Books: Dearest Foxy and Bongie

CHAMPION REDOUBTABLE: The Diaries and Letters of Violet Bonham Carter 1914-1945 ed Mark Pottle, Weidenfeld pounds 25

THE FIRST volume of Violet Bonham Carter's diaries and letters, Lantern Slides, covered the period from 1904 to 1914, and presented a portrait of the heyday of patrician Edwardian Liberalism from the pen of one of its most privileged and enlightened observers. It showed Violet Asquith (as she then was) to have been, even in her late teens and early twenties, the fiercest and most loyal advocate and protector of her father, the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith. It also revealed a life overshadowed early on by tragedy, with the death of one of Violet's closest friends, Archie Gordon, the son of the Earl of Aberdeen, in a motoring accident, which represented a personal turning-point for her.

This new selection is darkened by tragedy from the outset; only this time it is the sorrow and suffering brought about by the fate of Violet's contemporaries in the Great War. "I do really think that some of the boys should enlist," Violet wrote of, her brothers in August 1914, fearful that "Father will be asked why he doesn't begin his recruiting at home." And one by one they do all enlist, family and friends.

Chief among the latter group was Rupert Brooke, exhibited here in all his glowing self-regard, and the first of those she loved to die. In exactly what terms Violet saw her relationship with Brooke, and how she hoped it might have progressed had he not succumbed to septicaemia, is something of a mystery. She was the recipient of some of Brooke's most tender letters from the Aegean (published now for the first time), and writes herself, rather tellingly, to him at one point that "You don't know what a delicious warmth it gave me when you said you liked being with me. You rarely give one warmth but more light than anyone in the world."

Seven months after Brooke's death and following a fair amount of dithering on Violet's part, Violet married her father's private secretary, Maurice Bonham Carter, known universally it seems as "Bongie". Bongie, with his quiet fidelity and strength, is one of the most attractive characters to emerge from the book. He was the "rock under my feet", she told him, and the individual who offered most in the way of security and personal happiness in the aftermath of a war in which one of her brothers, Arthur, lost a leg, while another, the brilliant Raymond, died of wounds on the Somme.

The seething mass of emotion, never far from the surface, makes Violet Bonham Carter a compelling diarist. The first third of the book, dealing with the First World War, contains its finest passages. Her eye for detail and character in this section, her ability to dramatise a scene, and the way in which she can capture conversation combine at times to put her on a level with the great political diarists of the inter-war years, like Harold Nicolson. This volume is more episodic than its predecessor, but none the worse for that. The snatches of drama prove far more palatable than the great weight of the earlier diaries. Violet was only an intermittent diarist, and for a whole decade , the Thirties, no diaries and few letters are extant, creating a great vacuum at the centre of the book. By interpolating Violet's speeches from her part in the battle against appeasement, the editor, Mark Pottle, does the best he can to fill the void; but one regrets the loss of personal detail, including the story of her long emotional involvement with the economist, O T ("Foxy") Falk. One is aware too, at certain stages, that Violet is writing up her diary at a little distance from the events she is describing, casting doubt on the historical accuracy of her record.

Three political titans straddle these pages: Asquith, Lloyd George, and Churchill. In Violet's relationships with all three men, the description "Champion Redoubtable" (the phrase was coined by Churchill to describe Violet's championing of Asquith) seems to fit her like a glove. Her love and loyalty were as fierce and unyieldinq as her rancour. In her eyes her father could do no wrong, and he returned her affection just as unconditionally, writing to her on her wedding day of their "divine companionship". Violet could never forgive Lloyd George for what she considered to be his unprincipled ousting of Asquith from the leadership of the Liberal Party, and her friendship with Churchill, lasting for 60 years, weathered storms produced by the occasions when Churchill, too, had failed to do his best for Asquith in the daughter's eyes.

Violet's outstanding qualitles as a public speaker made her an obvious candidate as an MP. But family life for many years claimed precedence over entering the political arena. For one who stood so valiantly for so many liberal causes, it is surprising that she kept so firmly to the line that a woman's first duty was to the home. These diaries and letters give many touching examples of her devotion to her children - and the account of her anxious wait for news of her son, Mark, after his capture and internment as an Italian prisoner of war is one of the best parts of her diary - but one cannot help but wonder what she might have achieved in the House of Commons, or even in Government. She became in time a very effective wartime governor of the BBC, and President of the Liberal Party, but there's no doubt she could have been an even more commanding presence in public life, and that is the country's loss.

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