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date: 10 December 2023


(act. 1886–1911)


(act. 1886–1911)
  • Jane Ridley

Souls (act. 1886–1911), were a late Victorian aristocratic clique loosely linked to the Conservative politician Arthur James Balfour, first earl of Balfour. An 'odd mixture of liberation and snobbery' (Lyttelton, (Octavia) Laura, Oxford DNB), they protested against the philistinism of contemporary aristocratic society, cultivating personal intimacy and friendship rather than field sports and ostentatious display. As a governing group with a distinct cultural identity, the Souls combined the characteristics of the Holland House set and the Bloomsbury group.

The nucleus of the Souls was the friendship between four families—the Balfours, Lytteltons, Tennants, and Wyndhams. These links were sealed by tragedy. In 1875 May Lyttelton, the twenty-four-year-old niece of W. E. Gladstone, died suddenly of typhoid. Arthur Balfour, then a twenty-seven-year-old Conservative MP, languid but clever, was devastated. He enclosed a ring to be buried in her coffin, and insisted (though there is in fact no evidence that May was aware of this) that he was secretly engaged to her. He had met May through her older brother Spencer Lyttelton, an Eton contemporary who introduced him to the cousinhood of Lytteltons and Gladstones. May's death brought Arthur and his brother Gerald Balfour, later second earl of Balfour, close to the Lyttelton family, especially to her brother Alfred Lyttelton. Nine years younger than Balfour, Alfred Lyttelton was spectacularly good looking and a leading cricketer, seemingly destined for political stardom. As a nephew of Gladstone, Alfred Lyttelton was naturally expected to join the Liberal Party, but after 1886 he defected, following Balfour into the Unionist Party.

Even more devastating than May Lyttelton's death was the death of Alfred Lyttelton's wife, Laura Lyttelton. She was the daughter of Sir Charles Tennant, the Glasgow chemical tycoon and Liberal supporter, and, together with her hyperactive and flirtatious sister Margot [see Asquith, Margaret Emma Alice], she had taken London society by storm during the season of 1881–2. After a passionate (but unconsummated) affair (1884–5) with the handsome Adolphus (Doll) Liddell, who was captivated by her 'mixture of innocence and mischief', and a brief engagement to Gerald Balfour, Laura married Alfred Lyttelton in 1885. The following year, not yet twenty-four, she died in childbirth. Laura's agonizing death was a shocking encounter with tragedy which jolted her pleasure-loving socialite friends. According to Margot Tennant, the friends who mourned Laura perpetuated her memory through the Souls.

One of Laura Tennant's closest friends was Mary Elcho [see Charteris, Mary Constance], the wife of Hugo Charteris, Lord Elcho (1857–1937), heir to the earl of Wemyss and a Scottish neighbour of the Balfours. Mary Elcho had a lifelong amitié amoureuse with Balfour, and they conducted a correspondence over forty years. Mary's brother George Wyndham entered tory politics; her sister Pamela Wyndham married Margot's brother Edward Tennant. Hugo Elcho's sister Hilda Charteris married the politician St John Brodrick, who was also a member of the clique.

By 1889 the Souls were a clearly defined group, conscious of their distinct identity. George Curzon, later Marquess Curzon of Kedleston, a leading member, held a dinner at the Bachelors' Club (10 July 1889) attended by forty members of the Gang, as the Souls then preferred to call themselves. The doggerel verses which Curzon composed to celebrate the event give the core membership of the Souls (Lambert, 3–5; Asquith, Autobiography, 1.176–81). According to the celebrated Souls hostess, Lady (Ettie) Desborough [see Grenfell, Ethel Anne Priscilla], the Souls received their name at a house party in the summer of 1888, when Lord Charles Beresford remarked: 'You all sit and talk about each other's souls—I shall call you the “Souls”’' (The Times, 21 Jan 1929, 13). Beresford was a member of the prince of Wales's Marlborough House set, and his quip is a clue to the orientation of the Souls. Defining themselves almost in antithesis to Marlborough House, with which they overlapped—socialites such as Jennie Jerome, later Lady Randolph Churchill [see Churchill, Jeanette], and Daisy Greville, countess of Warwick [see Greville, Frances], were equally at ease at the dinner tables of both groups—Souls on the whole disliked the royal sports of horse racing and Germanic pheasant shooting. Instead, they played golf, spending summer months on the links of North Berwick. Like the Marlborough House set, however, the Souls were bonded by country house parties. Rather than late-night bridge, they played word games or discussed literature; and where the court set bankrupted themselves in entertaining the prince, the Souls engaged in the bloodless sport of character assassination.

