript collections, principally at Oxford. Had she carried her research to the House of Lords Record Office in London or the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, to cite only two possible destinations among many, she would doubtless have found additional items sufficiently important for her to modify and even to retract some of her judgments. But Margot scribbled her nocturnal letters so profusely and so redundantly, invariably in pencil and seldom with dates affixed to them, that Mrs Bennett’s lucky dip works well enough at a superficial level.

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