SKETCHES OF MANY PREMIERS

MARGOT ASQUITH November 1 1920

SKETCHES OF MANY PREMIERS

MARGOT ASQUITH November 1 1920

SKETCHES OF MANY PREMIERS

MARGOT ASQUITH

OF THE FORMER BRITISH I

THE next Prime Minister, whom I knew much better than Mr. Gladstone or Lord Salisbury, was Lord Rosebery.

When I was a little girl, my mother took us to stay at Thomas’s Hotel, Berkeley Square, to have a course of dancing-lessons from a well-known old man, D’Egville by name. These lessons put me in high spirits because my master told me I could always make a living on the stage. His remarks were justified by a greater authority ten years later, Kate Vaughan—our wonderful English dancer and the first to appear in long skirts— offered to give me lessons for love.

I made Kate Vaughan’s acquaintance in this way. I was a good amateur actress; and with the help of Miss Schletter*—a friend of mine who is on the English stage now—I thought we might act Molière’s Precieuses ridicules for a charity matinée together. Coquelin—the greatest actor of Molière that ever lived—was performing in London at the time, and, being a friend of mine, promised to lend me his whole company and to coach me in my part. He gave me twelve lessons and I worked hard for him and with him; he was intensely particular; I was more nervous over these lessons than I ever felt over riding over high timber. My father was so delighted at what Coquelin said to him of me that he bought a fine early copy of Molière’s plays which he made me give Coquelin:

I enclose the letter of refusal:

“My dearest little Margot,

“Je suis trés mécontent de vous. Je croyais que vous me traitiez tout à fait en ami, car c’était en ami que j’avais accepté de vous offrir quelques indications sur les Précieuses. . . et voila que vous m’envoyez un énorme cadeau. . . imprudence d’abord parce que j’ai tous les beaux Molière qui existent et ensuite parce qu’il ne fallait pas envoyer ombre de quoi que ce soit a votre ami Coq.

“Je vais tout faire, malgré cela, pour aller vous voir un instant aujourd’hui, mais je ne suis pas certain d'y parvenir.

“Remerciez votre amie Madeion et d î t e s-1 u i bien qu’elle non plus ne me doit absolument rien.

“J’aime mieux un tout petit peu de la plus legére gratitude que n’importe quoi. Conservez, ma chère Margot, un bon souvenir de ce petit travail qui a dû vous amuser beaucoup et qui nous a réuni dans les meilleurs sentiments du monde; continuons-nous cette sympathie que je trouve, moi, tout à fait exquise; et croyez qu’en la continuant de votre côté, vous serez mille fois plus que quitte envers votre très dévoué

/^OQUELIN the younger was our stage-manager, and acted the principal part. The plaÿ, being short, was only one item in the matinée. When it was over and the curtain went down (“Freddy Wellesley’s” **band” was playing Strauss valses in the entr’acte) Kate Vaughan was to come on and do a short piece called The Dancing Lesson, the most beautiful solo dance that I ever saw. I was alone on the stage, the curtain was down; and, thinking that no one could see me, I slipt off my Molière hoop of flowered silk and let myself go in full lace petticoats to the wonderful music. Suddenly I heard a rather cockney voice say:

“My lord! How you can dance! Who taught you, I’d like to know?”

I turned round and saw the lovely face of Kate Vaughan. She wore a long black clinging crepe de Chine dress and a little black bonnet with a velvet bow over one ear—her white throat and beautiful arms were bare.

“Why,” she said, “you could be my understudy, I believe! You come round and I’ll teach you, and you will never lack for goldie boys!”

I remember the expression, as I had no idea what she meant. She explained that, if I took my dancing seriously as a profession, I should make money. I was surprised that she had taken me for a professional, but not more so than she when I told her that I had never had a lesson in ballet-dancing in my life.

My lovely coach, however, fell sick, and had to give up the stage. She wrote me a charming letter and had recommended me to her own dancing-master, M. d’Auban, under whom I studied for several years.