Both circles revolved around a leader. Instead of the prince of Wales, the Souls had Arthur BalfourKing Arthur as he was dubbed. He was forty in 1888, between ten and fifteen years older than most other members of the group—Margot Tennant was twenty-five, Mary Elcho twenty-six, George Curzon twenty-nine and George Wyndham twenty-five. Balfour's charm lay in his ability to make each of his friends feel that he cared for them more than for any one else. 'I do not believe he was ever in love', wrote Margot Asquith, and when, many years later, she asked him whether he would care if she, Ettie Desborough, and Mary Elcho all died, he replied laconically, 'I would mind if you all died on the same day' (Asquith, Off the Record, 52).

The Souls were less vulnerable to sex or divorce scandals than the adulterous Marlborough House set. When scandals did erupt, Balfour acted as arbiter, much as the prince of Wales did: Balfour was called in, for example, to adjudicate over the Soul Henry (Harry) Cust's seduction of Nina Welby-Gregory, ordering the unfortunate couple to marry, and incidentally condemning them both to lifelong misery.

Balfour thought the name the Souls was 'meaningless and slightly ludicrous', implying not only organization and purpose, where none was ever dreamed of, but also a process of selection, when the group was 'a spontaneous and natural growth' (Balfour, 232). Margot Asquith, who championed the Souls in her Autobiography, considered that the Souls' claim to historical significance lay in making private friendships which crossed party barriers (1.139). Balfour once told her that 'Till “the Souls” emerged into London, Tories and Liberals of distinction never met … Do you imagine that I could have asked any Liberal to dine with me … before I knew you?' (Asquith, Off the Record, 51). Outsiders were predictably critical. Beatrice Webb curled her lip at their privileged, leisured charm. Meeting a group of Souls in 1892, she found them 'good to look on … with the exquisite deference and ease which constitutes good breeding', but with 'a vain restlessness of tickled vanity. One would become quickly satiated' (Diary of Beatrice Webb, 2.22).

The Souls were undoubtedly aristocratic, but, as David Cannadine has pointed out, the fact that they were a clique is indicative of the fragmentation and decline of aristocratic society. By aristocratic standards, many members of the Souls were relatively poor: Balfour himself left a depleted fortune, having lost money in unwise investments. 'One reason they placed so much stress on intimate friendship, on personal qualities and comradeship rather than show and display, was that most of them could not afford to live in the more ostentatious manner of the time' (Cannadine, 350–1). Not all Souls were aristocratic: ‘D. D.’ (Edith) Balfour [see Lyttelton, Edith], who became the second wife of Alfred Lyttelton, was the child of a businessman and the Tennants were a third-generation manufacturing family. For these, the Souls represented a vehicle of upward social mobility. Seen from the perspective of a later generation of Tennants, however, the aristocratic embrace of the Souls fatally sapped the family's middle-class virtues, launching the Tennants on a Buddenbrooks-like decline.

