Carter, Helen Violet Asquith Bonham

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Helen Violet Asquith Bonham Carter

English political figure Helen Violet Bonham Carter (1887–1969), the Baroness Asquith of Yarnbury, supported the British Liberal Party philosophies em- braced by her large and politically connected family. A good friend of Winston Churchill, she produced a well-known biography of the famed Prime Minister. Throughout her career and public life, she was a renowned orator and was very active in British political and cultural affairs.

Lady Helen Violet Bonham Carter, the future Baroness Asquith of Yarnbury, was born as Helen Violet Asquith on April 15, 1887, in Hampstead, London in England, into a large, influential family heavily involved in the British political system. Her father was Herbert Henry Asquith, who later became the first Earl of Oxford and Asquith. More importantly, from 1908 to 1916, he served as Prime Minister of Great Britain. Her mother was Helen Kesall Asquith (nee Melland).

Carter was the only daughter and fourth child in a family of five children. Her brothers included Raymond, Herbert, Arthur, and Cyril. Though her brothers received formal schooling, Carter obtained her early education privately at home from governesses. When she was older, she received formal education in Dresden, Germany and Paris, France. Her studies focused on languages.

Mother Died During Family Holiday

In 1891, when Carter was only four years old, her mother died of typhoid fever while the family was on holiday in Scotland.

Three years later, in 1894, Herbert Henry Asquith married his second wife, Emma Alice Margaret (Margo) Tennant. After the marriage, Carter's family moved to a residence at 20 Cavendish Square, which was a wedding present from Emma Tennant's father, Sir Charles Tennant, who was a prominent member of Britain's Liberal Party, as well as a noted manufacturer and patron of the arts. Asquith's second marriage produced two more children, Anthony and Elizabeth. Anthony Asquith grew up to become a film director whose credits include well-known British films such as The Winslow Boy (1948), The Browning Version (1951), and the highly regarded adaptation of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (1952).

According to author Colin Clifford, whose book The Asquiths detailed the extended family's political and financial fortunes, Carter's stepmother felt "distinctly antipathetic" toward her stepchildren. "She never appreciated the traumatic effect, especially on the two younger children, of the loss of their mother; nor did she understand how intimidating her own powerful personality could be," wrote Clifford. "All she could see was the contrast between the anarchic personalities of herself and her siblings and what appeared to her to be the overly serious Asquith children."

Clifford also indicated that Carter experienced a complex family life because her father's two marriages brought into the household so many children of different ages and personalities. Moreover, both parents avidly pursued separate and distinct interests. Stepmother Margot enjoyed horses, hunting and expensive clothes, while father Herbert was absorbed by his political career. In addition, ongoing tension existed between Carter and her stepmother. To handle the pressure, Herbert Asquith reportedly sought solace in the company of younger women.

Became Involved in Father's Career

Still, Carter would ever remain her father's staunchest supporter. During Asquith's career, Carter actively campaigned for him, in the process developing her own oratorical skills, which were deemed considerable. After his death, she carried on the family's Liberal tradition and became known as the voice of "Asquithian Liberalism."

Around the time Carter was born, Herbert Asquith was a rising politician who would ascend fast and far. In the same year that his first wife gave birth to their only daughter, he had just become a member of the House of Commons. In 1892, he became Home Secretary in Prime Minister William Gladstone's fourth and final administration. In 1905, he became Chancellor of the Exchequer. Only three years later, in 1908, he became Britain's Prime Minister.

As a child, Carter suffered from poor health, so she was away from home when her father assumed the all-important role of Prime Minister. However, Carter would develop a keen interest in politics and, because of her father's career, she witnessed up close the rise and fall of the Liberal Party. Even at a young age, she demonstrated a strong intellectual grasp of the political arena, and she liked to discuss politics with her father. Like Asquith, Carter was a staunch liberal.

Marriage Followed Aborted Engagement

In 1909, Carter became engaged to Archie Gordon. The proposal was not destined to find its fulfillment in marriage, however, as it essentially amounted to nothing more than deathbed gesture. Gordon was one of Carter's closest friends. In 1909, he suffered extremely serious injuries in an automobile accident. In Winchester Hospital, knowing that he was going to die from his injuries, he asked Carter to marry him, and she and Gordon became engaged. Gordon passed away before they could actually be married and, in 1910, Carter raised money and helped establish the Archie Gordon Club, an organization for deprived boys in the depressed Hoxton area of East London. Her partner in the founding was Maurice Bonham-Carter, her father's principal private secretary.

On November 30, 1915, Carter, who usually went by her middle name of Violet, married Bonham-Carter, who would later become Sir Maurice. Their marriage produced four children, two girls and two boys: Helen Laura Cressida Bonham-Carter, Laura Miranda Bonham-Carter, Mark Raymond Bonham-Carter, Baron Bonham-Carter, and Raymond Henry Bonham-Carter.

Even while raising a family, Carter continued actively supporting her father. She campaigned for him in the Paisley by-election of 1920, when he returned to Parliament after losing his East Fife seat in 1918. Afterward, however, she was forced to endure her father's declining political status. After Asquith regained his seat at Paisley, he lost it four years later in the 1924 General Election. The loss accompanied Britain's Conservative Party's rise in power over the once dominant Liberal Party. Asquith then entered the House of Lords as Earl of Oxford and Asquith, but he suffered one last humiliation in 1925 when Oxford University rejected him as its Chancellor. Instead, the university chose Lord Cave, a Tory. Asquith died of a stroke in 1928.

