‘I have always thought it would be unwholesome for me to attempt to write a diary. I’m sure it will make me think my life drab and strain after sensation to make copy for my autobiography.’ So begins a diary written during the First World War by Cynthia Asquith, described by some as one of the most fascinatingly beautiful women of her time. She died 50 years ago today.
There is a dearth of freely available information about Lady Cynthia Asquith on the internet. Wikipedia has a short entry, as does The Diary Junction; and the garish-looking Fantastic Fiction website has a bibliography. The Liberal England blog tells a cute story about how Lady Cynthia did in 1957 what Judith Keppel became famous for in 2000 - being an aristocrat and winning a big TV quiz prize!
Cynthia Charteris was born in 1887. In 1910 she married Herbert Asquith (the son of Herbert Henry Asquith, Prime Minister at the time) and they had three children. She is most well known, perhaps, for being private secretary to the author J M Barrie and for inheriting a large part of his fortune. She herself wrote for children, as well as horror/fantasy stories, and books of reminiscences. She died on 31 March 1960 - half a century ago today.
At the suggestion of a friend, she began to keep a diary during the First World War. This was published by Hutchinson, but not until 1968, as Lady Cynthia Asquith Diaries 1915-1918 - with a foreword by her lifelong friend L P Hartley. He wrote: ‘Lady Cynthia was one of the most fascinatingly beautiful women of her time - painted for love by McEvoy, Sargent, and Augustus John - and her lively wit and sensitivity of intelligence made her the treasured confidante of such diverse characters as D H Lawrence and Sir James Barrie, but when she died in 1960 she left a new generation to discover yet another of her gifts - as a rarely talented diarist. . .’
Hartley gives three reasons for the ‘value and fascination’ of
her diary: ‘Familiar figures cross her pages, often in ‘undress’, and a pulsing cross-section of the society of her time is shown. . . Secondly, the diary is also the story of the end of an era, symbolised perhaps in the curious anachronism of the Viceregal court in Dublin she describes with such delicious malice. . . And, finally, it is the unconscious analysis of a family and a woman’s identity - developing, maturing, changing, and almost completely breaking under the pressure of the most disastrous events that any generation had ever known.’
Here are a few extracts from Lady Cynthia Asquith Diaries 1915-1918, starting with the very first entry.
15 April 1915
‘I have always thought it would be unwholesome for me to attempt to write a diary. I’m sure it will make me think my life drab and strain after sensation to make copy for my autobiography. I shall become morbidly self-conscious and a valetudinarian about my career, so I shall try not to be un-introspective, and confine myself to events and diagnoses of other people. In any case I am entirely devoid of the gift of sincerity, and could never write as though I were really convinced no other eye would ever see what I wrote. I am incurably self-conscious. This impromptu resolution sprung from an absurd compact I made with Duff Cooper [a British politician and writer] that we would both begin a diary at the same moment, and bind each other over to keep it up. He has given me this lovely book - but instead of inspiring, it paralyses me and makes me feel my life will not be sufficiently purple. . .’
15 April 1916
Margot [second wife of her father-in-law, the Prime Minister] had given me a hat of hers a few days before - too ugly to be seen dead in, and also much too small. I went into Jays to ask if they would change it, but to my humiliating embarrassment they said it must be at least three or four years old.
Lunched at Downing Street with . . . Great discussion about Pamela Lytton. I - in my opinion platitudinously, but in Elizabeth’s paradoxically - supported her claims to superlative charm, saying I should have married her if a man, etc. Elizabeth and the unnatural men there demurred. Jack Tennant admitted she had made his heart beat quicker, but didn’t endorse my good opinion of her intelligence. I said, ‘But, surely, you don’t want a woman to be good at political economy?’ - rather a floater, as that is exactly his wife’s forte! The PM, coming in late, warmly supported me, saying Pamela had had the greatest erotic success of her day and was the most accomplished ‘plate-spinner’. It is bad tactics on Elizabeth’s part to belittle in women just those assets she is without, scoffing at Pamela, Ruby, and other beautiful sirens. . .’
30 July 1916
‘Glittering, scorching day and the town teeming like an anthill. No signs of war, save for the poor, legless men whom Michael tried to encourage by saying, ‘Poor wounded soldiers - soon be better.’ There is no doubt that Brighton has a charm of its own, almost amounting to glamour. I am beginning to be quite patriotic about this end of the town - Kemp Town as it is called - in opposition to the parvenu Hove, which has less character and is to this rather what the Lido is to Venice.
We joined the children on the beach - painfully hot and glaring. We took them in a boat to try and get cooler. Beb and I bathed from the rather squalid bathing machines - perfect in the water, except for the quantity of foreign bodies. . .’
19 September 1916
‘Heartbreaking day. Came downstairs in high spirits, opened newspaper and saw in large print: ‘Lieutenant Asquith Killed in Action’. Darling, brilliant, magically charming Raymond [her brother-in-law] - how much delight and laughter goes with him! It seems to take away one’s last remains of courage. One might have known that nothing so brilliant and precious could escape, but after each blow one’s hopes revive, and one reinvests one’s love and interest. Now I feel I have really relinquished all hope and expect no one to survive.’