Declining aristocracy or not, the Souls danced very close to the magic circle of fin de siècle politics. They gravitated to power and collected prime ministers. The Souls began in Salisbury's orbit—indeed the group supplied much of the talent of the later Salisbury governments. Balfour's cabinet was stuffed with SoulsSt John Brodrick, George Wyndham, and Alfred Lyttelton, with George Curzon as viceroy. Margot Tennant's marriage to Herbert Henry Asquith ensured a continuing presence of Souls in the corridors of power. Ettie Desborough, who entertained at Taplow and Panshanger, was descended from Lady Melbourne and Lady Palmerston; she talked in the Holland House drawl, and could truly claim to be the last of the great whig hostesses.

It would be an exaggeration to say that the Souls stood for a philosophy of life in the way that, say, the Bloomsbury group derived its aesthetic from the work of G. E. Moore. Unlike Moore, whose philosophy implied the rejection of social good and the cultivation of moments of beauty and private relationships, the Souls were committed to public life. They were a generation of believers tormented by anxiety over the death of God. Arthur Balfour composed philosophy, lying in bed until lunch time; and the very writing of it saved him from the feeling of futility. On the one hand, argued Balfour, there is no proof that God exists; on the other, the so-called scientific proof that God does not exist is flawed. His brother Gerald devoted his life after a brief political career to psychical research and proving the afterlife. Having lost the moral purpose that drove the older generation of Gladstone and even Salisbury, the Souls saw politics in pragmatic, rational terms—as a matter of finding solutions to legislative problems rather than discovering missions or intuiting the people's will. Curzon and Balfour were skilled administrators and parliamentarians with little interest in democratic politics. Politics was the day job, something over which the true Soul should never lose sleep. Private life, friendship, conversation, moments of intimacy and that most ephemeral and dangerous gift called charm—these were the things that really counted for the Souls.

Souls despised philistinism and scorned the glitter and the gold of the Marlborough House set. Frances Horner, wife of John Horner of Mells, was the daughter of William Graham, who was a patron of the Pre-Raphaelites; she was a favourite model for Edward Burne-Jones, who became infatuated by her pale beauty. Violet Manners, duchess of Rutland, was a talented artist, whose portraits might have been taken seriously had she not had the double misfortune of being both a woman and a duchess. Like Frances Horner, she possessed the Pre-Raphaelite looks which the Souls admired. Mary Elcho was another Souls beauty. In 1900 she and her sisters Madeline, wife of Charles Adeane, and Pamela Tennant sat for John Singer Sargent's The Three Graces, a vast canvas of swirling satin and tulle which projects the three Wyndham sisters as the very epitome of mature Edwardian beauty.

Souls' country houses were their best memorial. At Stanway in the Cotswolds, Mary Elcho preserved a Jacobean gem in the manner of William Morris. Frances Horner was châtelaine of Mells in Somerset, an Elizabethan manor house, which she embellished with commissions by Burne-Jones. Detmar Blow and Edwin Lutyens were the favourite Souls architects; both were connected to the group by marriage. Lutyens's arts and crafts fondness for local texture, his bare interiors and his 'new-old' villas which were houses in the country rather than country houses in the traditional sense fitted well with the Souls' way of life. For Alfred Lyttelton he built Grey Walls in East Lothian on the golf links, and then Wittersham in Kent. He built Fisher's Hill for Gerald Balfour, whose brother-in-law he was.

Being a member of the Souls probably mattered more to the women members of the group than the men. Souls women had fewer children than their mothers; they had energy and time to be châtelaines and hostesses and (in some cases) conduct elaborate affairs. These were often platonic. There were no Souls divorce cases. Instead there was a licensed infidelity. Once a son was born the rest could be fathered by other men; and as Souls women had plenty of time to spare, this was often the case. Arthur Balfour was sexually cool; and in spite of his lifelong amitié amoureuse with Mary Elcho, the supposition that he fathered her daughter Cynthia Asquith seems unfounded. Violet Manners's lovers included the spectacularly good-looking Harry Cust, who failed to achieve his early promise and become prime minister but succeeded in fathering Lady Diana Cooper. Ettie Desborough, known as Delilah to her friends, was a notorious man-eater, whose many lovers (often platonic) included Evan Charteris (1864–1940) and John Baring, Lord Revelstoke (1864–1934); as she grew older, the lovers grew younger; one of the youngest was her son's friend Archie Gordon (1884–1909). Exactly how the love letters of the Souls should be read remains debatable; often no more than intense flirtation was involved; but even this was a liberation which would have been unthinkable for a previous generation.