One day, many years before this, on returning from my early dancing-lessons to Thomas’s Hotel, I found my father talking to Lord Rosebery; he was saying to him:

“I hear you are going to marry Miss Hannah Rothschild, Rosebery.”

“If you believe that,” Lord Rosebery replied, “you will believe any lie.”

•Miss Annie SchJette;".

••The Honourable F. Wellesley, a famous beau, and the husband of Kate Vaughan.

My father told me to go away. I shook hands and, as I shut the door, I heard Lord Rosebery say:

“Your little girl has got beautiful eyes.”

I repeated this upstairs with great, joy to one of the family, and they said they thought it was true enough if my eyes had not been so close together. I took up a glass, had a good look, and was reluctantly compelled to agree.

I asked my father about Lord Rosebery: he said he was by far the most brilliant young man alive and would certainly make a great reputation.

LORD ROSEBERY was born with almost every advantage; he had a beautiful smile, an interesting face, a remarkable voice and natural authority. At the time 1 knew him he was exceptionally industrious; when at

Oxford he had been too much interested in racing to work, and was consequently sent down—a punishment shared at a later date and on other grounds by another distinguished statesm a n — the present Viscount Grey —but no one

say he

was not a man of fine education and varied tastes.

He first made his fame by being Mr. Gladstone's chairman at the great meetings in the Midlothian campaign, where he became the idol of Scotland.

Wherever there was a crowd in the streets or at the station, in either Glasgow or Edinburgh, and I asked what it was all about, I always

received the same answer: that the commotion was caused by the arrival, or departure, of Rosebery.

I think Lord Rosebery, like many others, might have been happier if he had not been so rich; he would have had a better nervous system. Can anyone doubt that the Heaven which is made difficult for the rich man to enter into is happiness? Riches are over-valued in the Old Testament: the good or successful man receives too many camels, wives, shekels, she-goats, ivory and peacocks. The values are changed in the New Testament: Christ counsels quite a different perfection and promises another reward. He does not censure the man of great possessions, but he points out that his riches will hamper him in his progress to the Kingdom of Heaven and that he would do better to sell all—and concludes by saying:

“Of what profit is it to a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”

Lord Rosebery was too thin-skinned, too conscious, tobe really happy. He was not self-swayed, like Gladstone —but he was èelf-enfolded. He came into power at a

time when the fortunes of the Liberal partje were at their lowest; this, coupled with his) peculiar sensibility, put a great strain upoil i L. .vi 11. n. him. Some people thought he was a man of genius, morbidly sensitive, shrinking front public life and his Press, cursed with insufficient ambition) which isolated him from the world, sudden, baffling, CORK plex and charming; others that he was a man irresistibly to his friends and terrible to his enemies, detached and independent, dreaming of Empire, besought by kings and' armies to put countries and continents straight, a man' whose notice blasted or blessed young men of letters, poets, peers or politicians, a man who at once scared and compelled everyone he met by his freezing silence, his playful smile or the weight of his moral indignation; the truth being" that he was a mixture of both.

Lord Salisbury told me he was the best occasional speaker he ever heard; and he certainly was an exceptionally gifted person. He came to Glen constantly and we all worshipped him; no one was more playful and affectionate than Lord Rosebery.

An announcement in some obscure paper that he was engaged to be married to me came between us in later; years. He was seriously annoyed and thought I ought to have contradicted this. I had never even heard the report till I got a letter from Paris asking if I would not agree to the high consideration and respectful hommages of the writer and allow her to make my chemises. After this, the matter went completely out of my head till, meeting him one day, I was greeted with such frigid self-suppression that I felt quite exhausted. I thought this both silly and conscious. A few months later our thoughtful press said I was engaged to be married to Arthur Balfour. As I had seen nothing of Lord Rosebery since his wife died and he had gone into a period of long mourning, I was acclimatized to doing without him; but to lose Arthur’s affection and friendship would have been an irreparable personal loss. I need not have been afraid; this was just the kind of rumor that challenged Arthur Balfour’s insolent indifference to the public and the Press. Seeing me come into the Rothschilds’ ball-room rather early, he left the side of a man he was talking to and stalked with his long, elastic step all the way down the empty parquet to greet me. He asked me to sit down next to him in a conspicuous place; and we talked through two dances. I was told afterwards that someone had said to him that night: “I hear you are going to marry Margot Ten-

