A Little Talk in Downing St

Bee Wilson

  • My Darling Mr Asquith: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Venetia Stanley by Stefan Buczacki
    Cato and Clarke, 464 pp, £28.99, April 2016, ISBN 978 0 9934186 0 0

How do you sign off an email? How, when writing to someone who is more than an acquaintance and less than an intimate, do you show that you mean well without being intrusively familiar? There is no common scale to draw on. You can make someone uncomfortable by sending them ‘xox’ in a work email when all they expected was a ‘cheers’. A late friend of mine always signed off ‘all good wishes’ – I felt that hit the right convivial-but-distant note. I started borrowing it, then ramped it up to ‘all best wishes’, fearing that ‘good’ might be interpreted as lukewarm, but now I am mildly regretting the inflation. I rattle out yet another round of doubly superlative ‘all best wishes’ and feel like Tchaikovsky giving the direction pppppp in his Symphony No. 6 when ppp would have done just as well. But it’s also possible to dial things down too far until a sign-off becomes an insult. The Twitter account ‘Very British Problems’ cites the problem of ‘receiving an email ending in “regards” and wondering what you’ve done to cause so much anger’.

Margot Asquith and Venetia Stanley at the Scott-Sackville trial (1913)
Margot Asquith and Venetia Stanley at the Scott-Sackville trial (1913)

In the age of letter-writing, deciding how to start and finish was so much simpler. In 1926, Fowler listed the various ways to end a proper letter:

Yours faithfully: To unknown person on business.

Yours truly: To slight acquaintance.

Yours very truly: Ceremonious but cordial.

Yours sincerely: In invitations & friendly but not intimate letters.

But that didn’t solve every dilemma. In an age of ritualised courtship and repressed emotions the difficulty was more likely to have to do with intimate letters than those written to business acquaintances.

My Darling Mr Asquith is a deeply sympathetic and scrupulously researched biography of the socialite Venetia Stanley (1887-1948). One of its main themes is the complex gradation of affection that could be expressed by different salutations at the start of letters between very posh associates in Edwardian and post-Edwardian times. In the letters of love and friendship exchanged between the members of Herbert Asquith’s circle – he was the Liberal prime minister from 1908 to 1916 – ‘dearest’ meant something different from ‘darling’ and ‘my darling’ was something else again. As Stefan Buczacki parses it, plain ‘darling’ was so commonly used as to be ‘fairly meaningless’ and so if you wanted to show that you truly had feelings for the person you were addressing the ante had to be upped. Adding a possessive was one way of making ‘darling’ more meaningful: ‘My darling’ carried ‘a slightly different connotation, and ‘My own darling’ a different one again. Another way was to go for the superlative: ‘“darlingest”, or “my darlingest”, were particularly affectionate, if ungrammatical,’ Buczacki notes.

When Asquith wrote to his second wife, Margot (his first wife died of typhoid in 1891), she was ‘my own darling’. But when, as a man in his sixties, he wrote to the Hon. Venetia Stanley, the twentysomething woman with whom he was besotted from 1912 to 1915, he employed fifty shades of ‘darlings’ and ‘beloveds’, ranging from ‘my very own darling’ to ‘most loved’ to ‘my darling of darlings’. These darlings multiplied across nearly six hundred love letters written by Asquith to Venetia, totalling nearly 300,000 words.

Venetia was the youngest daughter of the 4th Lord Stanley of Alderley, who, like most of the men in Venetia’s life, had been a Liberal MP, in his case between 1880 and 1885. She was the cousin of Clementine Churchill; before Clementine married Churchill some thought that Venetia and Winston might make a match. She had long brown hair, a deep plummy voice, and was later said by Isaiah Berlin, who met her in Cambridge in the 1930s, to be a ‘handsome, smart, awful woman’. Whatever Venetia’s other callings – in middle age she took up aviation, and she had a passion for keeping strange animals, including a Syrian brown bear called Lancelot – her greatest talent seems to have been as a confidante. According to Buczacki, she addressed ‘almost everyone’ as ‘darling’ or ‘my darling’, regardless of her feelings for them, which stood her in good stead on the social scene. But Asquith took her ‘darlings’ to heart.

