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A legion of suitable boys

Lantern Slides: the diaries and letters of Violet Bonham Carter 1904-14 ed M. Bonham Carter and M. Pottle, Weidenfeld, pounds 20
When Violet Asquith, the prime minister's 25-year-old daughter, went to America in 1913 her every action, even her inaction, was avidly reported. "I had to spend the next morning in bed & then every paper had huge headlines Miss Asquith RESTS". She sat next to Teddy Roosevelt twice in one day. At a reception in Washington, she found that no one could leave until she did (as though she were royalty) and when she toured an office in Wall Street, "I saw 2000 women employees having their lunch who all rose and cheered."

These diaries, covering Violet's life from the age of 17 to 27, are those of a young woman whose situation was as exceptional as her personality. Developing something of a crush, as girls will, on one of her father's associates, she wrote he "is the most all-round perfect being I've ever met; the kind of success which would have turned one's head a little if one had been the Almighty". The wit is out of the ordinary for an 18-year- old. So is the fact that the man was A.J. Balfour, her father's political opponent and predecessor in Number Ten.

Violet, being female, was not of course expected to do anything, an otherwise deplorable fact which had at least the happy side-effect of enabling her to write these diaries. While her numerous and brilliant brothers carried off the prizes at Oxford or read for the Bar she, who was quite possibly the brightest of the lot (a would-be ironic letter from Raymond, the eldest, reads terribly by contrast with her swift, sophisticated, self-mocking prose) had no outlet for her intellectual energy but her letters and her journal. Not that she lacked occupation. Lunches, balls, Saturday-to-Mondays, weeks by the sea for the golf and months in the mountains for the air - a girl in Violet's social position never had to wonder how to fill her day.

Self-indulgent though that life might have been, it was not all frivolous. An Edwardian season was not, like its debased modern counterpart, a succession of evenings during which girls and boys got drunk and flirted. For Violet's generation, "coming out" meant gaining access to a network of grown up, highly influential people. She may have been much preoccupied, quite properly at her time of life, with "lashers" (proposals of marriage - the glossary is excellent and much-needed) but dinner party conversation in her set revolved around Irish Home Rule and the extension of Suffrage, many of the participants being near enough to power for their opinions to matter.

In the latter half of the period covered by this volume, Violet was spending many of her afternoons in the House of Commons and beginning to speak at public meetings, but even as a teenager she was already strikingly well-informed and well connected. It's piquant to read in one entry her passionate denunciations of the Tsarist government, and a few pages later find her encountering the Russian ambassador, a friend, at Buckingham Palace, and remarking on his decorations.

This volume has two plots, one being the chronicle of Asquith's struggle to hold on to power, the other that of Violet's pursuit by a legion of suitable boys. The two are given about equal space and Violet, who prided herself on being "unfeminine", certainly considered the former more important, but she is such a very devoted daughter that her politics are predictable. She is infinitely less acute - indeed quite touchingly devoid of self- knowledge or perceptiveness - but more original when writing about her affairs of the heart. She seems not to have fallen in love easily, though she was much fallen in love with. It was only when Archie Gordon, one of three or four favoured suitors, was fatally injured in a car crash that she felt able to respond. They became engaged on his deathbed, impelled as much by a sense of tragic exultation as by affection. ("Now I know what Tristan felt," said he, "I told him how like a knight he had covered my name with glory by his prowess").

It is pleasing to observe her maturing from this kind of callow cold- hearted romanticism to the point where she was ready to marry her father's PPS, Maurice "Bongie" Bonham Carter, whom she once, when reading Far from the Madding Crowd, identified as being Gabriel Oak to Gordon's Sergeant Troy. Bongie was the good, solid, honourable man who deserves and eventually gets the girl, dismayed though Violet, with her Wagnerian longings, was by his letters urging her not to forget her mosquito cream and curtailing his declarations of love to allow space for a discussion of the latest Naval estimates.

Violet was arrogant and snobbish, but she was funny with it. "I didn't know such people existed and they lie about marringly like orange peel by the sea". She was resolutely opposed to women's suffrage (because her father was) but she must have chafed at the restriction her gender placed on her career. Visiting the States she was taken aback (and chuffed) to find herself briefing a British Ambassador considerably less knowledgeable and less perspicuous about foreign affairs than she was.

There is something pathetic about the enthusiasm she put into the boys' club she ran in the East End, given that some of her male friends were running government departments. But the life described in this volume - luxurious, grand and intellectually stimulating - is not one to be pitied. The pathos lies in the footnotes detailing her dancing partners' subsequent careers: "killed in action in France 1914"; "killed in action in France 1917"; "died of wounds sustained at Gallipoli 1915".

Violet Asquith describes from the inside a political establishment which would shortly be dead metaphorically, and a generation of privileged young people many of whom would soon be dead in dreadful earnest. Her diary, dazzlingly fluent, opinionated and stylish, is an entertaining account of that doubly lost era.