To which he replied:

“No, that is not so. I rather think I shall have a career of my own.”

Lord Rosebery’s two antagonists, Sir William Harcourt and Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, were very different men.

SIR WILLIAM ought to have lived in the eighteenth century. To illustrate his humor, he told me that women should be played with like fish, only in the one case you angle to make them rise and in the other to make them fall. He had a great deal of wit and nature, impulsive generosity of heart and a temperament that clouded his judgment. * He was a man to whom life had added nothing; he was perverse, unreasonable, brilliant, boisterous and kind, when I knew him; but he had been all that in his nursery.

At the time of the split in our party over the Boer War, when we were in opposition and the phrase “methods of barbarism” became famous, my personal friends were in a state of great agitation. Lord Spencer, who rode with me nearly every morning in the Row, deplored the attitude which my husband took up; and I was told that the Hareourts would never speak to us again. We dined with Sir Henry and Lady Lucy one night. Sir William and Lady Harcourt were there. I had no opportunity before dinner of approaching either of them; when the men came out of the dining-room Sir William made a bee-line for me; he sat down and, taking my hand, said:

“My dear little friend, you need not mind any of the quarrels! The Asquith evenings or the Rosebery afternoons; all these things will pass; but your man is the man of the future!”

These were generous words, for, if Lord Morley, my husband and others had backed Sir William Harcourt instead of Lord Rosebery when Gladstone resigned, h( would certainly have become Prime Minister.

I never knew Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman well but whenever we did meet we had great laughs together He was essentially a bon viveur, a boulevardier and i humorist. At an official luncheon in honor of the French Prime Minister, Campbell-Bannerman, in an admirable speech in French—a language which he spoke perfectly— described Arthur Balfour, who was on one side of him, as l'enfant gate of English politics and Chamberlain, who was also at the lunch, as Venfant terrible.

ON THE opening day of Parliament, 14th February, 1905, during the height of the fiscal controversy over which we won three general elections, he made an amusing speech. He said that Arthur Balfour was “like a general who, having given the command to his men to attack, found them attacking one another; when informed of this, he shrugs his shoulders and says that he can’t help it if they will misunderstand his orders.”

When Campbell-Bannerman first became Prime Minister his wife was a complete invalid and his own health was rapidly becoming undermined through nursing her.

In spite of the serious split led by my husband, Grey and Haldane in the Liberal party over the Boer war and the dangerous political situation thus created, w'hen the Tory government fell in 1905 and Campbell-Bannerman became Prime Minister he instantly summoned my husband; he did not have a coupon election to smother his opponents, but asked Henry before he consulted anyone else what appointment he would take for himself and what he thought advisable for other people in the new cabinet.

Campbell-Bannerman was a tired man when he came down to the House of Commons at nights; and, as time went on, he delegated more and more work to my husband.

One day he sent for Henry to go and see him at 10 Downing Street and told him that he was dying; after thanking him for all he had done, and particularly for his great work on the South African constitution—every line of which my husband wrote with his own hand—he turned to him and said:

“Asquith, you are the greatest gentleman that ever

It was the last time they ever met ; he died a few days after this.

I now come to Arthur Balfour.

When Lord Morley was writing the life of Gladstone, Arthur Balfour said to me:,

“If you see John Morley, give him my love and tell him to be bold and indiscreet.”

