Bookshot #175: The Asquiths

I don't know why I purchased this book. That seems like a funny line to open a book review with, but

I've been genuinely thinking about it since it's been sitting on my bookshelves for so long and I think, at the time, I was attempting to get a good grasp of British politics through the purchase of books, ranging from Jenkins' massive biographies of Gladstone and Churchill to Alan Clark's History of the Conservative Party and I think I've got a Pitt The Younger biography I've got to get too and I want to say Paddy Ashdown's diaries are lurking somewhere on my bookshelves as well?

So I think that's why, but really, with two World Wars at the start of the 20th Century, I think people forget- because Churchill is a glorious black hole that sucks up ink and draws biographers to him like a moth to a flame- that there were other wartime leaders as well and while everyone probably gravitates more towards David Lloyd George for the First World War, because was the one in charge when the guns finally fell silent, people forget the fact that he wasn't in charge when the war started: Herbert Asquith was.

Colin Clifford's book could have gone to a more conventional place and done just a look at the man himself and been perfectly serviceable if you were looking to scratch that itch of historical knowledge, but instead, he does something quite brilliant that I don't think you could do for any other British leader in the 20th Century-- he looks at the Asquith Family as a whole and that's the story he tells in this book.

Because of the wider focus of the book, once you get past the first couple of chapters, which outline Asquith's early life and his marriage to his first wife, Helen, you get introduced to his second wife, who nearly shoulders him aside entirely to become the main character of the book, Margot.  His first wife, Helen seemed to be inclined to live a fairly normal life of quiet domesticity-- that's not to say that Clifford gives the impression she was somehow lacking in personality or uninterested in things like social circles and intellectual pursuits, quite to the contrary- it's that she was devoted to her family and children, the same way Asquith was and they had Raymond, Herbert 'Beb', Arther 'Oc' and daughter Violet.  In general, they had a full house and Asquith was attempting to build a law career at the time and his later articles for The Spectator eventually helped break him into politics, but those early years generally feel like a 'normal family, normal house, comfortable-ish middle-class existence.'

After Helen's death in 1891 of typhoid fever, Asquith was left a widower with four children to tend to while at the same time working his way up the ladder of national politics, becoming a Liberal MP and then serving at the very young age of 39 as Home Secretary under the last Gladstone government-- it was as he ascended into the upper echelons of political circles that he met Margot.

Margot is a character-- she loved fox hunting more than anything else, had a social circle called 'the Souls' that talked about books, art, and poetry of the day but also seems to have been linked with every prominent man that drifted into her orbit at one time or another and honestly, doesn't seem that good of a match for Asquith at first and seemed very reluctant to marry him, but eventually did and was convinced of his love and devotion to her. The fact that he came along with four children was sort of a stumbling block and early missteps with Violet led to a strained relationship between the two of them that stretched well into adulthood if not beyond. (Really, she seems to have had a hierarchy of stepchildren that she would occasionally fall out with and then apologize to and make up with and get along with for a while, and then the process would repeat itself again.)

She lost three babies, but two survived- Elizabeth and 'Puffin' but was a fierce defender of her husband and protective of his career as he became Prime Minister in 1908- and that was probably the wildest aspect of all of this to me. She would write letters that would be fantastically unhelpful from a political sense to her husband and generally seems to be far more active in her husband's government than I would have expected. It's not clear how much impact she actually had- you get the sense that there was a lot of "Oh, shit, it's the boss's wife again" but I don't actually have a clear idea on 'British First Ladies', as it were. It seems out of character, but it might be at all in the grand scheme of things.

In the pre-war years, Asquith made a serious attempt at doing what they've been trying to do for over a century now: reform the House of Lords. Ultimately, it wasn't entirely successful- but he managed to remove the Lords' ability to block finance bills and reduced their ability to delay bills down to two years- so he didn't walk away with nothing and seemed happy with the results- but I also don't think it went as far as they wanted it to go. Politics being the art of the possible, Asquith got a lot out of the reform.

The Liberals were in an odd position at this point, I think. They were bleeding support amongst the working classes, Irish Home Rule had hamstrung them going back to early Gladstone governments and indeed, Asquith was relying on Irish Unionists for support, so it's strange to me that Asquith was an opponent of women's suffrage. I don't know if he would have been able to swing the Liberal establishment behind the idea or if Liberal support for women's suffrage would have led to a meaningful change in their political fortunes, but it's an interesting idea to consider. I think at best, it might have kept them alive as a meaningful political force a little longer, but the divisions were always there, and Labour was not going to go away- so it's hard to say. (What's even more interesting is that Margot was also an opponent of votes for women, which... is a weird headspace to consider, but I'm sure it wasn't an uncommon attitude at the time either.)

World War I changed everything- not just for Asquith and his political fortunes-- ultimately, the failure of the offensive at the Somme brought him down, but for the family at large. Raymond died on the Somme. Beb suffered from what was not yet understood as shell shock but got back into the fighting. Oc proved to be the most capable soldier of the three and honestly seemed like a commander many people would have been glad to fight under-- never asking his men to take risks he wasn't prepared to take himself, always giving others the glory/credit. Eventually, though, the man that Margot didn't trust at first, then came to like and then distrusted again, Lloyd George brought down Asquith and he served through the end of the war before losing his seat briefly before regaining it to serve as leader of the opposition until feuds with Lloyd George over their handling of the General Strike lead to his resignation in 1926.

(If there's one thing that gave me pause in the entire book, it's the description of Asquith's dalliances with other women. Nothing is mentioned about outright infidelity, but here's the quote that raised my eyebrow a bit:

"But Asquith, like many politicians, was an inveterate 'groper', and avoiding his attentions became something of a game amongst members of his 'harem'."

and another one-

" Ottoline Morrell (an intermittent member of the 'harem') had told him how Asquith 'would take a lady's hand, as she sat beside him on the sofa, and make her feel his erected instrument under his trousers."

Definitely gave me a case of the 'icks' as it were and certainly by today's standards it would be out-of-bounds behavior- but given the sexual mores of the time and the level of society that Asquith was running in, heavy petting and assorted hanky-panky was probably all it was ever going to be.)

His problem with alcohol became more and more noticeable later in life and both Elizabeth and Anthony (known as Puffin) struggled with it, as did Beb later in life as well. Violet proved to be the longest-lasting of all the children living until 1969 and her marriage his personal private secretary Maurice Bonham Carter, produced probably his most widely known descendant today, the actress Helena Bonham Carter.

Overall: I actually really enjoyed this book. It's not the usual political biography and I really like the fact that Clifford widened the focus to look at the family as a whole because I think it gives a clearer picture of who they actually were as people. This is a page-turner and that's a rarity with non-fiction books, in many ways. They can be dry and dusty or dense as hell, but few, in my experience, are ever as readable as this one was. My Grade: **** out of ****


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