There’s no fool like an old fool. On 25 February 1915, Britain’s prime minister made an unscheduled visit to the London Hospital, ostensibly to check out the conditions for the wounded. In reality, he was hoping to sneak a peek at a young girl, with whom he was besotted, wearing her nurses’ uniform. He was Herbert Henry Asquith, a married man with seven children. She was the Honourable Venetia Stanley, daughter of the 4th Baron Stanley of Alderley.
There is something peculiarly unedifying about the spectacle of a respected and powerful man in his sixties falling in lust with a girl in her twenties, though it is hardly a new phenomenon. That she was his daughter’s closest friend only adds to the seediness of the affair. Violet Asquith and Venetia Stanley had an extremely strong, erotic bond. Violet did not learn of the relationship between her beloved friend and her father until many years after their deaths. “It cannot be true!” she cried. “Venetia was so plain.”
Stefan Buczacki’s biography is subtitled The Extraordinary Life and Times of Venetia Stanley but the thrust of the book is the relationship between Venetia and Asquith. Hundreds of his ardent love missives were edited out of his published letters, but here some of their content is aired for the first time. To Buczacki, they represent the “surrogate diary” of a man who chose not to keep one.
Asquith does not come out well. Obsessed with the classics (he won a classical scholarship to Balliol College), he wrote appalling poetry to Venetia which he referred to as “The Venetiad”. To give just a flavour of this, he rhymed “Venetia the rusty”, with “Venetia the crusty”. She wrote back titillating letters describing the looseness of her clothing. Asquith, who seems to have harboured a clothes fetish, nicknamed one of her dresses “the yellow peril”.
He described Venetia in his correspondence as his “dearest and truest love” and declared repeatedly: “I love you more than life.” The idea that many of these passionate missives were written at cabinet meetings during the First World War is repellent. He got a thrill from writing to her on War Office notepaper and passed on confidential war news, juxtaposing details of severe casualties with flirtatious gossip, talk about the weather and praise for her prowess in cooking and knitting socks.
In the middle of telling her about the loss of HMS Audacious, he jokes about the man who went to see Hamlet and complained that it was full of quotations. She sent love tokens, such as a sprig of myrtle, a symbol of Aphrodite. Asquith begged her for a picture, and then stole two photographs that she had left on a table. He kept her letters and photographs in his despatch box. When Venetia went to train as a probationary nurse at the London Hospital, he wrote to her up to four times a day, often signing himself as “your lover”. So, the inevitable question is: did they or didn’t they?
Buczacki, on balance, thinks not. Theirs certainly seems more like an epistolary affair, more in the realms of fantasy than reality. On the other hand, they spent many hours alone without a chaperone, often driving around in the PM’s prized Napier, and his chauffeur was very discreet. Nevertheless, it does the author no credit that he imagines Asquith fondling his daughter’s bosom friend (“a fumbling clumsy hand struggling to find a breast inside a tightly buttoned blouse”), even if Asquith did grope young women, as testified by many members of his “young harem” – the phrase for it used by his long-suffering second wife, Margot.
Cruelly, he read Venetia’s letters aloud to Margot and relayed the strength of his passion, whilst claiming that the marriage was strong: “My fondness for Venetia has never interfered and never could with our relationship.” That sounds rather like having your cake and eating it.
The “intimate friendship” came to an end when Venetia married one of his colleagues, Edwin Montagu. Asquith was distraught. That Montagu was Jewish and asked Venetia to convert to Judaism so that he could retain his rightful inheritance brought out Asquith’s innate anti-Semitism. He never really forgave either of them and he transferred his affections to Venetia’s elder (married) sister Sylvia.
This book badly needs a firm editorial hand. It is old-fashioned and meandering and it often descends into bathos: “Shortly after Edwin left, Venetia had to deal with the first of the many shocks that will resonate with anyone who has bought an old house . . . the hot water supply was wholly out of date.” Other platitudes such as “dying of cancer is not a pretty sight” strike the wrong tone. Buczacki chastises “women writers” such as Ffion Hague and Naomi Levine for their “exhaustive” studies of the era. That seems a bit of a cheek, given how liberally he litters his book with peripheral figures. Yet there is shockingly little about the likes of Raymond Asquith, John F Kennedy’s hero and the premier’s eldest son, who was killed in action in the war. It is more than a little tedious to read instead of Venetia’s endless affairs with people rejoicing in the names Goonie, Bongie and Puffin.
The core problem with My Darling Mr Asquith is that Venetia is unlikeable and not very interesting. She was serially unfaithful to her husband (counting Max Beaverbrook among her lovers) and was a cold, uncaring mother to her daughter, Judith, whose father was almost certainly not Montagu. She cheated at cards, kept a bear and a penguin as domestic pets, and didn’t bother turning up to Asquith’s funeral despite their 15-year-long relationship. On meeting her in 1936, Isaiah Berlin wrote “handsome, smart, awful woman”. Buczacki’s 420 laboured pages only confirm that crisp judgement.
Paula Byrne’s most recent book is “Kick: the True Story of Kick Kennedy, JFK’s Forgotten Sister and the Heir to Chatsworth” (William Collins)
This article appears in the 14 Sep 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of the golden generation