I agreed with him. A biography must not be a brief either for or against its client: and it should be the same with an autobiography. In writing about living people you must take your courage in both hands. I had thought of putting as my motto on the front page of this book, “As well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb;” but I gave it up and prefer my present quotation.

TF I HAVE written anything that wounds the feelings A of my friends or enemies, I can only refer them to my general character. I am kind by nature and have never willingly hurt anyone in my life; but in this book I must write without fear or favor exactly what I think and with a strict regard to unmodelled truth.

Arthur Balfour was never a standard-bearer. He was a self-indulgent man of simple tastes. For the average person he was as puzzling to understand and as difficult to know as he was easy for me and many others to love. You may say that no average man can know a Prime Minister intimately, but most of us have met strangers whose minds we understand and hearts we reach without preknowledge and without effort; and some of us have had an equal experience among our intimates; when after years we suddenly become aware that all the love we have given and received has not succeeded in spanning our incommunicable lives and the friend whom we thought we knew becomes a stranger.

He was difficult to understand, because I never knew if he needed me; and difficult to know intimately because of his formidable detachment. The most that many of us could hope for was that he had a taste in us as you might have in clocks or old furniture.

Balfour was blessed or cursed at his birth, according to individual opinion, by two great assets—charm and wits. The first he possessed to a greater degree than any man or woman that I have ever met; his social distinction, exquisite attention, intellectual tact, cool grace and lovely bend of the head made him not only a flattering listener but an irresistible companion. The disadvantage of charm— which makes me say cursed or blessed—is that it inspires everyone to combine and smooth the way for you throughout life. As the earnest house-maid removes dust, so all his friends and relations kept disagreeable things from his path. This freed him from small anxieties and effort and gave him more leisure in his life than was humanizing.

HIS wits, with which I say that he was also cursed or blest—quite apart from his brains—gave him the power of sustaining any opinion on any subject, whether he held the opinion or not, with equal brilliance, plausibility and success, according to his desire to dispose of you or the subject. He either played with or had no ethical basis for his intellect; this made him unintelligible to the average man, unforgivable to the fanatic and a god to the blunderer.

I remember going with my husband to a lunch given by old Mr. McEwan for him to meet Frank Harris; the Princess of Monaco and a few others were there. It was a dull

party. Arthur sat as a sort of prince, with his ever courteous faculty of listening and his fastidious toleration. The talk languished. I made a few gallant efforts and my husband—who is very good on these self-conscious occasions—did his best but to no purpose. At last Harris, in a general disquisition to the table, turned to Balfour and said:

“The fact is, Mr. Balfaults of the age come tianity and journalism.”

Arthur replied with quickness and a child-like “Christianity of course journalism?”

When people said— have now done for over —that Mr. Balfour was too much of a philosopher to be really interested in politics I always contradicted them. With his intellectual tastes, perfect literary style and keen interest in philosophy and religion nothing but a great love of politics could account for his not having given more of his time to writing. People thought that he was not interested because he had no passionate belief in improvements and nothing active in his political faith. He never saw much that needed changing; low wages, drink, disease, overcrowding or sweating did not concern him; and he had not power to express moral indignation which he was too tepid and detached to feel.

He was a great Parliamentarian, a brilliant debater and a famous Irish Chief Secretary in the difficult times. What he cared for most was problems of defence connected with the Foreign Office. He also took a Puck-like pleasure in watching the game of party politics; not in the interests of any particular political party, nor from

esprit de corps, but from taste; he had a taste in tactics. It was very noticeable in the years 1903 and 1905, during the fiscal controversy—and anyone of observation could watch this peculiarity carried to a fine art whenever the government to which he belonged was in a tight place.

He shunned emotion and hated introspection. The artists who have expressed with great perfection human experience from an external point of view he delighted in. He preferred any appeal to his intellect to any claim upon his emotions; Handel in music, Pope in poetry, Scott in narration, Jane Austen in fiction and Sainte-Beuve in criticism supplied him with pretty well everything he wanted.

