OBITUARY: Betty Askwith
Tuesday 02 May 1995
Askwith, much to her regret, never went to university, but she was a passionate reader and probably learnt as much again from the conversation of the endless streams of guests that were entertained in her parents' home. She showed precocious literary talent when in 1928, at the the age of 19, her first book of poems was published. A second volume followed in 1931, these marking the first of three distinct stages in her work.
In the mid-Thirties, she joined with her great friend Theodora Benson to write several humorous books. During the Second World War, Askwith worked at the Ministry of Information; a few tantalising fragments exist of a diary that she kept which, even in truncated form, give a vivid picture of life in wartime London.
Novels appeared at intervals through the post-war years. In 1966 she published her last, A Step out of Time, which is as readable today as it was then, exploring the subtleties of Victorian attitudes to family life, but which brought to an end the second phase of her literary career. A Tangled Web (1960), perhaps her most widely acclaimed work, a fictionalised account of the Crawford/Dilke divorce case of 1886, can be seen as leading naturally on to Askwith's final phase as biographer of Victorian families.
When Betty Askwith published her biography of Lady Dilke in 1969, it was apparent at once that here was a writer completely at home with and in sympathy with her subject. Lady Dilke's first husband, the Rev Mark Pattison (rightly supposed to be the original of George Eliot's Casaubon in Middlemarch), is so presented, "bony and gaunt in a Victorian nightshirt", as to win the reader's pity. Yet there are no easy appeals to sentimentality in Askwith's writing, and despite the mass of material which she worked on (due to the 19th century's passion for preserving letters) - or perhaps because of it - she was diffident in passing final judgements.
In her next biography, Two Victorian Families (1971), her treatment of the Bensons and Stracheys is admirable. One can respect Edward White Benson, Headmaster of Wellington, Bishop of Truro, Archbishop of Canterbury, but one cannot like him. His treatment of his wife and family was dreadful - his three sons, A.C., R.H. and E.F., grew up emotionally crippled. Yet Askwith did him absolute justice. As with the more congenial Stracheys, none of the Bensons was able to marry, to have children, or even enter into an emotional relationship.
Two more well-researched books followed: The Lytteltons: a family chronicle of the 19th century (1975) and Piety and Wit: the biography of Harriet, Countess Granville 1785-1862 (1982). By now her deep interest in the Victorian age had led her to explore other sources of material. From the diaries of her mother, Ellen Peel, and her grandmother Ellen Palmer she found accounts of two forceful and adventurous young women. Two books, A Victorian Young Lady (1978) and Crimean Courtship (1985) followed. Though they are unpretentious they have a quiet charm which is irresistible.
Betty's marriage to Keith Miller Jones in 1950 gave her happiness and security, and they entertained an interesting circle of friends with grace, style and warmth at their home in Egerton Terrace. Visiting nephews and nieces were given a vision of a culture much broader than they found elsewhere. There was also a certain astringent quality about Betty which gave added bite to her sometimes provocative views. Childless herself, her interest in the lives of her younger relatives was one of her most endearing characteristics.
GBetty Askwith was co-author, with Theodora Benson, of two of the funniest books published in England before the Second World War, writes Ruari McLean.
Both were exquisitely illustrated by Nicolas Bentley in his most devastating line. In Foreigners, or the World in a Nutshell (1935), the preface states:
This little book is our contribution to World Peace. We have considered the idea that it is beneath an Englishman's dignity to understand other nations . . . We do not attempt to add anything new to the sum total of English knowledge of foreigners. What we here offer is a complete collection set forth with care and accuracy of all that is already known. We're not telling you, we're reminding you . . .
We are hoping for the Nobel Prize.
In the second, Muddling Through, or Britain in a Nutshell (1936), they start by observing "Sense of humour is a very exclusive quality. Only the English have it." Later, under "Institutions", we find:
You do not need to have travelled, or to have considered any alternative, or to have had the slightest truck with foreigners to know that almost everything British is the best in the world.
Such is our splendid accuracy and sense of justice that it is known that British cooking and climate are not the best in the world. The only other thing is heavy-weight boxers.
Betty Ellen Askwith, writer: born 26 June 1909; married 1950 Keith Miller Jones (died 1978); died 10 April 1995.
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