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Carter, (Helen) Violet Bonham [née (Helen) Violet Asquith], Baroness Asquith of Yarnburyfree

(1887–1969)
  • Mark Pottle

(Helen) Violet Bonham Carter, Baroness Asquith of Yarnbury (1887–1969)

by Howard Coster, 1937

Carter, (Helen) Violet Bonham [née (Helen) Violet Asquith], Baroness Asquith of Yarnbury (1887–1969), politician, was born on 15 April 1887 at Eton House in John Street, Hampstead, London, the only daughter and the fourth of the five children of Herbert Henry Asquith, later first earl of Oxford and Asquith (1852–1928), and his wife, Helen Kelsall, née Melland (1854–1891). The youngest child, Cyril Asquith, became Lord Asquith of Bishopstone. In 1891, when Violet was four, her mother died of typhoid fever. Three years later her father married Margaret Emma Alice (Margot) Tennant [see Asquith, Margaret Emma Alice]; of their two surviving children, the youngest, Anthony Asquith, became a noted film director.

Edwardian society and politics

The early death of Violet's mother drew her closer to her father, who in 1892 became home secretary in Gladstone's last administration. Asquith spoke to his young daughter, who had a precocious intellect, 'on even terms, as though to a contemporary' (V. Bonham Carter, memoir, Bonham Carter MSS). Irish home rule and prison reform, she later recalled, became 'inextricably entangled with visions of my father shaving while he expounded them to me'. It was the beginning of an extraordinarily close filial relationship, which had politics at its core.

Asquith's decision to remarry brought a spirited stepmother into the life of his young family. Margot Asquith was an important influence on Violet in particular. She ensured that her stepdaughter's informal education was of a high standard, employing good governesses and overseeing her ‘finishing’ in Dresden and in Paris. And she fostered the sense of style and ready turn of phrase that carried Violet triumphantly through the 'whirling social vortex' of her first season in 1905. Relations between the two women, though, were constantly strained. In 1909, the year after he became premier, Asquith lamented that they should be 'on terms of chronic misunderstanding' (H. H. Asquith to M. Asquith, Dec 1909, Brock and Brock, 10).

After ‘coming out’ Violet's life was one of great privilege and excitement. Her taste for adventure led to an early flight in a biplane. 'I only live to do it again', she wrote to a friend, 'and feel I must marry an air-man' (V. Asquith to V. Stanley, 22 Aug 1912, Lantern Slides, 327). She had a vibrant personality and came to know virtually everyone who crossed the threshold of 10 Downing Street. Henry James congratulated her: 'Happy child! You are seeing life from the stage box' (Bonham Carter MSS). A memorable early meeting was with the young Winston Churchill at a dinner party. She later told her father that she had been in the presence of genius. 'Well', he responded, 'Winston would certainly agree with you there', observing that not many others might (Bonham Carter, Churchill, 18). Her close friendship with Churchill proved to be lifelong, though punctuated by sharp political differences.

The gaiety of Violet's youth was interrupted by the death in December 1909 of her close friend Archie Gordon, son of the earl of Aberdeen, following a motor car accident. They became engaged in Winchester Hospital as Archie lay dying. A visit to the Sudan in 1910 helped Violet recover from this loss, and the tempo of her life quickened again. It was abruptly halted by the First World War, in which innumerable friends, and her eldest brother, were killed. The conflict also brought to an end her father's premiership. In December 1916 he was succeeded by Lloyd George, and a schism in the Liberal Party ensued. Defeat at the 1918 election added to Asquith's humiliation. Violet once said of Lloyd George, 'having no fidelities he also has no rancours' (diary, November–December 1923, Champion Redoubtable, 156). Exactly the opposite was true of her, and she never forgave him his role in her father's downfall. She made a lifelong mission of defending her father's reputation and in later years responded fiercely, and not always to good effect, to the inevitable criticism of historians.

Inter-war Liberalism, marriage, and the BBC

When Asquith attempted a political comeback, standing for election at Paisley in Glasgow in January 1920, Violet campaigned for him. Despite his pre-war anti-suffragism, which she had echoed, she successfully appealed for the women's vote. It contributed to a famous victory. Churchill later hailed her as 'a champion redoubtable even in the first rank of Party orators' (Churchill, 99). She helped her father hold Paisley in 1922 and 1923, before his final defeat in 1924. After the 1920 triumph she was invited to stand herself. Her decision was complicated by the fact that she now had young children. Her friend Lord Kilbracken advised her to accept. If women in her advantageous position did not, he reasoned, 'an unwritten law' would be established that would deprive her sex 'of a very large number of its best potential representatives' (Kilbracken to V. Bonham Carter, 11 March 1920, Champion Redoubtable, 115–16). While she accepted this argument she felt that her paramount duty was to her young family, a consideration which, as she later indicated, weighed with many women who contemplated entering politics (see her article The political future of women, Good Housekeeping, October 1922, 11–12, 110).