Even by the standards of philandering old politicians, the outpouring of letters from Asquith to Venetia was extraordinary. When the letters started in spring 1912, there was nothing particularly political about them. Buczacki summarises the typical structure as ‘comments on the weather, where he was, where he was due to visit, snippets about his family, where and with whom he had dined, what he thought Venetia should be reading, a few literary or classical brainteasers for her to resolve, a wish for him to see her at the earliest opportunity and an affectionate valediction’. Often he wrote, in fairly conventional terms, about her physical charms or plans to take her out in his Laundalette car, which was one of his favourite fumbling grounds, since he couldn’t drive and therefore had to sit in the back, hands free. ‘Shall we go for a little drive, or will you come to Downing St & have a talk?’ he inquired in one letter. Other letters recalled snatched moments together. ‘It comes back to me – like a wave – that supreme half hour we spent in the gloaming on the wooden bench in the little garden.’

Increasingly, however, he interspersed his sweet nothings to Venetia with things that were ‘secret’, ‘very secret’ or ‘most secret’, to do with state business. A letter in which he lamented a new yellow dress that Venetia had bought – he jested that it was a ‘yellow peril’ – also contained his thoughts on the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, the Finance Bill and Sylvia Pankhurst. Venetia, he was glad to find, shared his opposition to votes for women. He confided to her his anxiety about Irish Home Rule (it was Asquith who introduced the Third Home Rule Bill in 1912, 1913 and 1914 and then postponed it when war started). In July 1914, he warned Venetia that the situation in Europe was ‘as bad as it can possibly be’ and not helped by the Austrians being ‘quite the stupidest people in Europe (as the Italians are the most perfidious)’.

In the third month of the war, Asquith warned Venetia – ‘strictly between you and me’ – that Britain was weak in arms and ammunition in the event of a German invasion. Venetia was kept fully briefed on secret discussions that Asquith had with the Committee of Imperial Defence. Sometimes he even sent bundles of papers to accompany the letters, the better for her to understand them. He occasionally wrote to her during cabinet meetings and once during a War Council meeting. During most of the time Asquith was besotted with her, she was also being courted by Edwin Montagu, a Liberal MP whom she would go on to marry. It’s quite possible that Asquith and Montagu sat in the same cabinet meetings, both writing letters to Venetia. When war started, and she took on work as a nurse at the London Hospital, Asquith wrote to her all the more often. ‘During Venetia’s three months as a probationer nurse,’ Buczacki notes, ‘Prime Minister Asquith, while leading the largest empire in the history of the world in a global war, wrote to her 147 times, occasionally sending four letters in a single day.’ During one seven-day period, Asquith wrote Venetia 14 letters amounting to ten thousand words in all; page after page was filled with secret details about the conflict.

The question is why Asquith – a relatively cautious politician whose flaws, at least during the war, had more to do with a lack of decisiveness than excessive daring – would have risked national security and his own reputation so recklessly. Then again, he wasn’t the first or last politician with an urge to expose himself in ways that might ruin him. When I watched the recent documentary about Anthony Weiner, the American politician who scuppered first his congressional career and then his bid to become mayor of New York City with a series of ‘sexting’ scandals in which he was found to have sent explicit photos of himself to several women, I kept wondering why he had to involve another human being in his predilections. Wouldn’t a mirror have done just as well? But maybe the risk of self-sabotage is part of what drove him on. Asquith, too, was aware that he might be ruined if his letters to Venetia fell into the wrong hands. He told Venetia he was ‘certain’ that she wouldn’t help any scurrilous biographers by passing on his letters, which shows that he knew it was a possibility.

More straightforwardly, people do crazy things out of sexual frustration and it may be that Asquith was ejaculating words in the direction of Venetia Stanley because he couldn’t offload anything else. There was certainly a feeling of frustrated lust about one embarrassing episode when he squandered government resources arranging an official wartime visit to the hospital where Venetia was working only in order to catch a glimpse of her tightly buttoned nurse’s uniform (‘I don’t believe that you thought that I should have the courage to … risk the vision of you in your “Aunt Sally” costume’). Buczacki is convinced that Asquith and Venetia never slept together (others have looked at the evidence and concluded differently). He insists that it is ‘not credible that a man could write, sometimes in his bedroom late at night, nearly six hundred heartfelt … letters to a woman with whom he has had sex without revealing it’. There were references to ‘heavenly’ moments they had shared in the hollow at Penrhos, her family home, but it isn’t clear how far these went. Asquith had form as a groper. Venetia was far from being the first young woman to catch his eye – his wife Margot wrote in her diary in 1907 that her husband had a ‘little harem’, which included other society beauties such as the actress Viola Tree and Pamela Jekyll, niece of Gertrude Jekyll – but his feelings for Venetia seem to have outstripped whatever he felt for these other lovelies. ‘It cannot be true! Venetia was so plain,’ her best friend, Asquith’s daughter Violet, was to say when asked about the relationship many years later. Whatever the reason, Venetia became his darling of all darlings.

