High-class gossip

Daring to Hope: the diaries and letters of Violet Bonham Carter 1946-1969

Edited by Mark Pottle<em

In 1954, the New Statesman ran a profile of Lady Violet Bonham Carter - the daughter of the one-time prime minister Herbert Asquith - portraying her, complete with lugubrious cartoon by Vicky, as a ridiculous Edwardian relic who flapped around spouting old-fashioned liberal nostrums, at variance with the brave new socialist world. As this paper uncharitably put it, Lady Vi had become a fully conscious member of the ruling classes - without anyone to rule.

The anonymous sketch writer struck a raw nerve. Lady Violet's friends among the great and the good "seethed with indignation" (her words) at the NS's vulgarity. She reported that "Hatchie [Harold Nicholson] was angrier than I have ever seen him. He says that Vites [his wife, Vita] was beside herself and ordered her sons, Ben and Nigel, never to write for such a paper again." Nicholson, Raymond Mortimer, Isaiah Berlin and Rose Macaulay wrote a joint letter of protest to the editor.

A threatened elite was protecting its own in the face of the angry young men of the 1950s. Spiritually, if not in practice, Lady Violet was the last of the "Souls", the high-minded aristocrats who congregated at fine country houses such as Stanway before the First World War.

Her patrician ways certainly set her apart from the modern Labour Party. Was it coincidence that this NS profile appeared two months after her first meeting with George Brown? She was shocked at his manners, particularly when he called her "my dear Violet". "I have never before . . . met anyone so completely un-house-trained," she shrilled. But this distance enhanced her powers as a diarist, which were most acute at a post-Suez dinner party at the Flemings'. Her host, Ian, the creator of James Bond, went to bed after the meal, leaving his wife, Ann, with her some-time lover Hugh Gaitskell and guests. Lady Violet records how Gaitskell, whom she liked, was goggle-eyed and curiously entranced by the mixture of cynicism, hedonism and foul-mouthed talk. "His egalitarianism was obviously being eroded - almost exploded - before one's eyes."

Two earlier volumes of Lady Violet's diaries and letters have been published. Since the death of her son Mark in 1994, his collaborator, the Oxford historian Mark Pottle, has become editor - a job he has done in exemplary fashion. This latest edition takes Lady Violet's story from 1946 to her death in 1969. She supports European unification; she rails against imperialism, whether of the western variety at Suez or the Russian in both Hungary and Czechoslovakia (quoting her brilliantly amusing friend Bertrand Russell that Soviet rule was the worst and most terrible thing that has happened in the history of man). A committed internationalist, she identifies strongly with the anti-apartheid struggle; she lectures at Liberal Party summer schools and appears regularly on the BBC Brains Trust. And still she has time for visits to the theatre and for friends such as Isaiah Berlin, Maynard Keynes and both Winston and Clementine Churchill.

The interest of such a publication is in its author's range of contacts and interests, and in the tenor of the detail. Lady Violet avoids a more professional diarist's compulsion to force her version of history on posterity. Visiting Tel Aviv, where she struggles to balance her support for Arab rights with her admiration for Israel, she meets the future Lady Samuel, the Jewish wife of the grandson of the former British high commissioner for Palestine. They agree that they are both natural protestants (in the classic sense of questioning received opinion). When Lady Violet reveals that her father had only two pet hates - Roman Catholics and eating rabbits - someone hears this as eating rabbis.

Lady Violet's approach to issues was idealistic and personal. Primed by John Wells, she was a passionate advocate of Biafran independence. Angered by the Times's pro-Nigerian stance in the civil war in 1968, she telephoned Gillian, the wife of the paper's then editor, William Rees-Mogg, and asked her to beg him, with my love, "to make the Times show its paces and change its tune on this issue".

Historians should doubtless discover the Rees-Mogg version of that story. They might even debate if Lady Violet achieved much that was tangible. But she was on the side of the angels. Tony Benn summed her up in 1957: "Although she is effusive, over-powering, goody-goody and so much else that is awful, I still like her and admire her. She has tremendous vitality and an unparalleled enthusiasm for life. She belongs to the couldn't-care-more brigade, in contrast to so many of the bored people of today."