Violet had married in 1915 Maurice Bonham Carter (1880–1960), her father's principal private secretary, and they had two daughters, Cressida and Laura—the latter married Jo Grimond, later a leader of the Liberal Party—and two sons, Mark, later Lord Bonham-Carter, himself a prominent Liberal, and Raymond. Violet served as president of the Women's Liberal Federation, 1923–5, but grew disillusioned with politics after her father ceded the party leadership to Lloyd George in 1926. Much time was now spent with her family in Wiltshire, from which county the ‘Yarnbury’ in her title is taken. By then she had become emotionally involved with O. T. Falk, a city figure who was her husband's business partner. The relationship lasted several years, but was long outlived by a happy and successful marriage.

Violet's withdrawal from politics became marked in 1929, the year after her father's death, when she described herself as 'a political trappist' (V. Bonham Carter to H. Currie, 15 Nov 1929, Champion Redoubtable, 178). She broke her silence in 1931, in support of the National Government, and abandoned it completely two years later in protest against the rise of fascism in Germany. As a young woman Violet had reflected the antisemitism of her social background, but the Nazi persecution of Jews fired her indignation. At Liberal meetings and on election hustings she publicly denounced 'Hitlerism, that monstrous portent' (speech at Liberal meeting, Scarborough, 18 May 1933, Bonham Carter MSS), and derided ‘appeasement’ as the policy of 'peace at any price that others can be forced to pay' (ibid., speech at Caxton Hall, London, 20 Oct 1938). Peace with honour, she argued, could come only through the 'collective security' of the League of Nations. Churchill recognized her important contribution to the debate when, in 1936, he gave her a central role in his anti-fascist Freedom Focus. This cross-party pressure group acted under the auspices of the League of Nations Union, of which Violet remained a patron until 1941. Although the Freedom Focus did little to change public opinion, she took comfort that it strengthened Churchill's claims to be included in the government at the outbreak of war.

After becoming premier Churchill repaid her loyalty by including her, in 1941, in a revitalized board of governors of the BBC. With Harold Nicolson and J. J. Mallon she fought to free the corporation from close political control and to make of public broadcasting a means of popular education, as well as entertainment. Despite some success she felt frustrated when, in April 1946, the Labour government did not renew her term of office.

Liberal decline, public activities, Suez

A woman of exceptional public spirit, Violet Bonham Carter combined duties as an air-raid warden with a second term as president of the Women's Liberal Federation during 1939–45. In 1944 she became president-elect of the Liberal Party Organization. She was confirmed at the 1945 party assembly as its first ever woman president, and held the post until 1947. All her influence was used to identify the party with social reform. She championed Sir William Beveridge's seminal 1942 report and helped recruit him as a Liberal in 1944. At the 1945 election, however, the Liberals managed only a dozen seats, while Violet herself came bottom of the poll at Wells. It was a crushing disappointment, and for some time afterwards she feared the party's extinction. Although Churchill reassured her that he wanted its survival, he could not persuade Conservatives to throw Liberals the lifeline of electoral reform. And at the 1951 election he could not even guarantee Violet the undivided support of local Conservatives when she stood at Colne Valley. Though they withdrew their candidate in her favour, many abstained from voting. The election was narrowly lost to Labour.

To add insult to injury fellow Liberals attacked her for openly accepting Churchill's support. She regarded their lack of pragmatism as symptomatic of the Liberal decline. In the ebb and flow of the electoral tide the party survived only by clinging, barnacle-like, to a half-dozen seats. The charismatic leadership of her son-in-law, Jo Grimond, lightened her gloom. She hoped that a revival would follow each Liberal by-election victory. It never did. Just three Liberal MPs cheered her son, Mark, on his introduction to the Commons after victory at Torrington in 1958: 'I remembered my father's introduction when he took his seat after Paisley & how faint the cheers of the survivors of the Liberal Party then sounded to me. But they at least were 27' (diary, 1 April 1958, Bonham Carter MSS).

