Asquith, Cynthia (1887–1960)

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Asquith, Cynthia (1887–1960)

British author best known for her diary of the First World War years, which was published posthumously. Born Cynthia Mary Evelyn Charteris in Wiltshire, England, in 1887; died in 1960; daughter and one of seven children of Hugo (Lord Elcho, 11th earl of Wemyss) and Mary (Wyndham) Charteris; married Herbert Asquith (second son of Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith and first wife Helen Melland), in 1910; children: John (b. 1911); Michael (b. 1914); Simon (b. 1919).

Like many aristocratic, well-educated British women of her era, Lady Cynthia Asquith found an outlet in writing. After World War I put an end to her husband's career as a lawyer, her talent supplemented the family income. Asquith authored autobiographies, biographies, novels, children's stories, a play, and diaries of the war years (1915–18), which she undertook to appease a friend who had presented her with her first handsomely bound blank volume. Kept under lock and key until the end of her life, these works were passed on to her children, who published them posthumously in 1968.

The third of seven children born to Lord Elcho, later the 11th earl of Wemyss, Asquith grew up in the large family home—Stanway House—near Cheltenham in Gloucestershire. In the tradition of the day, she was educated at home by tutors, a process she called "a most haphazard, happy-go-lucky affaire." After a girlhood spent alternately amid the social whirl of her parents and of her own famous and near famous young contemporaries, in 1910 she married Herbert ("Beb") Asquith, the poet son of Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, who was beginning a career as an attorney. In 1914, Beb enlisted in the Royal Field Artillery, leaving Asquith and her two young sons (a third son was born in 1919) to take up the practice of "cuckooning" (a term she came up with for flitting from home to home of her friends while her own town house, which she was not wealthy enough to maintain, was leased out).

During the war, with Beb away for long periods recovering from wounds and shell shock, Asquith did some volunteer hospital work while maintaining a social life that included a number of male admirers. D.H. Lawrence, whose letters to her are considered some of his finest, called Asquith a "Pre-Raphaelite 'dreaming woman,'" and supposedly patterned his character of Lady Chatterley after her. After the war, Asquith became secretary to playwright James M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, a position she held for 20 years. (She later wrote his biography, Portrait of J.M. Barrie.)

Asquith has been praised for her easy, informal style and is regarded as a valuable chronicler of the "lost, gracious world" which would perish in the First World War. Much in the style of Margot Asquith (Beb's stepmother; second wife of Herbert Asquith), Cynthia's reminiscences provide colorful portraits of the well-known personalities that wandered through her life: Arthur Balfour, Charles Whibley, H.G. Wells, and Clementine Churchill . An entire chapter in her

first autobiography, Haply I May Remember, is devoted to the string of popular painters who were eager to translate her beauty to the canvas: Edward Burne-Jones, Augustus John, Charles Furse, John Sargent, and Ambrose McEvoy.

Asquith withstood a nagging concern over her eldest son John, who, though precociously talented musically, was probably suffering from autism, an undiagnosed condition at that time. Her diaries reveal her slow realization that he would never get well and her anguished search for proper care for him. His death in 1937 was followed by the death of her brothers in World War II.

Cynthia Asquith died in 1960, shortly after finishing work on her last biography Married to Tolstoy, an account of the intense, tempestuous 48-year union between Leo and Sonya Tolstoy , based on four obscure diaries.


Asquith, Cynthia. Haply I May Remember. NY: Scribner, 1950.

——. Remember and be Glad. NY: Scribner, 1952.

Asquith, Lady Cynthia. Diaries 1915–1918. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969.

Blodgett, Harriet, ed. The Englishwoman's Diary. London: Fourth Estate, 1992.

This England. Summer 1988, p. 75.

suggested reading:

Asquith, Cynthia. Her Majesty, The Queen. NY: E.P. Dutton, 1937.

——. Portrait of Barrie. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1971.

Beauman, Nicola. Cynthia Asquith. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1988.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts