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.

The portrait that emerges from these discursive pages, like the one by Edmund Dulac that glowers from the dust-jacket, is less than alluring. According to her nurse, Margot was ‘highly strung’ from infancy: ‘she attempted feats beyond her strength and screamed with frustration when she failed.’ Growing up in a plutocratic household, where self-indulgence was encouraged and petulance tolerated, she ‘became used to doing more or less what she liked’. Her father’s election to Parliament in 1879 netted invitations from ‘everybody of importance’ and, in turn, filled the Tennant establishments with an array of glittering guests. Margot naughtily contrived to lure some of the most eminent, including the venerable Gladstone, upstairs to her bedroom for a philosophical tête-à-tête after lunch. Wilfrid Scawen Blunt caddishly boasted that he was enticed to ascend the stairs for sexual services, happily rendered, but Mrs Bennett will have none of that. To be sure, Margot delighted in flouting convention, which was anyway in the process of change: but she was fundamentally a nice girl, respectful of her parents’ wishes, repelled by promiscuity, and chaste almost to the point of frigidity. Perpetually falling ‘in and out of love’, which did not require physical requital in her case, she later insisted to Arthur Balfour that ‘I was no man’s mistress and never had a lover in my life.’

Margot and her beloved sister, Laura, conspired that they would both marry young, especially after a gypsy fortune-teller had proffered assurances that Margot was destined to be the wife of a prime minister. Laura’s turn came first. In 1885, she married Alfred Lyttelton, Gladstone’s dashing nephew. The following year, she died in childbirth. Margot would surely have resented any man who came between her and Laura, but supposedly took particular offence at Lyttelton’s crude racial prejudices. Significantly, however, that did not prevent her from saying of Nancy Astor that she was ‘blessed with the thickest of nigger skins’. Mrs Bennett, content to accept Margot’s testimony, does not confront such contradictions.

Shattered by her loss, Margot turned to social work for solace and distraction. It was a common response on the part of unmarried Victorian ladies, who discovered poverty and engaged in charitable activity as a wholly respectable and potentially ennobling pastime. Looking back on her own ‘apprenticeship’, Beatrice Webb recognised its similarity with Margot’s early experience. But Beatrice, coming from a family of comparable size and material comfort, combined greater dedication with a more profound understanding of the problems at stake. To alleviate her personal grief, Margot volunteered to read aloud to the female employees at Clifford’s Box factory in Whitechapel during their lunch breaks ‘three days a week when she was in London’. As frequently as she could manage, though, she was away from the metropolis, at her father’s Scottish retreat, where the air was more salubrious and ‘the days ... passed undemandingly.’ For Margot, the welfare of the working classes was strictly a matter of convenience. Mrs Webb, who credited her with ‘intelligence and wit’ but ‘neither intellect nor wisdom’, was infuriated to hear Margot exclaim across a dinner table in 1903: ‘Why change the present state of things – all is well.’ Mrs Bennett scarcely carries conviction when she contends that the ostentation of Edward VII’s court appalled Margot, who found it, her biographer claims, ‘alien to the climate of the times, which was one of industrial deprivation and unemployment’.

Too much inclined to take Margot’s effusions at face value, the author tends to echo them in her gushing prose. The effect is to exaggerate a phenomenon that exaggerated itself and to romanticise the romantic. Margot, whose heart leaps alternately with joy and terror, was ‘torn between her natural longing to be happy and carefree again, and a belief that it was wrong to be dragged too quickly from her mourning’ for Laura. She threw herself upon friends, who ‘illuminated darkness and sorrow with light and the warm glow of life’. The members of her set were known as ‘Souls’ by virtue of ‘a moral and religious ambition’ that Margot did not hesitate to ascribe to them. At the same time, she also resumed her equestrian pursuits in the dangerous company of Peter Flower, twenty years her senior and absolutely Soulless. ‘Flying through the air on a big and powerful horse which she could only just handle gave Margot the feeling that she was living life to the full,’ Mrs Bennett breathlessly tells us. That ‘winter love’, as Margot wistfully called her passion for Flower, had melted by the summer of 1891, when Alfred Milner was competing for her affection. Milner had the intellectual distinction to make Margot ‘feel a little too dependent on information to talk well’. He dedicated a book to her, and was shocked when she reciprocated by sending him Flower’s love-letters to read.

‘You must marry,’ advised Lord Dufferin, ‘but you must never marry because but in spite of being in love. You are far too clever, my dear Margot, not to be helping some man.’ Margot had recently met Asquith, who was already married to a homebody who ‘lives in Hampstead, and has no clothes’. Suddenly, Asquith’s wife died, leaving him with five young children to raise. Within the year, he was appointed Home Secretary in Gladstone’s fourth and final administration. He soon proposed to Margot in terms that she could readily accept:

A wild horse cannot be tamed in a day. I don’t want you to alter ... You will have to give up much – every wife has; but the things you sacrifice shall be as few in number and as unessential and unvital to your nature as I can make them ... The only other thing I ask you today is that you should feel free.

As a Privy Councillor, Asquith felt obliged to solicit royal approval for the match. ‘How curious that he should ask if my consent is required to his marriage,’ noted Queen Victoria. ‘If this was required, the Queen would not give it as she thinks her most unfit for a Cabinet Minister’s wife.’

