Emma Alice Margaret Asquith, Countess of Oxford and Asquith (née Tennant; 2 February 1864, Peeblesshire – 28 July 1945, London), known as Margot Asquith, was an Anglo-Scottish socialite, author and wit. She was married to H. H. Asquith, a Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, from 1894 until his death in 1928.
She was born in Peeblesshire (Tweeddale), of Scottish and English descent. She was the sixth daughter and eleventh child of Sir Charles Tennant, 1st Baronet, an industrialist and politician, and Emma Winsloe. She was brought up at The Glen, the family's country estate; Margot and her sister Laura grew up wild and uninhibited. Margot was a "venturesome child", for example roaming the moors, climbing to the top of the roof by moonlight, riding her horse up the front steps of the estate house. Riding and golf were her lifelong passions.
The two girls were inseparable, entering society together in London in 1881. She and Laura became the central female figures of an aristocratic group of intellectuals called "The Souls" ("You are always talking about your souls," complained Lord Charles Beresford, thereby providing them with a suitable label). When Laura married Alfred Lyttelton in 1885, the first part of Margot's life ended. Laura's death in 1888 was a devastating blow from which Margot never fully recovered. As a result, Margot developed chronic insomnia which would plague her for the rest of her life.
On 10 May 1894, Margot married H. H. Asquith and became a "spur to his ambition". She brought him into the glittering social world which he had in no way experienced with his first wife, of whom she always spoke warmly. She also became the unenthusiastic stepmother of five children who were bemused by this creature, so different from their quiet mother. "She flashed into our lives like some dazzling bird of paradise, filling us with amazement, amusement, excitement, sometimes with a vague uneasiness as to what she might do next," wrote Violet Asquith. In 1908 when Asquith became Prime Minister, of the first brood of his children only Violet was still at home, and the two shared a deep interest in politics. In contrast, relations between stepmother and stepdaughter were frequently strained, prompting Asquith to write lamentingly of how the two were 'on terms of chronic misunderstanding.' It came as something of a relief to Margot when Violet married Maurice Bonham Carter, Asquith's Principal Private Secretary, in 1915. Violet in later life mellowed somewhat in her attitude to Margot, saying that she was grateful to her for her absolute devotion to Asquith.
A huge house in Cavendish Square in London with a staff of 14 servants was the Asquith home until they moved to 10 Downing Street. The residence of most importance in the life of the Asquiths was The Wharf in Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire, built in 1912. This became their weekend home away from home. It is here that literary, artistic and political luminaries would gather.
Asquith bore five children, only two of whom survived infancy: Elizabeth in 1897, who married Prince Antoine Bibesco of Romania in 1919 and became a writer of some note, and Anthony in 1902, who became a leading English film director.
During World War I Asquith's outspokenness led to a public outcry. For example, she visited a German prisoner of war camp, and she accused her shell-shocked stepson Herbert of being drunk. The negative public and media response may well have contributed to the political downfall of her husband. In 1918 she was publicly attacked in court by Noel Pemberton Billing, a right-wing MP who was convinced that the nation's war effort was being undermined by homosexuality in high society. He hinted that she was associated with the conspirators. Billing also published a poem written by Lord Alfred Douglas which referred to "merry Margot, bound With Lesbian fillets".
After the war
In the late 1920s Margot and her husband were seriously in debt: she admitted to owing £15,000 (over £800,000 at 2015 prices) and having pawned her pearls for £2,000 despite, she claimed, having made £18,000 from books and £10,000 from various writings. A whipround of Liberal sympathisers had to be organised to provide for them. Her husband left her only £300 (just over £16,000 at 2015 prices) on his death in 1928 as he had to use his life insurance to provide for his children. She was left in near penury and her financial position caused her constant concern. Thereafter she made money by advising on “matters of taste” in interior design and advertising Wix cigarettes, often issued "IOU"s which she hoped would never be cashed and, beginning before her husband's death, was given regular gifts of money by Lord Beaverbrook.
Her writing style was not always critically accepted—the most famous review of Asquith's work came from New York wit Dorothy Parker, who wrote, "The affair between Margot Asquith and Margot Asquith will live as one of the prettiest love stories in all literature." Asquith was known for her outspokenness and acerbic wit. A possibly apocryphal but typical story has her meeting the American film actress Jean Harlow and correcting Harlow's mispronunciation of her first name – "No, no; the 't' is silent, as in 'Harlow'." The story was recorded by the Liberal MP Robert Bernays in his diary entry for 26 June 1934, but Bernays does not claim to have witnessed the alleged encounter himself.
Her final overwhelming sadness was the separation from her daughter, Elizabeth, who had been trapped in Bucharest since 1940. Margot schemed for her rescue but Elizabeth died of pneumonia in April 1945; heart-broken, she outlived her daughter by only a few months.
- An Autobiography, 1920
- My Impressions of America, 1922
- Places & Persons, 1925
- Lay Sermons, 1927
- Octavia, 1928
- More Memories, 1933
- More or Less about Myself, 1934
- "Off the Record", 1943
- Brock, Michael; Brock, Eleanor (2014). Margot Asquith's Great War Diary 1914–1916. OUP.
- Jenkins, Roy (1964). Asquith (first ed.). London: Collins. OCLC 243906913.
- Koss, Stephen (1985). Asquith. London: Hamish Hamilton. ISBN 978-0-231-06155-1.
- Pottle, Mark (May 2007). "Carter, (Helen) Violet Bonham, Baroness Asquith of Yarnbury (1887–1969)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn (subscription required). Oxford University Press. Retrieved 15 April 2014.
- see also Kettle, Michael. Salome's Last Veil: The Libel Case of the Century, London: Granada, 1977.; Jodie Medd, "'The Cult of the Clitoris': Anatomy of a National Scandal," Modernism/Modernity 9, no. 1 (2002): 21–49 doi:10.1353/mod.2002.0015
- Philip Hoare, Oscar Wilde's Last Stand: Decadence, Conspiracy, and the Most Outrageous Trial of the Century, Arcade Publishing, 1999, p. 110.
- Koss 1985, pp282-3
- Compute the Relative Value of a U.K. Pound
- Parker, Dorothy (as Constant Reader.) "Re-enter Margot Asquith – A Masterpiece from the French", The New Yorker, 22 October 1927. Reprinted in Parker, Dorothy, Constant Reader, Viking Press, 1970, p. 10-11.
- Byrne, Robert. The 2,548 Best Things Ever Said (1996). New York; Galahad Books.
- Smart, Nick, ed. The Diaries and Letters of Robert Bernays, 1932–1939 (1996), p. 144. Lewiston, Queenston, and Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press.
- Nigel Nicolson (ed.), Harold Nicolson. Diaries and Letters 1930–1939 (London: Collins, 1966), p. 371.
- "'Insolent' Churchill, 'ignorant' Kitchener: waspish wartime diaries of Margot Asquith". The Guardian. 8 June 2014. Retrieved 10 June 2014.
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- Works by Margot Asquith at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about Margot Asquith at Internet Archive
- Full text of Margot Asquith, An Autobiography from Project Gutenberg
- "Archival material relating to Margot Asquith". UK National Archives.
- Bodleian Library catalogue of Margot Asquith's private papers
- Bodleian Library catalogue of H.H. Asquith's private papers
- Bodleian Library catalogue of Lady Violet Bonham Carter's private papers
Title last held byThe Lady Campbell-Bannerman
|Spouse of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
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