Easy-Going Procrastinators

Ferdinand Mount

  • Margot Asquith’s Great War Diary 1914-16: The View from Downing Street selected and edited by Michael Brock and Eleanor Brock
    Oxford, 566 pp, £30.00, June 2014, ISBN 978 0 19 822977 3
  • Margot at War: Love And Betrayal In Downing Street, 1912-16 by Anne de Courcy
    Weidenfeld, 376 pp, £20.00, November 2014, ISBN 978 0 297 86983 2
  • The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain’s Rush To War, 1914 by Douglas Newton
    Verso, 386 pp, £20.00, July 2014, ISBN 978 1 78168 350 7

The Prince was walking up and down in silence. He caught me by the hands and said: ‘Oh! say there is surely not going to be “warr” (pronouncing it like “far”). Dear, dear Mrs Asquith, can we not stop it?’ (wringing his hands) … ‘I do not understand what has happened. What is it all about?’

Millions of people then and ever since have shared the bafflement and anguish of Prince Lichnowsky and have asked the same questions. If the Kaiser’s ambassador to London, a warm anglophile, felt so impotent and overwhelmed by events, no wonder the lightning onset of the Great War has remained the historical question of the last hundred years. Or rather questions, for following on the heels of ‘How did it start, and why?’ comes ‘Could it have been prevented? – and if so, by whom?’, ‘Who was to blame?’ and, for the British anyway, ‘Could we have kept out of it?’

No other event has generated such an endless line of huge books, some reaching back to the Franco-Prussian War, others obsessively going over the last few days leading up to the declarations of war on 3 and 4 August. The pace of events is so hurtling, the outcome so tragic, that for all their length most of these books are impossible to put down, and accordingly tend to be received as magisterial masterpieces, although their conclusions may be utterly different from one another. The question is never laid to rest. The hunt goes on for the smoking gun, the killer fact (these often deployed metaphors being the worst possible in the circumstances).

Margot Asquith kept a diary for 47 years, off and on, starting when she was 12 years old. Yet it is only the two and a half years from July 1914 to Asquith’s fall in December 1916 that Michael and Eleanor Brock have chosen to publish. Even within this period, they tell us, they have excluded most of her musings on her family, as well as lists of many of the guests she entertained so frenetically. On the other hand, the book is plumped out by the editors’ introduction of 116 pages, mostly sketching the domestic and international background to the crisis and occupying nearly half as much space as the diary extracts themselves. Margot’s journals too, it seems, are to be conscripted into the hunt for the truth about the war.

At first sight, this is an odd approach, for the Brocks never stop pointing out how ignorant she was, how crass, how deformed by snobbery (she insisted on Asquith shedding the last traces of his Yorkshire accent). Nor do they claim that she possessed an instinctive judgment to make up for her lack of formal education (she spent most of her youth on the hunting field, where she acquired her distinctive broken nose). She has no idea that Britain’s army is only a third the size of Germany’s, she thinks the war will be over in a year, then when it isn’t, she bets Kitchener that it will be over in another six months. Like her husband, she fiercely opposes conscription, then admits she was wrong. In April 1916, she offers the bizarre reflection: ‘I wonder if we have not got too big an army.’ She sees no political future for Winston Churchill with his ‘noisy mind’ and childish egotism, and doubts whether Lloyd George will ever become prime minister (three months before he topples her husband). In fact she starts a new volume of the diary at the end of July 1916 by claiming that ‘Henry’s position in the country and in the cabinet is stronger than it has ever been.’

Despite or partly because of all her defects, the diaries never cease to entertain, and they turn out to be remarkably enlightening too, if not always in the advertised way. Margot Tennant had always possessed the self-confidence and judgmental sweep of someone born to great wealth and social prominence. Her family were pioneers of chemical bleaching. The Tennant plant outside Glasgow was the largest chemical works in the world at the time, and its towering chimney was a famous landmark, known as Tennant’s Stalk. Until her marriage at the age of 30 to the widowed Herbert Henry Asquith, she was proudest of her role as leader of the Souls. She thought that, for all their academic brilliance, Asquith’s children by his first wife, Helen, were poor successors to her own coterie:

The clever group of nowadays is very inferior to my clever group called ‘Souls’. They are sexless and soulless, and so disloyal that they only hang together by a thread of mutual love of gossip and common capacity to say bright things, read bright and blasphemous novels, modern and very moderate poems (which crop up like weeds every day); and an unimpulsive, uninspired, dry desire to go against authority under the name of anti-cant.

Margot was a goose, but she was a hissing goose. While her judgments may not always be acute, they are almost always sharp. Of Mary Curzon, for example: ‘The latter a very good type of decorative West End furniture – beautiful, silly, idle, and wonderfully, amazingly dull; always saying she is a fool and never minding it; never getting accustomed to her beauty, therefore never really interested in anything and with little or no power of admiration.’ Mrs Asquith’s arrogance is often staggering. She treats being the prime minister’s wife as a sort of high constitutional office. When the Zeppelins raid London, she sends for the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police to give her a personal report. When the government is under fire in the newspapers, she instructs the director of the government press bureau to make plans for suspending the Times and the Daily Mail. Her loathing of the reptiles rivals that of a later Downing Street consort, Denis Thatcher. ‘I hate all journalists – it’s a vile profession. Nothing is sacred; even corpses are copy.’

Her social energy and curiosity are so beguiling that at times one regrets the editors’ exclusive focus on the war and begins to wish that they had listened to Margot’s musing that it is possible that her ‘children and great-grandchildren … would rather read about the war in proper books, and hear from me of the kind of clothes and manners, foods and amusements of society than the perpetual political crises’.

Anne de Courcy’s Margot at War is lighter in tone and lacks scholarly pretensions or apparatus. But it conveys Margot’s milieu with a nice touch and takes time away from this enclosed self-regarding world to give us vivid and sharp vignettes of the harder times being experienced by other classes. De Courcy too records very well Margot’s tortured jealousy, not only of her husband’s dalliance with Venetia Stanley but of his daughter Violet’s almost incestuous passion for her father. Not that Margot had any real grounds for complaint. She had, after all, been flirting with Asquith while Helen was still alive. He wrote to her: ‘You have made me a different man and brought back into my life the feeling of spring time’ – just the sort of stuff he wrote Venetia twenty years later. Margot quickly came to believe that Helen was ‘no wife for him. She lives in Hampstead, and has no clothes.’

Yet Margot is anything but smug about herself. ‘Hurting people’s feelings seems to be my prevailing vice … I am haunted by what Mama always said: “Dear Margot! She never improves.”’ She knows why she annoys people so much: ‘Irritability, plus a very keen tongue, gets on other people’s nerves, I find, and bores them … It is really nerves and a devouring energy: I have several skins too few.’ She was quite aware of how mocking her stepchildren were behind her back.

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[*] Thomas Laqueur reviewed The Sleepwalkers in the LRB of 5 December 2013.