Secretary of State for War Reviews Mrs. Asquith’s Book.
Secretary of State for War Reviews Mrs. Asquith’s Book.
REVIEW OF REVIEWS
THE Right Hon. Winston Spencer Churchill, Secretary of State for War, has written for the London Daily Mail, Northcliffe’s newspaper, a review' of Mrs. Asquith’s reminiscences, which have appeared serially in MacLean’s. He says, in part:—
The disdain of chronology, which is a leading feature in the book, is probably the main cause of several serious inaccuracies to which public attention has been drawn while the Memoirs were being published in serial form. The lack of an orderly habit of mind which views events in their proper sequence has led to some very bad mistakes in time and fact. It is necessary to mention three examples.
The first is the case of the conversation with Lord Salisbury. Mrs. Asquith was under the impression and stated that this had taken place in her house in Cavendish square in the year 1904, and was concerned largely with the fiscal controversy “then at its height.” On this Lord Salisbury’s daughter, Lady Gwendolen Cecil, has made the following observation:—
“Lord Salisbury had died the year before, in August, 1903. Not only so; he was already seriously ill when the controversy broke out in the early summer of that year. He took no part in it, and was never in London after it had begun, remaining in close retirement at Hatfield until his death. Therefore no such conversation as is referred to could possibly have taken place, either at the time specified or at any other time.”
To this Mrs. Asquith has rejoined that “the date of 1904 is an obvious misprint and should have been 1903,” and that “it was careless of me to write ‘at the height of the controversy over Protection’,” and that “in Liberal circles the fiscal controversy was always acute.” There we must leave it.
A second remarkable example is found in the version of the Memoirs which has appeared in the United States and Canada. The incident is the scene in the Cabinet room when war began on the night of August 4, 1914.
“After dinner Henry went down to the Cabinet room. I looked at the children asleep and then joined him. Crewe and Grey were already there. We sat and smoked and said nothing. Lloyd George an.. Winston came into the room. The
latter, in high spirits, began to talk, but, as no one wanted to listen, he stopped. Grey sat with his elbows on the table, serious and handsome, and Henry looked very grave. No one spoke. The clock on the mantelpiece hammered out twelve and when it had finished it was as silent as dawn. We were at war.”
On this it is necessary to pointout that the hour of the British declaration of war was eleven and not twelve, and that at the hour of eleven the First Lord of the Admiralty was not in the Cabinet room but in the War room of the Admiralty, authorising the despatch of the telegrams ordering British ships in all parts of the world to commence hostilities against Germany. He did not reach the Cabinet room at Downing street till twenty minutes after “the clock on the mantelpiece had hammered out” the fatal hour. Mrs. Asquith was not there then. His profane intrusion into the long silence is therefore difficult to fix in point of time.
A third instance is found in the painful description, which we had hoped and understood was to be expunged from the Memoirs, of the habits of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson when visiting Mr. and Mrs. John Addington Symonds at Davos. It now appears that the Stevensons never visited the Symondses at Davos but stayed on each occasion at hotels.
This kind of thing shakes the credit of the author as an historian. One cannot accept her impressions of what actually took place and of what people said and did, and when they said and did it, as final and conclusive testimony. But this fact need not plunge the Memoirs into the region of tedious controversy. We must not take them too seriously. It is better to leave them in those regions of light and pleasant reading where gossip, anecdote, inventiveness, self-revelation, and particularly feminine self-revelation, should rightly reside.
It may very likely happen that when one is very pleased with one’s self and very interested in one’s self, and also very anxious to please and interest the reader, there is a certain tendency for the frontiers between memory and imagination to become slightly blurred. When one is looking out across the evening sea to its distant horizon, it is often difficult to tell exactly where sky and ocean meet. A wave may seem a
cloud, or a cloud a wave; a dazzling line of light may now appear on the surface of the waters, and now in the glowing sky. But this does not destroy the pleasing effect. On the contrary, it enhances the charm. Ruskin tells us in his “Elements of Drawing” that Turner in his picture of Ehrenbreitstein moved the churches and cathedrals about “as if they were chess-men,” so as to group them in pairs and produce the effect which he sought, and Ruskin declares that this was fully justified in a work of art. Mrs. Asquith’s friends—and they are many—may find this line of defence a useful one.
There are some epithets, more particularly those which have appeared in the trans-Atlantic portion, which seem to be distributed with a somewhat too highspirited touch. A lady is described as “more socially uncouth than her sister.” This kills two birds with one stone. Another in the serial form, had "something septic in her nature;” but this apparently was a misprint, and what was really intended was “sceptic.” But, alas, it should have been “sceptical;” and the author only escapes from the clumsy
clutches of the printer, or misprinter, to fall into the delicate grip of the grammarian. When one is on the whole sustaining the part of a gay, audacious, kindly, charming personality—a Trilby of Downing street and Mayfair—one ought not to have lapses like these. Then when we come to politics there are some very severe words. A principal colleague at the outbreak of war is “ignorant and hesitating;” another is “irresponsible and ebullient.” We wonder who this caitiff can be. It is not by these controversial touches that the work should be judged.
The story is told with art, and, what is better, unconscious art. There is no rising step by step to some culminating point of interest and thereafter descending to a sedate conclusion. Like .'a brook, it babbles on, shallow, sparkling, usually limpid, giving a broken, fleeting, but at the same time vivid reflection of men, women, and affairs, of joys and sorrows, of good feelings and of feelings not quite so good. It will certainly be widely read, and those who are held and amused by it will be ungrateful and even churlish if they do not thank the author at the end.
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