What interested me mostand what Hiked best in Arthur has not been his charm, or his wits, and certainly not his politics, but his religion.

Anyone who has read his books with a searching mind will perceive that his faith in God is what has really moved him in life; no one can say that he has not shown passion here. Religious speculation and contemplation were so much more to him than anything else that he felt justified in treating politics and every day social life with a certain levity.

BORN and bred in the Lowlands of Scotland, he avoided the pagan narrowness, violence and materialism of the extreme High Church; but he was always a strong Churchman. I often wish that he had written on the Church of England. He could have expressed better than any one living how much its influence for good in the future will depend on the spirit in which it is worked if it is to be preserved from disruption. Those of his religious writings which I have read have been purely analytical. My attention was first arrested by an address lie delivered at the Church Congress, Manchester, in 1888. The subject which he chose was Positivism, without any special reference to the peculiarities of Comte's system. He called it The Religion of Humanity. In this essay he first dismisses the purely scientific and then goes on to discuss the Positivist view of man: the following passages will give some idea of his manner and style of writing.

“Man, so far as Natural science itself is able to teach us, is no longer the final cause of the universe, the heavendescended heir of all the ages. His very existence is an accident, his history a brief and discreditable episode in the life of one of the meanest of the planets. Of the combination of causes which first converted a piece or pieces

of unorganised jelly into the living progenitors of humanity, science indeed, as yet, knows nothing. It is enough that from such beginnings, Famine, Disease, and Mutual Slaughter, fit curses of the future lord of creation, have gradually evolved, after infinite travail, a race wdth conscience enough to know that it is vile and intelligence enough to know that it is insignificant. We survey the past and see that its history is of blood and tears, of helpless blundering, of wild revolt, of stupid acquiescence, of empty aspirations. We sound the future, and learn that, after a period, long compared with the individual life, but short indeed compared with the divisions of time open to our investigation, the energies of our system will decay, the glory of the sun will be dimmed, and the earth, tideless and inert, will no longpr tolerate the race which has for a moment disturbed its solitude. Man will go down into the pit, and all his thoughts will perish. The uneasy consciousness, which in this obscure corner has for a brief space broken the contented silence of the Universe, will be at rest. Matter will know itself no longer. Imperishable monuments and immortal deeds, death itself, and love stronger than death, will be as though they had never been. Nor will anything that remains be better or worse for all that the labor,genius, devotion,andsuffering of man have striven through countless generations to effect.”

He continues on Positivism as an influence that cannot be disregarded: “One of the objects of the ‘religion of humanity,’ and it is an object beyond all praise, is to stimulate the imagination till it lovingly embraces the remotest fortunes of the whole human family. But in proportion as we are taught by this or any other religion to neglect the transient and the personal, and to count ourselves as laborers for that which is universal and abiding, so surely must the unceaswhich science is giving to over the time and spaces terial universe, and the ing importance of the

ing range our vision of the madecreas-

place which man is seen to occupy in it, strike coldly on our moral imagination. If so be that the material universe is all we have to do with, my contention is that every such religion and every such philosophy, so long as it insists on regarding man as merely a phenomenon among phenomena, a natural object among other natural objects, is condemned by science to failure as an effective stimulus to high endeavor.

“Love, pity, and endurance it may indeed leave with us; and this is well. But it so dwarfs and impoverishes the ideal end of human effort that, though it may encourage us to die with dignity, it hardly permits us to live with hope.”

APART from the unvarying love I have always had for Arthur Balfour, I should be untrue to myself if I did not feel deeply grateful for the unchanging friendship of a man who can think and write like this.

Of the other two Prime Ministers I cannot write, though no one person knows them better than I do. By no device of mine could I conceal my feelings. Both their names will live with lustre, without my conscience being chargeable with frigid impartiality or fervent partisanship. All of us should be allowed some “private property in thought.”