Like the Queen, Asquith’s friends were not amused. Edward and Dorothy Grey joined the couple for a ‘funny visit’ to Cloan, Haldane’s house in Perthshire, where Lady Grey was embarrassed by the tastelessness of Margot’s repartee. Haldane, steadfastly devoted to the memory of the first Mrs Asquith, never ceased to blame her successor for having led his friend astray. ‘London society came ... to have a great attraction for him,’ Haldane reminisced in his Autobiography, ‘and he grew by degrees diverted from the sterner outlook on life which he and I long shared.’ In the draft version, Haldane had included the telltale words ‘particularly after his second marriage’. Mrs Gladstone, Margot’s ‘Aunt Pussy’, lectured her ‘too severely’, while Gladstone himself suggested an appeal for divine assistance. ‘Gladstone thinks my fitness to be Henry’s wife should be prayed for like the clergy,’ fumed Margot. ‘Almighty and Everlasting God, who alone workest great marvels!’

Herbert Henry Asquith, nicknamed ‘Bertie’ by his parents, had been Herbert to his first wife. Margot, disdaining that name as being too common, refashioned him as Henry. With a generous allowance from his new father-in-law, he was able to keep her in the style to which she was accustomed and which he frankly enjoyed. True to his word, he did not try to limit her freedom as either a horsewoman or a clothes-horse. Nor did he reprove her for indiscreet pronouncements, too often interpreted as his private opinions. She stoked his ambition as his first wife would never have done, worshipped him as infallible, and was said to have chosen ‘the wallpaper for 10 Downing Street’ long before they took up residence there in 1908. Less happily, she whetted his thirst for brandy and, as Lytton Strachey maliciously asserted, transformed ‘the middle-class legal Don’ into ‘a viveur, who carried a lot of liquor and was lecherous with the ladies’.

A better stepmother than anyone could have anticipated, Margot gave birth to two children and endured three unsuccessful pregnancies. After the third, ‘she and Henry had separate rooms, so in one respect their marriage ended in 1907.’ Mrs Bennett calculates that ‘she left her husband’s bed after only 11 years of marriage’ – which makes all the more poignant the advice that she gave in 1923 to ‘Cimmie’ Mosley: ‘Dear child, you look very pale and must not have another baby for a long time. Henry always withdrew in time, such a noble man.’ Perhaps that was what qualified him to be thought the last of the Romans.

Sir Oswald Mosley, who gleefully purveyed this story, was ‘left pondering the effect of this private exercise on public affairs’. Asquith, he would have agreed, was as much a practitioner of coitus interruptus in politics as in the bedroom. Predisposed to staving off decisions, he preferred to ‘wait and see’. Mrs Bennett does not rate him very high as a statesman, especially after the outbreak of war. His fault, she oddly reasons, was increasingly to look beyond Margot for counsel and encouragement. Instead of utilising her proved ability for ‘handling people and awkward situations’, Asquith entrusted his secrets to the bosoms of younger confidantes. His reliance upon them, more detrimental than most of his biographers would concede, made him reckless and vulnerable. In particular, Venetia Stanley’s ‘unfeeling attitude deserves more condemnation than it has received’, for it inflicted far greater anxiety than Margot admitted.

Here the author is on shaky ground. No specialist in political history, she may be forgiven for pre-dating Gladstone’s conversion to Home Rule or Balfour’s to protectionism. Her descriptions of Irish controversies are terribly muddled, and she misspells the names and confuses the party labels of minor figures. More to the point, she vastly overestimates the value of Margot’s intrusions into diplomatic and Parliamentary affairs, including her usefulness ‘as a go-between when Asquith was difficult to get hold of’. Pushed aside, Margot ‘was never given a chance to persuade her husband to be merciful’ in the Casement affair, nor could she warn him against the portentous folly of appointing Lloyd George to the War Office. In a sense, or so we are invited to believe, her fall prefigured his own.

Better-equipped to deal with Margot’s relationships with couturiers than with the complexities of high politics, Mrs Bennett flounders in her treatment of pre-war constitutional disputes and post-war alignments. Had she read Lord Beaverbrook’s three-volume history, which she omits from her bibliography and mistakenly assumes to be a collation of diary extracts, she might have grasped (among other things) the absurdity of Margot’s alliance with H.A. Gwynne, editor of the ultra-Tory Morning Post. From A.J.P. Taylor’s biography, another startling omission, she might have discovered that the Asquiths gratefully received an annuity from Beaverbrook. Her single reference to the General Strike, which set the stage for Asquith’s removal from the Liberal leadership, relates to Margot’s hysterical fear that soft woollen undergarments would be in short supply if the conflict lasted. Margot’s enthusiasm for Neville Chamberlain and his policies of appeasement, diametrically opposed to her stepdaughter Violet’s stand, is glossed over.

Raymond, the eldest of Margot’s stepchildren, remarked that she ‘says and does things that you never forget, and remembers things that you never say or do’. That tendency was heightened with the passing years of adversity until, as Lord David Cecil concluded, she betrayed an ‘inability to distinguish between reality and fancy’. Her immediate impressions of people were sometimes alarmingly acute, but her impressions of events were more often faulty and never more so than when she strenuously maintained that she was delivering the truth. For Mrs Bennett to rely so heavily on Margot’s published and unpublished writings is to run the risk of double jeopardy. However vigorously she puts the case for Margot’s uniqueness, she herself does not seem to realise quite how unique Margot actually was. No prime ministerial spouse has come close to matching her audacity, self-possession or bravura. It is to fiction that one must look to find her equivalent. Trollope’s Lady Glencora, by then Duchess of Omnium and the wife of a prime minister, was well aware that ‘people abused her and laughed at her. They said that she intrigued to get political support for her husband, – and worse than that, they said that she failed. She did not fail altogether ... She had not become an institution of granite as her dreams had fondly told her might be possible; – for there had been moments in which she had almost thought that she could rule England by giving dinner and supper parties, by ices and champagne. But in a dull, phlegmatic way, they who ate the ices and drank the champagne were true to her ... There was just enough of success to prevent the abandonment of her project which she so often threatened, but not enough to make her triumphant.’ Margot, if not her biographer, would have understood perfectly.