Great energy, and a range of interests to match, made Violet a recognizable figure in post-war Britain. She made frequent appearances on radio and television, and contributed articles and innumerable letters to the newspapers. In 1945 she became a governor of the Old Vic theatre, and served on the royal commission on the press during 1947–9. At Churchill's instigation she was honoured with a DBE in 1953. Two years later she became a trustee of the Glyndebourne Arts Trust. Her lifelong involvement in the arts was recognized when, in April 1967, she became the first woman to address the Royal Academy dinner. She combined a passion for travel with an abiding interest in foreign affairs, serving as a British delegate at the Commonwealth Relations Conference in Canada in 1949. She met Ben Gurion in Israel in 1957, Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan in 1958, and President Kennedy in Washington in 1963. She was a patron of the United Nations Association, and in 1964 became president of the Royal Institute of International Affairs. The cause of European unity had her wholehearted support, and in 1947 she became a vice-chair of the United Europe Movement. From 1952 onwards she was a stalwart of the annual Königswinter conferences for Anglo-German friendship.

Besides her advocacy of Britain's entry into the Common Market, Violet probably made her greatest political impact after the war by condemning the British invasion of Suez in 1956. In a letter to The Times, published on 6 November 1956, and quoted that day in the House of Commons by Hugh Gaitskell, she argued that the invasion rendered Britain morally impotent at a time when it needed all of its authority to challenge the Soviet repression of Hungary (Hansard 5, 560, 1956, 37–8). The issue was as clear-cut to her as appeasement had been. Friends and acquaintances were privately marked as ‘sound’ or ‘unsound’ according to their views. She believed that Suez opened an unbridgeable gulf between Liberals and Conservatives. It undeniably led to a personal breach with Harold Macmillan, an old friend. Many believed that this was why she was not given a life peerage until December 1964, as Baroness Asquith of Yarnbury, after Labour had taken office.

The 1960s: the House of Lords

The years prior to this were overshadowed by the death of Violet's husband, in June 1960, and by her own ill health. Her political activities were curtailed, but not stopped. She was in the vanguard of the anti-apartheid movement, and in January 1960 defended a boycott of South African goods on the BBC's Matters of Moment radio programme. In June 1963 she became the first woman to give the Romanes lecture at Oxford, and later that month was made an honorary LLD by the University of Sussex. Admission to the House of Lords further rejuvenated her. In spite of failing health she regularly attended debates and helped to galvanize the small band of Liberal peers into co-ordinated action. She voted in favour of more liberal laws on abortion and homosexuality in 1966–7. In February 1968 she opposed, as too restrictive, the government's Immigration Bill. In August 1968 she spoke passionately about the humanitarian crisis in Biafra, which the 'miracle of television' made apparent to all: 'We have no alibi. We see these things happening'. She called for an immediate end to the sale of British arms to the Nigerian government, 'the most inhuman deed that I can recall in the history of our country' (Hansard 5, 296, 1968, 700–02). Her last speech, in November 1968, was on the need for reform of the House of Lords. She wryly observed that it was a matter that a half-century earlier had been deemed urgent.

When favourably reviewing her biography, Winston Churchill as I Knew Him (1965), Lord Attlee lamented that she had not written more. Asked why she had not, he is reputed to have said: 'Too busy talking' (K. Harris, Attlee, 1982, 560). Violet loved company and revelled especially in political talk. Her earnestness and high moral tone attracted ridicule in some quarters, and probably cost her friends. She was, by her own admission, 'red in tooth & claw' (V. Bonham Carter to W. S. Churchill, 24 July 1941, Champion Redoubtable, 232). Though slightly-built she had a formidable presence, with a strong face and an interrogative look. The wit and brilliance of her oratory, honed by observation of the great speakers of the Edwardian age, was her passport to a career in public life. She knew how to use her patrician tones to devastating effect, whether on a public platform or in conversation. She was exceptionally well read and well informed, and expected others to hold opinions as clearly formed as her own and to be prepared to defend them as vigorously. As a result she was quick to judge, and saw in her acquaintances ‘swans’ and ‘geese’. Some of her assessments were neither favourable nor fair. But if her judgement could be faulty, her instinctive loyalty and readiness to fight injustice were undoubted. Tony Benn wrote admiringly of her in 1962, when she supported his successful campaign to allow peers to renounce their titles, that she belonged 'to the “couldn't care more” brigade' (T. Benn, Years of Hope: Diaries, Letters and Papers, 1940–62, 1995, 256).

