Sharp’s the word: Margot to a tee
In the latest in his series on eminent Camden Victorians, Neil Titley considers the formidable Margot Asquith
31 January, 2019 — By Neil Titley
MARGOT Asquith was as well known for her acerbic tongue as for being the wife of the First World War prime minister Herbert Asquith.
Her most famous riposte occurred when she met the Hollywood actress and original “platinum blonde” Jean Harlow. Harlow made the error of addressing her as Margot as if her name rhymed with “dot”. With an evil gleam in her eye, Margot corrected the pronunciation: “My dear, the ‘T’ is silent. As in Harlow.”
The daughter of a rich Liberal industrialist, Margot (1864-1945) was born in Scotland and with her sister Laura arrived in London in 1882. They were described as headstrong and indiscreet and as “bursting into society like a bomb in a lily pond”.
Margot enjoyed the company of older men and attempted to ingratiate herself with some of the leading spirits of Victorian England. It did not always go well.
On one occasion, she visited the literary critic John Addington Symonds in the Swiss mountains. After climbing up the steep hillside to his house, she handed her letter of introduction to the maid and settled down to wait for the aged writer to emerge. After an hour, no one had come. Then she heard the “shuffle of slippered feet”, someone pausing at the door, and Symonds’s querulous voice calling from the next room: “Has she gone yet?”
Margot was forced to reply: “No, I’m afraid I’m still here.”
However, she did become acquainted with the renowned Master of Balliol College Benjamin Jowett. She knew by repute that in his youth Jowett had fallen deeply in love with Florence Nightingale, the famous Crimea nurse. Her refusal of marriage had broken Jowett’s heart and he remained a lifelong bachelor.
One day Jowett asked Margot whether she had ever heard that he had once loved somebody. She did not reveal that she knew about the Nightingale episode but said that she had heard some rumour to that effect. Daringly she asked: “What was your lady love like, Master?”
After a long ruminative pause, Jowett replied: “Violent. Very violent.”
Temporarily sobered by the death of her sister in childbirth, Margot assuaged her sorrow by performing social work in a factory in the East End of London.
She was there during the Jack the Ripper episode and once accompanied the workers to the scene of the latest murder. Margot remembered: “It was strange watching crowds of people collected daily to see nothing but an archway.”
One day, she ended up with some factory girls in a grubby Whitechapel pub called the Peggy Bedford. When one of the girls got into a fight with another woman, Margot attempted to help.
“Before I could separate the combatants, I had given and received heavy blows. Unexpected help came from a factory packer who happened to come in. We extricated ourselves as best we could and ran back to the factory.”
Returning to high society, Margot decided to wed the rising political star Herbert Asquith (although she considered his first name to be too plebeian and insisted he call himself Henry).
Despite reading EF Benson’s savage caricature of Margot in his satirical novel Dodo (“she is a pretentious donkey with the heart and brains of a linnet”), Asquith was enthralled by his exotic “conquest” and they married in 1894. The register was signed by four current and future prime ministers – Gladstone, Lord Roseberry, Balfour and Asquith himself.
Both sets of their friends were puzzled by their relationship. Asquith’s Liberal political colleagues grumbled about his new taste for country houses, while Margot’s friends could not understand why a first-rate rider should become involved with a man who did not hunt.
When Asquith became PM in 1908, the pair moved into Downing Street. This also had its drawbacks. Margot complained: “The King’s peacocks in St James’s Park were an infernal nuisance – they woke everybody up at 4am with their cries.”
Throughout the many crises of her husband’s premiership, Margot was his combative supporter, but her dominating personality grated on many members of his cabinet. When her husband was removed from power in 1916 by a right-wing press conspiracy and by the desertion of David Lloyd George, she shared his bitterness.
Their chagrin was exacerbated by the fact that, as ex-premiers then received no pension, they were now relatively poor. Having been removed from No 10, by 1920 their Cavendish Square mansion was sold and they moved to 44 Bedford Square (a plaque dedicated to the socialite Ottoline Morell presently marks the house). By the late 1920s Margot and her husband were seriously in debt. She admitted to owing £15,000 (over £900,000 in current terms) and having pawned her pearls for £2,000.
She finally managed to restore some wealth to the family by publishing her autobiography. Jean Harlow’s fellow American Dorothy Parker gained a measure of revenge for the aggrieved blonde when she described the book as “the affair between Margot Asquith and Margot Asquith is one of the prettiest love stories in all literature”.
• Adapted from Neil Titley’s book The Oscar Wilde World of Gossip. For details visit www.wildetheatre.co.uk