To read the Asquith-Venetia letters – or at least the ones available in print – is to see that Asquith was a weird kind of philanderer. On the one hand, he has all the complacency of a powerful man, who – despite his general aura of Liberal pacifism – seems pretty thrilled to have so many tin soldiers to move around. ‘We are going to send all the Egyptian and Mediterranean garrison & the 2 Indian divisions as soon as they can be got to Marseilles,’ he informs Venetia in August 1914. Yet he also comes across as childishly needy, constantly asking her whether she found some speech he made clever or boring or whether she thinks he acted rightly on some point of national strategy. The Venetia he addresses is partly a daughter (‘It is very sad about your chilblains’), partly a lover, and partly a projection of himself. He rates his cabinet colleagues from best to worst ‘like a Tripos at Cambridge’ and begs her to ‘tell me what you think.’ He calls her his ‘guardian angel’ and says that he thinks of her counsel throughout the day and is shored up by it. But something about the relationship is impossible to figure out. It seems that Asquith convinced himself that the more authentically he loved Venetia – ‘all blessings & love, my own darling’ – the more he could be sure that all those cabinet decisions he made were for the best, whatever the casualties. They were ‘close to the making of history’ together, he wrote. On another occasion he said: ‘I have written to you with more confidence & fullness & intimacy (a thousand times) than I ever have to any other human being.’

Asquith and Venetia’s intimacy dates to a two-week holiday that took in Sicily, Rome and Naples and ended in Paris in January 1912. Also on the trip were Violet Asquith and Edwin Montagu, Venetia’s future husband. It was an ‘odd’ group, according to Violet. Asquith referred to Edwin, who was Jewish, as ‘the Assyrian’. Buczacki protests rather unconvincingly that this had ‘little to do with anti-Semitism’ and was simply because Edwin had very dark skin. Still, great fun was had by all, especially when Violet found that her bathwater was full of tadpoles. They went sightseeing in Messina and Asquith lectured the two women on their lack of knowledge of Greek-Sicilian history. At the end of the Sicilian jaunt, both Edwin and Asquith were smitten with Venetia. A couple of weeks after the holiday, Venetia came to visit the Asquiths at a house in the New Forest and Asquith shared a moment alone in the dining room with her on Sunday morning when, as he wrote, ‘the scales dropped from my eyes’ and he saw Venetia’s ‘familiar features’ anew.

It was soon after this that the letters started. By the summer, he was quoting Euripides to her in Greek, a language she couldn’t read, and signing himself ‘Your ever-loving’. ‘A few weeks later he was warning her off Strindberg and was none too sure about Scott and Balzac,’ Buczacki writes. When Asquith’s letters to Venetia were published in 1982, edited by Michael and Eleanor Brock, only around half of the total 300,000 words were included. Buczacki has read the other half and found that the editors omitted a lot of social gossip and an even larger quantity of ‘desperately boring material containing practically nothing a bright fun-loving twentysomething woman – even in 1914 – could find remotely interesting’. Buczacki views the correspondence less as an ‘intellectual love affair’, as Asquith’s biographer H.G.C. Matthew argued, and more as ‘a surrogate diary for a man who otherwise chose not to write one’.

What this doesn’t explain is the psychology of someone who chooses to write letters – and such letters! – when a diary would have been so much safer. But then a diary can’t call you ‘darling’ or tell you how important you are. These are long and turgid letters, and Buczacki repeatedly points out how bad Asquith was at slanting the material to Venetia’s particular interests, which included skating, shooting, fencing and looking after her beloved pet penguins. The question raised by his spilling of so many state secrets is not just why he took the risk but why he thought she would be quite so curious about the precise movements of the Dardanelles naval operation. But Asquith seems to have needed to believe that she was interested and passionately so, and one way or another she must have been good at making him believe it was true. ‘These figures may interest you (of course secret)’, he wrote before listing the number of divisions in the Western and Eastern Theatres. ‘Darling – do you really like such long letters? I can hardly believe it. I wonder now & again if you do a little skipping,’ he said in a rare moment of self-reflection. He begs Venetia in the most pathetic terms to write back; he asks for ‘delicious’ letters, for letters that come ‘every day’, for letters ‘full of your counsel & understanding & your sympathy and your love’. And then, as if he will explode: ‘DO my most darling write me one line tomorrow.’

