Aubade before Breakfast

Tom Crewe

  • BuyBalfour’s World: Aristocracy and Political Culture at the Fin de Siècle by Nancy Ellenberger
    Boydell, 414 pp, £30.00, September 2015, ISBN 978 1 78327 037 8

Virginia Woolf’s body was still undiscovered, lodged under Southease Bridge, when Margot Asquith, approaching eighty, published her personal tribute in the Times. The two women had been friends of a sort (Leonard disapproved): both were leading lights in famous circles of famous friends; both possessed a conversational brilliance liable to be iced with cruelty, an intensity threatening always to pitch into dangerous hilarity. Margot remembered her first sighting of Virginia, standing with Vanessa at a garden party at the Stephens’ house at Hyde Park Gate, both sisters beautiful, ‘dressed in white muslin, with grass-green ribands round their waists’. Perhaps in that moment, or more likely in this much later one, Margot identified that young woman, shrinking under the conquering gaze of Sir Leslie, as a younger version of herself, the one she dramatised in her novel Octavia, ‘brought up in an atmosphere of Scotch austerity’ but with ‘a spiritual side to her nature which … tugged at her like a kite at the end of a string’.

George Wyndham, Margot Asquith.
George Wyndham, Margot Asquith.

‘When I read of Parnell or Lasalle or smaller men who have arrested attention,’ Margot confided in her diary in her twenties, ‘I feel full of envy, and wish I had been born a man. In a woman all this internal urging is a mistake; it leads to nothing, and breaks loose in sharp utterances and passionate overthrows of conventionality.’ Her own achievements, first as a waspish socialite and later as an unsuitable political wife, seemed to confirm this as a bitter truth; but Virginia’s, now set out cleanly before her, showed that a woman’s genius, however embattled, could assert itself in lasting accomplishment. A sense of waste and loss – her own – breathes between the lines in Margot’s tribute; in her last letter to Virginia she told her that ‘at one time I was arrogant enough to think that I was the hostess at the festival of life, but that now I was not even a guest, and there was no “festival”. I added that when I died I hoped she would write my obituary notice … as that might make me famous.’ Still, Margot was Margot, and she couldn’t resist damning herself by telling the story of her first visit to the Woolfs’ house in Tavistock Square: ‘I did not realise at that time that when you are working you do not wear pretty clothes so I said to her: “Were I as beautiful as you, I would wear prettier clothes.”’

This memorial might be taken as an unwitting comment on ‘the Souls’, the gilded group of friends of whom Margot Asquith was in 1941 almost the last survivor, as well as on their governing mantra: to treat ‘light subjects seriously and serious subjects lightly’. Comprised principally of members of the Tennant, Balfour, Wyndham and Lyttelton families, connected and compacted by marriage and blood, the Souls spent upwards of four decades from the early 1880s ambulating between each other’s country homes and London town houses, playing intellectual parlour games and nibbling at the edges of philosophical debate, sometimes in the company of Oscar Wilde, Henry James, H.G. Wells and the Webbs. Today they are easily characterised as an unripened Bloomsbury Group: a celebrity clique composed of men and women unconventional in dress and conversation, literary and artistic, overlapping in their sexual commitments, but – also – aristocratic, imperialist, superficial and unproductive. They made a continuous show of effortless ability that is oddly suggestive of laziness: Cynthia Asquith remembered as a child waking early one morning and opening a window to see her uncle George Wyndham running circuits in the garden below: ‘Come out and join me,’ he shouted, ‘and then help me write an Aubade before breakfast.’

The ‘Bloomsberries’ can easily be made to seem startlingly contemporary in their priorities and perceptions, but the Souls have long been the prisoners of a pre-modern past, a world of transparent ease. The record of their conversation and activities conjures the atmosphere of the Naughty Nineties and the sunlit years of the Edwardian era: it is all dancing till dawn, pomade and cigarettes, white linen and straw boaters, bicycle rides and dips in the Serpentine. Their moniker, which they all professed to hate (while using it regularly), derived from their talent for a dreamy sort of introspection: ‘You all sit and talk about each other’s souls,’ Lord Charles Beresford said. Their children, buoyant on champagne and self-belief, were the first to turn against them. ‘Their minds are almshouses [for] outworn notions and wrinkled phrases,’ Raymond Asquith, Margot’s stepson, sneered. ‘We do not hunt the carted hares of thirty years ago. We do not ask ourselves and one another and every poor devil we meet “How do you define Imagination?” or “What is the difference between talent and genius?”, and score an easy triumph by anticipating the answer with some textbook formula.’ The First World War, which killed Raymond and many of his playmates, provides the inevitable coda to their story: spattering the beautiful dream with blood, rendering the past futile, and disarranging the future. In its aftermath came the collapse of the aristocratic system: servant trouble, death duties, new money, Ramsay MacDonald in Downing Street. Never such innocence again.

If the Souls are remembered at all it is partly because some of their number – Arthur Balfour, George Curzon and Wyndham – enjoyed major political careers, and partly because they generated an abundance of high-class anecdote, diligently archived by their descendants. They have, though, been rather unlucky in their champions, starting with themselves. In old age they struggled to justify their once axiomatic claim to distinction and were liable – except when the mask slipped, as Margot’s did – to exaggerate: Lady Frances Balfour believed they had ‘something of the effect of the Restoration on Puritan England’, though this was only ‘a rough analogy’. The difficulty lay in proving it when, as Lady Desborough mournfully acknowledged, the ‘laughter and delight’ had long since become ‘imponderable as gossamer and dew’.

Historians have continued to strain after the nature of their collective significance. Angela Lambert tried hard in 1984: ‘Many others who enjoyed the same privileges remained boring and boorish … It is not easy to be unfailingly charming, lively and original.’ Unfortunately, she did little to alleviate the suspicion that the Souls merely provide source material for aromatic period soap opera: ‘What meaningful glances must have flickered across the plates of kedgeree and kippers, between lovers whose warm bodies had only a couple of hours previously been clasped in each other’s arms.’ The latest attempt to invest the Souls with seriousness is Balfour’s World, Nancy Ellenberger’s interesting, interestingly flawed study, which makes a case for them as the originators of a new ‘emotional regime’. But were they really as serious as that?

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