Magazine article The Spectator

'Margot Asquith's Great War Diary, 1914-1916: The View from Downing Street', by Michael and Eleanor Brock (Eds) - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Margot Asquith's Great War Diary, 1914-1916: The View from Downing Street', by Michael and Eleanor Brock (Eds) - Review

Article excerpt

Margot Asquith's Great War Diary, 1914-1916: The View from Downing Street Michael and Eleanor Brock (eds)

OUP, pp.568, £30, ISBN: 9780198229773

When Margot Asquith's name crops up these days, it is usually in a retelling of the story about her meeting Jean Harlow, sexy star of the silver screen, who repeatedly called her Margotte. Eventually, Margot became irritated. 'No, my dear,' she corrected. 'The "t" is silent, as in Harlow.' It's a good story, but apocryphal and, I was always told by those who knew her (she was my great-grandfather's second wife), quite untypical of her. No matter. She had plenty of good lines that were unquestionably her own, as this diary vividly attests.

She was at her best when analysing friends and enemies, which were sometimes interchangeable categories. And as the Prime Minister's wife during the period covered by this volume, she occupied a good vantage point from which to draw her portraits. The dramatis personae of the diary are worthy of one of Shakespeare's histories, including as they do practically all the prominent British politicians of the Great War. They also include her husband's five gifted children by his first wife, many friends he acquired in a career of academic as well as political success, and the members of Margot's own circle. Some of these were drawn from the new-rich Tennant family into which she was born, others from the Souls, a social set centred on the memory of her sister Laura, who had died after childbirth. Among its members were Conservative politicians such as Arthur Balfour and George Curzon and a score of clever, artistic women whose somewhat pretentious explorations of the soul were leavened by bicycling and charades.

Margot was fast, both on the hunting field and, some said, off it. She was also quick of mind, though uneducated. She was candid to a fault, extravagant, astringent, egotistical and tactless. She was also brave and supremely loyal, most notably to her husband, whom she chose to call Henry, though almost all others called him by his first name, Herbert. In personality she was utterly unlike him, and her trenchant views, usually formed not so much on the merits of the issues as on the politicians who supported or opposed them, often made her a liability.

Yet she was never dull, and often perceptive. Almost every page of her diary carries an interesting remark. Of Kitchener she says, 'I am amazed often at his ignorance, but... he is teachable, not obstinate, and very clever... He gets on well with H[enry], who likes him and finds him quick, which with Henry is everything. K never bores.' Bonar Law, the leader of the Unionists, 'is cunning, cautious and shallow... A feeling of half-mourning clings to his personality. He invests everything with dullness.' (She badly underestimated 'this 5th rate man'.) Edward VII's mistress Alice Keppel, 'the last declared lady of any King', is 'coarse, kind, truthful and gay'. Though she was devoted to Sir Edward Grey, the foreign secretary, she found him 'far too set and old... I long for a little red blood in his veins and this sometimes gets the better of me. I like crimson blood.'

Churchill makes frequent appearances. On his 40th birthday, 1 December 1914, she asks, 'What is it that gives Winston his pre-eminence? …

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