IN THE Canadian Forum, Professor James Mavor, head of the Department of Political Economy at the University of Toronto, writes entertainingly of Mrs. Asquith’s book:
“The psychology of Mrs. Asquith and of her Autobiography cannot be understood without realizing that her ‘unfettered’ youth was spent in the country, isolated from the county families in the neighborhood of her father’s estate and isolated from the country folk. Sir Charles Tennant was a chemical manufacturer who inherited a lucrative business from his father. He was a man of large means derived from commerce, and of no family; there was an alleged blot in his escutcheon. For all these reasons the county people who were his neighbors looked down upon him and the Walters of the Times, who were connections of his wife and the only relations of consequence, would have nothing to do with him. His father had left him a gloomy house in a business street in Glasgow, but Charles Tennant purchased an estate in Peeblesshire and there his family were allowed to grow up. When he threw himself into politics by standing for the county in which he lived, and began to contribute to party funds, Tennant soon made friends. He was a sharp, capable man of business and a good listener. The leading politicians took notice of him and enjoyed his hospitality both in London and at Glen.
“Until the Tennant girls were old enough to go into society they met few people—none indeed excepting their father’s political visitors. They were not sent to school (excepting, as Mrs. Asquith relates, for a very short time). They grew up without effective discipline and without systematic education. They had tutors, but these were apparently injudiciously selected. The special circumstances of their family life inevitably bred in them at once a vigorous rectitude and a contemptuous disregard of convention. The atmosphere of their household was not exactly that of a convent but the effect of their seclusion from man and womankind of their own age and standing was in many ways similar to the effect of life in a convent. It is true that the political visitors were distinguished persons and that early contact with people of brains was an enormous advantage; but these people had been educated after the manner of their kind and brought up in a society to which the Tennants were strangers. Thus the Tennants were with them but not of them. Then came sudden emergence from isolation, residence alone in a foreign city and complete freedom, followed by London society and the hunting field. In the former the sprightliness and precocityof Miss Margot Tennant carried her fast and far and in the latter as a first-rate horsewoman she easily excelled. Her very detachment resulting from conditions beyond her control accrued to her benefit. She had set herself to learn quickly many things which others had absorbed gradually. She thus cultivated in
herself the habits of observation and criticism and her sense of humor did the rest.
“Ignored she had been by the county families in her native place; but the sheer force of her vitality took London by storm. Her vivacity, reckless courage on horseback and in conversation, as well as her wholesome good nature, enabled her to make and to keep friends in spite of the strain of her audacious frankness. She knew almost every one who was worth knowing and she gradually developed a talent for making character sketches of the people she met. With some persons of importance in their day she was on exceptionally intimate terms, and these were of sufficiently diversified types—Gladstone, Jowett, Balfour, John Addington Symonds, Henry James, Morley, Curzon, for example.
“Why should she not tell the story of her relations with the men and women of her time, and in telling it why should she not be candid? If every one were to write his or her history and write it truthfully, history in general would be much more reliable than it is. Yet even the most ostentatiously truthful confessions, Rousseau’s for instance, have been found to stray from strict veracity. Whether or not Mrs. Asquith has strayed does not yet appear and, therefore, her narrative must be taken as what it purports to be, th,e history of a vivacious woman, full of healthy vigour and of the joy of life; and, it should be added, a woman with the fundamental virtues and yet a woman of passion. The circumstances which have been indicated threw Mrs. Asquith into the society of the cleverest people of her time. Few of these people were learned in the academical sense, and still fewer were men and women of genius; but most of them had nimble wits and many of them had been occupied with great affairs. To the sharpness which came by nature Mrs. Asquith added the keenness which came of association with people who were even keener than she was. Her Autobiography is thus packed with bons mots.
“It seems that, candid as her Autobiography is, Mrs. Asquith’s Diary, as yet unpublished, is still more free from reserve. This Diary has, she tells us, been submitted to some of her friends, notably to Henry James, John Addington Symonds, and John Morley. The impression produced by this Diary upon all of these, certainly no mean judges in affairs of literature, was sufficiently extraordinary.
“Speaking of a sketch of Gladstone, Symonds says: T feel that you have offered an extremely powerful and brilliant conception, which is impressive and convincing because of your obvious sincerity and breadth of view. The purely biographical and literary value of this bit of work seems to me very great and makes me keenly wish that you would record all your interesting experiences and your first-hand studies of exceptional personalities in the same way.’
“Henry James is even more enthusiastic. ‘It is a wonderful book. H only messieurs les romanciers could photograph experience in'their'fiction as she has done in some of her pages! The episode of Pachay, short as that is, is masterly—above the reach of Balzac; how far above the laborious beetle flight of Henry James! Above even Gecrge Meredith. It is what Henry James would give his right hand to do at once. The episode of Antonelli is very good too, but not so exquisite as the other.’ Unfortunately neither of these marvels appears in the present volume. Perhaps they are too intimately real to appear in cold print.
“Henry James, after a compliment upon her ‘singularly searching vision',’ continues: ‘This and your extraordinary fullness of opportunity make the record a most valuable English document, a rare revelation of the human inwardness of political life in this country and a picture of manners and personal characters as “creditable” on the whole (to the country) as it is frank and acute. The beauty is that you write with such authority, that you’ve seen so
much and lived and moved so much, and that having the chance to observe and feel and discriminate in the light of so much high pressure, you haven’t been in the least afraid but have faced and assimilated and represented for all your worth.’
“And John Morley is scarcely less hypnotized by Mrs. Asquith’s lively pen. ‘It’ (a letter written to him by Mrs. Asquith) ‘is a brilliant example of that character writing in which the French su indisputably beat us. If you like, you can be as keen and brilliant and penetrating as Madame de Sévignéor the best of them, and if I were the publisher, I would tempt you by high emoluments am! certainty of fame.”
Interesting as the Autobiography is it is clear from these opinions that the real bonne bouche is the Diary. Perhaps some day it may be given to the world with its studies of political characters and its cabinet secrets.
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