Venetia’s side of the correspondence was destroyed, by Asquith himself, so we will never really know what she thought of this old man who wrote her so many letters. The signs are that she didn’t feel for him what he felt for her, but was careful to stoke his ardour as much as it needed to be stoked, for example by giving him gifts (she once gave him a blue muffler for his car; he later told her she was the greatest gift-giver he had ever met). The only glimpses that remain of how Venetia might have addressed him are a few letters exchanged after Edwin’s death, ten years after the end of the affair, in which she calls him ‘My dearest Mr Asquith’ and ‘My Darling Mr Asquith’. His ego clearly needed that ‘my’. To judge by these late letters, she was adept at giving the impression of strong emotions in few words. ‘I’ve never thanked you for your divine letter, you know how dumb & inarticulate I am,’ she wrote, ‘but you do realise I hope how glad I was to get it.’

Given the volume of Asquith’s letters to her, pleading inarticulacy may have been as good a way as any to get out of a lengthy reply. But she wasn’t so inarticulate when writing to Asquith’s daughter Violet. Buczacki argues that Violet, not Asquith, not Edwin Montagu, was the great love of Venetia’s life. Violet and Venetia were exact contemporaries whose fathers shared Liberal sympathies; they first met when they were 16 or 17, seven years before Asquith fell for Venetia. Like Venetia, Violet was tall and fond of outdoor pursuits, the theatre and opera. To one another, on the page, they were not just ‘darling’ but ‘darlingest’. Venetia’s professions of love to Violet have a freedom that her letters to Asquith may well have lacked. ‘Oh my darlingest I can’t possibly give you any idea how terribly I want you,’ Venetia writes. Violet sends Venetia a ‘tiny’ gift and tells her that if she finds it hideous she may ‘tuck it in under your combies.’ It isn’t clear whether they were actually lovers or only friends, but their epistolary declarations were certainly those of lovers and, according to Buczacki, the correspondence maintained its intensity for nine or ten years. When Violet’s main admirer, Archie Gordon, was killed in a car accident, Venetia consoled her in her grief. Violet replied: ‘You were and are everything – the nearest thing to A.’ All the time Venetia was replying to Asquith’s six hundred declarations of love, she was also writing letters, in terms at least as heartfelt if not more, to Violet.

*

In the end, Venetia’s relationship with both Violet and her father was severed by a single event. In 1915, Venetia accepted Edwin’s proposal of marriage and decided to convert to Judaism. For some months her letters to Edwin had become warmer. On one occasion she explained that she began a letter ‘My darling’ ‘not because I find you expect it but because I want to’. She claimed to Violet that she didn’t mind converting to Judaism because she couldn’t bear to marry Edwin in a way that would separate him from his family. She knew some would say she had only done it for the money (Edwin was much richer than she was). To many of her friends, including Violet, the conversion placed her beyond the pale. Violet told Venetia’s sister that she found the thought of the union completely horrible because of the difference in ‘race’. ‘Darlingest I couldn’t bear it if you thought it permanently very terrible,’ Venetia wrote to Violet. But Violet’s reply made it clear that she did think that becoming a ‘Jewess’ was terrible indeed; and that ‘Mr Montagu’ was exploiting her ‘altruism’ in expecting her to convert to his faith. She ended not with ‘darlingest’ but ‘Goodbye – bless you – … Yr V’, and the friendship between the two was over.

Asquith, too, was cut up by the news. He wrote (with brevity for once):

Most loved –

As you well know, this breaks my heart.

I couldn’t bear to come and see you.

I can only pray God to bless you – and help me.

