Asquith, Margot Tennant (1864–1945)

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Asquith, Margot Tennant (1864–1945)

British writer and political personality. Born Margaret Emma Alice Tennant in Peebleshire, Scotland, in 1864; died on July 28, 1945, in London, England;

sixth daughter and one of 12 children of Sir Charles (an industrialist) and Emma (Winsloe) Tennant; married Herbert Henry Asquith, on May 10, 1894; children: (five) only two, Anthony (1902—) and Elizabeth Bibesco (1897–1943), survived infancy; (five stepchildren) Raymond (1878–1916); Herbert (1881–1947); Arthur (1883–1939); Cyril (1890–1954); Violet Bonham-Carter (1887–1969) also known as Lady Asquith of Yarnbury.

Margot Tennant Asquith, daughter of wealthy industrialist Charles Tennant, grew up in a castle on the Scottish moors, 30 miles from Edinburgh. Calling herself "a child of the heather and quite untamable," Asquith received a haphazard education. She had governesses until the age of 15, then spent a few months at a London finishing school and later studied in Dresden, Germany. In her privileged and self-proclaimed "glorious" youth, the only unhappy memories were violent quarrels with her 12 siblings.

Asquith was a fashionable debutante and fearless hunter; her life before her marriage at age 30 revolved around affairs of the heart and an endless social whirl of entertainment. To the wealthy and bored Victorian elite, of which she was a part, Asquith brought an enthusiasm for life and an element of the unexpected. More interesting looking than beautiful, with a slight frame and what was once described as a "hawky" nose, her keen intellect and magnetic personality attracted a vast circle of smart and influential friends, including Benjamin Jowett, vice-chancellor of Oxford, and prime minister William Gladstone, as well as writers John Addington, John Symonds, and Virginia Woolf . Asquith was a member of The Souls, a group of aesthetes who, in addition to intellectual and literary pursuits, advocated greater freedom for women, particularly in self-expression and dress.

Her marriage in 1894 to the Liberal home secretary, Herbert Henry Asquith, caused quite a stir in London society. A widower with five children, whose first wife Helen Melland had died in 1891, Herbert was not fashionable or wealthy, "played no games and cared for no sport." A man of unerring instincts and profound modesty, he went on to a distinguished political career, becoming chancellor of the exchequer in 1906 and prime minister in 1908. Forced to resign in 1916 because of dissatisfaction with the nation's war record, Herbert remained Liberal leader until 1926. Asquith blossomed as a brilliant and witty political hostess, but it was more the people—she had a self-professed weakness for great men—than ideas or issues that caught her attention. Although inclusion in the "Margot set" became a mark of distinction, her flamboyant behavior and caustic tongue often caused hostility.

Her newly acquired stepchildren, including Violet Bonham-Carter , ranged in age from four to fifteen, and kept Asquith in a state somewhere between total frustration and complete awe. "Skeletons with brains," she called them and complained that they lacked temperament and overvalued intelligence. "They rarely looked at you, and never got up when anyone came into the room." They also slept well, which Asquith, a light sleeper herself, likened to something close to sin. The children were equally ambivalent about their new mother. One of them said later, "She filled us with admiration, amazement, amusement, affection, sometimes even with a vague sense of uneasiness as to what she might, or might not, do next." Asquith also had five children of her own, but only two, Anthony and Elizabeth, survived infancy. Anguish over the losses stayed with her throughout life.

Despite her limited formal education, Asquith was an avid reader and a prolific writer, keeping diaries from an early age, and actively corresponding by letter. The first of her two-volume autobiography, published in 1920 when she was 56 years old, was greeted with considerable embarrassment from her family and friends, and shock and condemnation from the critics. Despite its lively account of English history from the waning days of Victoria to the beginning of the Edwardian age, its instant popularity was due mainly to its indiscretions and revelations about English politics and society. The Times attacked it as a "scandal which cannot be justified or excused." A critique in the Spectator was indicative of general reaction. "The publication could only be justified had the book been by a dead woman about dead men and women." Subsequently, Asquith authored several less controversial books: one on travel, Places and Persons (1925), essays entitled Lay Sermons (1927), a biographical novel, Octavia (1928), and two additional books of reminiscence.

Later in life, when the flap over her autobiography had died down and her husband was no longer in political office, the Asquith house in Sutton Courtenay in the Thames valley was still the weekend destination of a host of incongruous people. After dinner conversations were seemingly endless and sometimes resembled shouting matches. Desmond Mac-Carthy likened one Sunday afternoon luncheon to a wild game of pool. "One is trying to send a remark into the top corner pocket … where at the same moment another player is attempting a close-up shot at his own end: while anecdotes and comments whizz backwards and forwards, cannoning and clashing as they cross the table."

Often communicating with guests by scribbled notes delivered from her bedroom by a footman, Asquith engaged them in killer games of bridge and less strenuous golf outings. There was always time reserved for joyous romps with her grandchildren, when she would regale them with terrifying ghost stories.

Asquith's grandson, Mark Bonham Carter, in his introduction to an edited edition of her autobiography, finds it difficult to fully capture his grandmother's personality, and admits that even her own book fails to bring out her intensely human qualities and endearing virtues: "a simple but deep religious faith; complete physical and social courage; a surprising clear-sightedness about herself and others; generosity/zest and vitality to an unusual degree; candor and honesty to a supreme degree; and a warmth of heart which included all those close to her or connected with her and the young in particular."

Bibesco, Elizabeth (1897–1943)

English writer. Name variations: Princess Bibesco. Born Elizabeth Asquith in 1897; died in 1943; daughter of Herbert Henry Asquith (1852–1928, later earl of Oxford and Asquith) and Margot (Tennant) Asquith ; stepsister of Violet Bonham-Carter (1887–1969); married Prince Antoine Bibesco, in 1919.

Elizabeth Bibesco wrote I Have Only Myself to Blame (1921), Balloons (1923), There is No Return (1927), Portrait of Caroline (1931).

Margot Asquith spent the last years of her life in London's Savoy Hotel, saddened by war and the death of her daughter Elizabeth Bibesco in 1943. Asquith continued to attract new friends up to her death in 1945, at the age of 81.

sources:

Carter, Mark Bonham, ed. The Autobiography of Margot Asquith. Cambridge, MA: The Riverside Press, 1962.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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