A woman's place is in the House

LANTERN SLIDES:The Diaries and Letters of Violet Bonham Carter 1904-1914 eds Mark Bonham Carter & Mark Pottle Weidenfeld pounds

Mark Bostridge
Sunday 12 May 1996 00:02 BST

Violet Bonham Carter was a grande dame of British politics, a superb natural orator, and the last standard-bearer of Asquithian Liberalism. Although she never sat in the Commons, and was not elevated to the Lords until the age of 77, she had been a close observer of political life for as long as she could remember by virtue of her privileged position as the only daughter by his first marriage of the Liberal Prime Minister, H H Asquith.

Brought up during the twilight years of the last Gladstone administration, in which her father served as Home Secretary, Violet celebrated her coming- of-age in 1908 in the month Asquith formed his first Cabinet. She was one of his most valued confidantes and his staunchest admirer. These diaries and letters, as Roy Jenkins says in his introduction, capture the world of patrician Edwardian Liberalism at its most exuberant and self-confident.

They also portray a way of life that was soon to disappear, swept away by four years of war. The young Violet was combative, witty and rather self-consciously intellectual, an understandable trait, perhaps, in a family where her four brothers were all sent off to public schools and Oxford while Violet had to make do with an unsystematic education of governesses and finishing schools. Her eldest brother, that Balliol demigod Raymond Asquith, makes one memorable appearance here, excoriating Violet for having made off with several of his books, including his beloved "light blue morocco" Liddell and Scott.

The diaries open in 1904 in Paris where the 17-year-old Violet was on a six-month visit, attending some lectures at the Sorbonne, in the company of her brother Arthur. In the following year Violet made her debut in society, and was thrown into a "whirling vortex" of dinners, dances and country-house weekends. The first quarter of this volume is in fact little more than an extended narrative of the "season" and of Violet's courtship by (mostly) Balliol men of both Liberal and Unionist sympathies, including Mrs Humphrey Ward's ne'er-do-well son, Arnold. Violet seems to have been something of a Zuleika for the smart political set, content to keep several young hopefuls dangling, watchful for the moment when one of them might approach her with an unwelcome "lasher" (Edwardian jargon for a proposal of marriage).

The mood of the book suddenly turns more sombre in 1909 when one of these men, Archie Gordon, the son of the Earl of Aberdeen, was fatally injured in a car accident. On his deathbed he and Violet became engaged.

One figure who is often absent from these pages, surprisingly, is Violet's stepmother, Margot Asquith. Violet's relationship with Margot was notoriously fraught, and yet Violet's attitude as a diarist tends to be one of tolerant detachment. We feel the lack here of Margot's epigrammatic wit, and of the way, as Cynthia Asquith memorably put it, Margot always came away from a visit "leaving a wake of weeping, injured people". Margot is glimpsed only occasionally, doing impressions of the King and Queen, and, in one poignant moment, cradling her dead baby in her arms.

In politics, Violet was once described as tending to side with sentiment against sense, and her uncritical adoration of her father, and all that he stood for, prevents her from saying anything truly revealing about the Asquith premiership. Father is invariably "magnificent", and Violet's personal judgements - her dislike of Lloyd George, for instance, and any reservations she felt about Churchill - are always dictated by filial loyalty. We can feel some sympathy for Violet when we realise the extent of her ignorance of her father's infatuation with Violet's own great friend, Venetia Stanley (a relationship that began in 1912), but not for her intransigent opposition to women's suffrage. This appears to have been based largely on the increasingly militant tactics the suffragettes used against Asquith and his government (in one house where Asquith stayed, wire-netting was put over the bath to protect him) rather than any reasoned rejection of their cause.

Violet's natural qualities as a diarist, her lush, evocative prose, would have been more enhanced by some judicious cutting: far too much has been left in about her extensive travels in Egypt and the United States. Mark Pottle (who took over responsibility for the book after the death of Violet's son, Mark Bonham Carter) is an assiduous editor, but the weight of the scholarly apparatus he provides sometimes threatens to overwhelm the text. For these lantern slides are the impressions of immaturity, evanescent and quickly forgotten. It will be interesting to see in future volumes whether the daughter manages to emerge from the father's shadow.

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