Yours,

When he got home he rushed into the bedroom and told Margot that ‘a very sad thing has happened,’ to which she replied, ‘Is Beb killed?’ referring to Asquith’s son Herbert who was fighting with the Royal Artillery. ‘Oh! Not as bad as that,’ he replied, ‘but Venetia has engaged herself to Montagu.’ Margot, naturally, didn’t find this bad news at all. She wrote to congratulate ‘Dearest V’, telling her that ‘I have never interfered with your or Henry’s love for each other.’ She also wrote to Edwin – ‘My very dear friend’ – to tell him that she had known about the letters all along. ‘Every night however late I go & sit on his knee in my nightgown & we tell each other everything – he shows me all his letters & all Venetia’s & tells me every secret things [sic] he tells no one in the world.’ Whether this was absolutely true or not, it was a sign that Margot still aspired to be Asquith’s darlingest.

As for Asquith, his grief at the loss of Venetia was short-lived. Within three weeks of her engagement, he took up a near identical correspondence with Venetia’s older sister Sylvia, who was married to Asquith’s military private secretary Anthony Henley. It began – as usual – with Asquith taking Sylvia out for drives. Then the letters started. ‘Dearest,’ he wrote, assuring Sylvia that she was never far from his thoughts. His letters to Sylvia were more risqué than those he had written to Venetia, straying into the territory of bosoms etc, though he glorified his lust with lyrical thoughts about his yearning for ‘the touch of her vanish’d hand’. The correspondence with Sylvia appears less all-consuming than the one with Venetia, as it didn’t preclude taking plenty of other young married women out for special ‘drives’. One of them, Barbara Maclaren, returned from a seaside drive with the prime minister red in the face and crying. When a friend asked what had happened in the car, she wrote that he had ‘my head jammed down on to his shoulder and all his fingers in my mouth’. Was this the kind of ‘little drive’ he had shared with Venetia? In one letter, he begged Venetia for a ‘real drive’ – the mind boggles.

It would be nice to imagine that Venetia Stanley’s life could be defined by more than just her correspondence with this ‘darling’ man. Buczacki pleads hard that she ‘deserves better’ than to be remembered only for these few years with Asquith. After all, it wasn’t her fault that she was singled out by this predatory correspondent. Having immersed himself with admirable thoroughness in papers, diaries and archives relating to the whole of her life – she died in 1948 – Buczacki claims that he uncovered ‘a remarkable and often deeply moving human story set against the great events of the first half of the 20th century’. Yet nothing much in Venetia’s story seems to bear this out. After her marriage to Edwin, her life appears to have been mostly a string of love affairs and dinner parties with the likes of Winston and Clementine Churchill; Duff and Diana Cooper; Rex Whistler and David Niven. Buczacki says that what she cared about above all else was observing the social niceties: replying to invitations in a timely fashion and so on.

For many years, she had a passionate correspondence with Max Beaverbrook, with whom she may or may not have had an affair, and to whom she signed herself ‘Your most devoted Venetia’. She and Edwin had a daughter, Judy, who wrote to her mother (‘Darling Mummie’) from boarding school, begging her to attend parents’ days and similar events, but Venetia always declined. She was too busy, flying planes across Persia and India with her new young friend Rupert Bellville, who later flew his own plane on the Nationalist side in the Spanish Civil War. The greatest drama of the second half of Venetia’s life – Buczacki calls it something ‘so totally out of her character that it is hard to conceive’ – was being caught cheating at bezique in 1936, keeping a secret stash of cards in her lap. At Breccles, her house in Norfolk, she took in evacuees during the Second World War. It wasn’t an entirely positive experience. ‘They are ignorant, deceitful, dishonest and without the smallest appreciation of their surroundings or conditions,’ she declared, although she also taught them elocution and one of them went on to become a successful seamstress – she sewed Princess Diana’s wedding dress.

The last person who wrote to her with the old fierce affection was Violet, who drafted a letter – which she later filed away, ‘To Venetia before she died’ – on hearing that her old friend was on the brink of dying of cancer in 1948. ‘God bless you darling – I do not need to wish you courage – I send you my old love if it [is] any use to you. Violet.’ It is not known if a copy of the letter arrived in time for Venetia to read it.

By the 1930s, Venetia had switched some of her attentions to younger men. In 1934, when she was 46, she took a 23-year-old lover called William Grey Walter, a graduate student in Cambridge working on neurophysiology and the grandfather of the feminist journalist Natasha Walter. Venetia seems to have seduced him by telling him that she had been Asquith’s lover. Now that she was the dominant party, there was no longer any need for darlings. After the affair ended, she sent Walter a silver cigarette case with the engraved message: ‘For services rendered’.