UK Politics

Margot Asquith: Britain's most colourful 'first lady'

A century on from her time in Downing Street, Parliament is recognising Margot Asquith, a woman whose reputation as a glamorous but controversial society girl makes her one of Britain's most unusual prime ministerial spouses.

Image caption Parliament has recently bought a portrait of Margot Asquith by Philip de Laszlo

She may not look like it, but in some ways Margot Asquith was the Pippa Middleton of her day.

The stern-looking aristocratic lady in grey seems a stark contrast to the socialite sister of the Duchess of Cambridge, whose clothes, boyfriends and lifestyle have been the subject of many gossip column inches since she served as a maid of honour at her sister's wedding to Prince William.

But according to historian Krista Cowman, the Countess of Oxford was, in her youth, one of society's leading ladies, with an "exciting and glamorous life".

"Described as a celebrity by at least one magazine, she was at the centre of late Victorian and Edwardian society, with a capital S," says Prof Cowman.

Before her marriage to the future Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, like Pippa Middleton she was "someone who was famous for being a society person", and she, like the younger Middleton sister, was also "very proactive in creating her brand".

Margot Asquith was born in Peebleshire in Scotland in 1864, the daughter of wealthy industrialist and politician Charles Tennant.

'Social climber'

After her introduction at court in 1881 she became a "frequent figure in gossip columns". Often described as "fashionable", she cared greatly about her appearance.

Image caption Hollywood actress Jean Harlow was said to be on the receiving end of Margot Asquith's famous wit

Contemporary pen portraits of Margot and her sister Laura described them as "social climbers".

But Margot Asquith was also known for her outspokenness, acerbic wit and unconventional behaviour, which sent ripples through polite Victorian society.

Speaking in a lecture to MPs to mark the acquisition of a portrait of Margot Asquith by the Parliamentary Art Collection, Prof Cowman said when Margot and her sister Laura arrived in London they were unlike anything the capital had ever seen before.

"They were astonishing," she says.

For one thing, Margot Asquith was a great lover of the outdoors, a keen horsewoman, with "no fear at all in defying gender conventions".

'Smoking and swearing'

She once even rode her horse up the steps and into the hall of her family's London townhouse, causing the horse to rear up, bring the rider and the hall's crystal chandelier crashing down.

"Every inch the fin de siècle woman, she smoked and swore self-consciously and copiously, danced with the Prince of Wales, sat on Tennyson's knee and had a poem written to her by him," Prof Cowman says.

One of the most famous witty putdowns attributed to her was to Hollywood actress Jean Harlow after Lady Asquith became tired of the actress mispronouncing her first name.

"The t is silent, as in Harlow," she said witheringly.

Of Liberal PM Lloyd George, whose resignation as minister for war in the middle of World War I forced her husband to quit Downing Street, she is quoted as saying: "He couldn't see a belt without hitting below it."

Somewhat scandalously for the time, she and her sister were known for "entertaining mixed company in her bedroom". She was upset at being described as "fast", but "continued the midnight meetings in defiance of convention".

As a consequence of her reputation, her engagement to Asquith, whose first wife died of typhoid, was seen as controversial.

"As a society figure she was not seen as sufficiently serious," Prof Cowman says, and Randolph Churchill and Arthur Balfour thought the marriage might ruin the career of a promising politician.

But although the socialite label was the one most often ascribed to her, she thought of herself as political.

She was deeply involved in the political world, growing up with an MP father and mixing in political circles - but her own political credentials are less clear.

She was a founding member of a group of influential politicians and intellectuals, known as The Souls, and delighted in hosting extravagant political dinner parties when her husband was prime minster.

'Complex and contradictory'

As a keen writer, she often wrote about the politicians of the day, but there was "little comment on policies or ideologies".

"A parade of prime ministers - Gladstone, Salisbury, Rosebery and Balfour feature prominently in her writing, along with Asquith himself, but it is their personalities that dominate her character sketches," Prof Cowman says.

And she did not get involved in the politics of the day, most notably taking no part in the women's suffrage movement, remaining "virtually silent" on the issue.

"One obvious conclusion is that she ought not to be counted as a political figure other than through her marriage to a rising star of the Liberal Party who was to become prime minister, but this is completely at odds with her own interpretation of her life... she makes continued reference to herself as both political and Liberal," Prof Cowman says.

"Although she self-identifies as a Liberal, party is less important than political friendships and a shared outlook. In many ways her politics were located firmly in the personal rather than in the public arena.

"She remains a complex and contradictory figure - at the heart of the political establishment but much more interested in its personalities and its friendship than directly in its policies."