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Margot at War

Love & Betrayal in Downing Street 1912-1916

 

Anne de Courcy

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 6 November 2014

ISBN : 9780297869832

A little way off my usual turf, but the reasons why I was drawn to this title will become obvious. Margot was the wife of Herbert Asquith, who was the Prime Minster who took Great Britain into the Great War. His unusual lifestyle has been widely reported before (albeit not so forensically as in this tome), and in my view an insight into the workings of his Cabinet adds to one’s understanding of the country’s prosecution of the war.

 

Margot Asquith was clearly a remarkable woman on several levels, and de Courcy does not disguise her admiration for her subject. Indeed Margot approaches saintliness in how she handles the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that come in her direction. Mostly, it should be said, from her husband, abetted by her step-children.

 

Asquith’s intellect would appear to have enabled him to be an adequate, and possibly strong, PM, despite a lifestyle that was reckless in so many ways. An extreme fondness for drink, and an even greater thirst for young women, are not attributes one normally looks for in a national leader. This was combined with an approach to work that makes even George Bush look diligent. Social dinners every night, bridge into the small hours, evening and Friday afternoon drives with his mistress: (one would like to think) it would be impossible in today’s society. He carried on this behaviour at the threshold of the War – when one would have thought international diplomacy merited his full attention – and afterwards. To give Asquith his due, he did cancel a weekend trip to North Wales to stay with Venetia Stanley, his considerably younger mistress - and was traumatised by not being able to go.

 

As if one needs further evidence in 2014-5, this book will convince most readers that political leaders have scant regard for their electorate. Once the war was underway, and it became apparent that it would be a war of industrial scale (that would not be over by Christmas 1914), senior politicians became concerned at the effects of ‘excessive’ alcohol consumption on industrial output. Temperance laws were introduced, and opening hours of licensed premises curtailed. Needless to say, the heroic imbibing of Asquith was not affected one jot.

 

De Courcy is blessed with a plethora of sources, but how she uses them is difficult to judge, as there are no references. Margot’s diary is clearly vital, and contains some gems. The Asquiths met Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife at Windsor. Margot’s diary that night relates “the Austrian Ambassador in Paris told me afterwards he disliked her and loved the archduke, that she was an intriguer and an adventuress, etc.. I told him that I liked her and that it must be awful to live in a court that was hostile.” To the Ambassador she  said, undoubtedly stiffly: ‘I presume her greatest offence  was in marrying him.’ To which he replied: ’If not her greatest offence, his greatest folly’.

 

Margot was also on very good terms with the German ambassador to London, and it is instructive that (according to her), he was upset at the Kaiser’s ardent desire for war. The British Ambassador in Berlin was treated with considerably less courtesy.

 

De Courcy is quite a good writer, yet she treats her reader with a level of condescension which becomes progressively more irritating. Sample: “the mountain air was supposed to have a curative effect on tuberculosis (or ‘consumption’ as it was often called)….”. More pointedly she regularly veers away from her subject to discourse at length on the social, economic, political and military environment of Edwardian Britain. Perhaps she is targeting such a wide and general audience that they know little of such matters. Or perhaps she is padding out her tale. Either way, it diminishes the impact of the story of Margot – a woman treated appallingly by her husband, and at least in the early years, cruelly by her step-children.