The position of working women was always a special concern. She hailed housewives as the true 'unknown warriors' of the Second World War (16 Jan 1942, speech to ‘Women's Parliament’, Bonham Carter MSS). As early as 1925 she called for family allowances, which she maintained should be paid directly to the mother if they were to be effective (meeting of the WNLF council, Southport, 5 May 1925, Bonham Carter MSS). Later on she campaigned for equal pay for women, debating the measure on the BBC radio programme Taking Stock in January 1952. Her own experience as a wife and mother was central to her outlook, but she believed that no woman should be expected to confine her involvement in politics 'to strictly domestic questions' (Good Housekeeping, October 1922, 11–12, 110). In her eyes there was no conflict between her advocacy of women's causes and her strong dislike of feminism. In fact she enjoyed the irony. After becoming the first woman to address the Reform Club, in May 1968, she reflected on how many times she, 'an anti-feminist', had been 'the first to break virgin soil' (diary, 23 May 1968, Bonham Carter MSS). In so doing she undoubtedly paved the way for others, successfully combining femininity with great strength of character and executive ability.

Violet Bonham Carter witnessed the decline of Britain as a great power, and the parallel decline of the Liberal Party as a political force, but she lost faith in neither her country nor her creed. She believed that Britain still had a significant world role, through the Common Market, Commonwealth, and United Nations, and that Liberalism offered the sensible path between the extremes of socialism and unfettered capitalism. Churchill once remarked to her that post-1945 Conservatism was little different to pre-1914 Liberalism. She replied: 'Yes—but that was 40 years ago. Time moves on. One can't afford to follow events with a time-lag of 40 years' (diary, 6 Aug 1953, Bonham Carter MSS). And she did not. She never ceased trying to interpret to modern times the Liberal ideals that she had learned from her father in childhood. She died in London on 19 February 1969 and was buried three days later at Mells in Somerset.

Sources

  • Champion redoubtable: the diaries and letters of Violet Bonham Carter, 1914–1945, ed. M. Pottle (1998)
  • V. Bonham Carter, Winston Churchill as I knew him (1965)
  • H. H. Asquith: letters to Venetia Stanley, ed. M. Brock and E. Brock (1982)
  • W. S. Churchill, Great contemporaries (1937)
  • J. A. Spender and C. Asquith, Life of Herbert Henry Asquith, Lord Oxford and Asquith, 2 vols. [1932]

Archives

  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. and papers
  • BL, corresp. with Society of Authors, Add. MS 63214
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. relating to Society for the Protection of Science and Learning
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Margot Asquith
  • CAC Cam., letters to Lady Diana Cooper
  • CAC Cam., corresp. with Sir W. J. Haley
  • CAC Cam., letters to Lady Spencer-Churchill
  • Herts. ALS, letters to Lady Desborough
  • JRL, letters to Manchester Guardian
  • King's AC Cam., letters to Sir George Barnes and Lady Barnes
  • King's Cam., letters to G. H. W. Rylands
  • King's Lond., Liddell Hart C., corresp. with Sir B. H. Liddell Hart
  • NL Wales, corresp. with Clement Davies
  • Som. ARS, corresp. with Aubrey Herbert
  • Tate collection, corresp. with Lord Clark

Film

  • BBC WAC

Sound

  • BBC WAC
  • BL NSA, ‘Evening with Lady Asquith’, 1969, P344W TR1
  • BL NSA, ‘Lady Violet remembers’, 1969, BD1
  • BL NSA, oral history interview
  • BL NSA, performance recordings

Likenesses

  • G. C. Beresford, photograph, 1907, NPG
  • E. Barnard, watercolour, 1910, priv. coll.
  • photograph, 1912, Hult. Arch.
  • W. Orpen, portrait, 1915, priv. coll.
  • H. Coster, photograph, 1937, NPG [see illus.]
  • B. Brandt, bromide photograph, 1945, NPG
  • K. Hulton, photograph, 1948, Hult. Arch.
  • S. Samuels, photograph, 1951, NPG
  • photograph, 1956, Hult. Arch.
  • O. Nemon, bronze bust, 1960–69, NPG
  • C. Beaton, photograph, NPG
  • H. Coster, photographs, NPG

Wealth at Death

£49,472: probate, 16 June 1969, CGPLA Eng. & Wales