Through the years, Asquith had developed a strong relationship with his only daughter. She adored him and he, in turn, came to depend on her, especially when his political career was on the decline. When her father's political stock fell, Carter staunchly defended his reputation. She would not easily suffer any criticism of Asquith, no matter how slight. Family friend Sir Winston Churchill called Carter her father's "champion redoubtable."

Friend of Churchill

Carter first met Churchill when she was eighteen years old. The future Prime Minister would become the other main political figure in Carter's life besides her father. Carter sometimes disagreed with Churchill, but she also strongly supported him when the cause was right. For instance, Carter, a fervent anti-Nazi, was a strong advocate of Churchill's anti-appeasement campaign. The two would remain close friends throughout their lives.

Later in her life, she wrote a book about Churchill entitled Churchill as I Knew Him (which was also published under the title "Winston Churchill: An Intimate Portrait"). It was the only book Carter ever authored, and it was published in 1965, the year that Churchill died. Originally, Carter intended to publish a multi-volume work about Churchill. But she only completed the one volume, which detailed her relationship and experiences with Churchill.

Long and Accomplished Career

Carter had a wide range of interests, and she was very active and highly visible in Great Britain's political and cultural affairs until 1964. She gained recognition as a highly effective orator, and her first reported speech came in 1909, when she was only twenty-two years old. Throughout her life, she championed Liberalism, the only political philosophy that she felt exemplified morality. Appropriately, she served as President of the Women's Liberal Federation between 1923 and 1925 and held the office a second time, from 1939 to 1945.

Her long career became filled with numerous appointments and titles. From 1936 to 1939, she was Liberal vice-president of Churchill's Focus in Defense of Freedom and Peace. An ardent advocate for the League of Nations, she became a member of that body until 1941, the year she was appointed a governor of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Reportedly, she took a great deal of pleasure in her role with the BBC, but she resigned in 1945 to run for political office, contesting the Wells Division of Somersetshire as Liberal candidate. Her campaign was unsuccessful and Carter, who by this time was publicly known as Lady Violet Bonham Carter, was reappointed to the BBC after she was defeated. The only other time she sought political office came in 1951, running for the Colne Valley in Yorkshire. Again, she lost.

In 1945, she became the first woman president of the Liberal Party Organization, holding the office until 1947. She served as vice president from 1947 to 1965. After World War II, she embraced the European Ideal and, in 1947, she became vice-chairman of the United Europe Movement. Also, from 1947 to 1949, she was a member of the Royal Commission on the Press.

In 1949, she became a delegate to Commonwealth Relations Conference in Canada. In 1953, she was invested as a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Entered House of Lords

On December 21, 1964, at the age of seventy-seven, she was awarded a life peerage and entered the House of Lords as Baroness Asquith of Yarnbury. After Churchill died on January 24, 1965, Carter gave her maiden speech in the House of Lords the following day. In part, her speech was a eulogy for her lifelong friend.

Throughout her life, she made frequent public-speaking appearances on a variety of subjects. In 1963 she became the first woman to give the Romanes lecture at Oxford, speaking on "the impact of personality on politics," a subject she knew a great deal about. In 1967 she was the first woman to speak at a Royal Academy dinner. She also made regular radio and television appearances, most often as a panel member on the radio program The Brain Trust. Perhaps her most significant television appearance came in 1967, when she did an interview with Kenneth Harris on the As I Remember program.

Died in London

Carter passed away in London, England on February 19, 1969. She was eighty-one years old. She was preceded in death by her husband Maurice, who died in 1960.

Following her death, two volumes of her letters and diaries were published. These included Lantern Slides, The Diaries and Letters of Violet Bonham Carter 1904–14, published in 1995, and Champion Redoubtable, The Diaries and Letters of Violet Bonham Carter 1914–45, published in 1998.

Carter herself wrote numerous articles in magazines as well as letters to newspapers that addressed national and international subjects. She also wrote radio and television scripts. In addition, as a result of her involvement with the BBC, she became a frequent broadcaster on both radio and television.

Other distinctions in her long and accomplished career included serving as a governor of the Old Vic from 1945 to 1969. In 1955, she became a trustee of the Glyndbourne Arts Trust, a post she held until 1969. She was also president of Royal Institute of International Affairs from 1964 to 1969. She continued attending the House as an active member until her death in 1969.

During her lifetime, she was fortunate to see the continuation of her family's Liberal traditions. Her daughter Laura married Jo Grimond, who later became the leader of the Liberal Party, and her son Mark, running as a Liberal, won Torrington, Devon at a by-election in 1958.


"Helen Bonham Carter," Bodleian Library-University of Oxford, (December 30, 2005).

"(Helen) Violet (Asquith) Bonham Carter," Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2006. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. (December 30, 2005)

"Herbert Henry Asquith,",, (December 30, 2005)

Clifford, Colin. "The Asquiths," Cercles, (December 30, 2005)

"Violet Bonham Carter," Liberal Democrat History Group,;=122&liberalbiographies;=liberalbiographies (December 30, 2005)

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Carter, Helen Violet Asquith Bonham

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