Many of the male members of the Souls belonged to the Crabbet Club, founded by Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, philanderer and arch rival of Balfour. These included George Wyndham, Harry Cust, and George Curzon. Male athleticism was a feature of the Souls, who worshipped the body beautiful. There are hints of homoeroticism here. Blunt's rivalry with Balfour dated from 1888, when, as a sympathizer with the Irish nationalists, he was imprisoned for chairing an anti-eviction meeting in co. Galway which had been banned by Balfour, then Irish chief secretary. Blunt took his revenge by seducing Balfour's mistress Mary Elcho in the Egyptian desert and making her his 'Bedouin wife'; her daughter Mary was the result.

It is sometimes stated that the Souls proper ended in 1894–5 with the marriages of Margot Tennant to H. H. Asquith and George Curzon to the American heiress Mary Leiter. This is premature. If anything, Margot's marriage enlarged the group. Asquith was a more than honorary Soul, sharing the Soul passion for golf and holidaying in North Berwick, close to Balfour at Whittingehame. As a political grouping, the Souls broke up during the Parliament Bill crisis of 1911. Arthur Balfour felt betrayed by his friends, not only by Asquith, who failed to inform him that he had extracted guarantees to create peers from George V, but also by George Curzon, who worked against him in the House of Lords canvassing peers to vote in favour of the Parliament Bill. The feuding of the Souls had consequences for early twentieth-century politics that were almost more significant than their friendships. Balfour revenged himself for Asquith's betrayal of 1911 by supporting the coup against Asquith in 1916—a defection that made Margot apoplectic with fury. And Curzon's last hope of becoming prime minister was baffled by Balfour, who advised George V against appointing 'dear George' premier in succession to Bonar Law in 1923.

As a clique, the Souls survived into the next generation, as their children shared the same values and formed a self-conscious group which they called the Corrupt Coterie. As a result of their intermarriages the families of Asquiths, Tennants, Charteris, and Manners became even more entangled. The tragedies of the First World War, which claimed some of the Souls' children, cemented the group more. They were commemorated in moving memoirs by Mary Elcho and Ettie Desborough.


  • P. Jalland, Women, marriage and politics, 1860–1914 (1986)
  • A. Lambert, Unquiet Souls: the Indian summer of the British aristocracy, 1880–1918 (1984)
  • M. Asquith, The autobiography of Margot Asquith, 1 (1920)
  • Countess of Oxford and Asquith, Off the record (1943)
  • [Arthur James, first earl of Balfour], Chapters of autobiography, ed. Mrs E. Dugdale (1930)
  • The diary of Beatrice Webb, ed. N. MacKenzie and J. MacKenzie, 4 vols. (1982–5), vol. 2
  • D. Cannadine, The decline and fall of the British aristocracy (1990)
  • S. Blow, Broken blood: the rise and fall of the Tennant family (1987)
  • J. MacKenzie, The children of the souls: a tragedy of the First World War (1986)
  • R. J. A. Skidelsky, John Maynard Keynes, 1 (1983)
  • N. W. Ellenberger, ‘The Souls and London “Society” at the end of the nineteenth century’, Victorian Studies, 25 (1982), 133–160
  • The letters of Arthur Balfour and Lady Elcho, 1885–1917, ed. J. Ridley and C. Percy (1992)
  • E. Longford [E. H. Pakenham, countess of Longford], A pilgrimage of passion: the life of Wilfrid Scawen Blunt (1979)
  • N. Mosley, Julian Grenfell: his life and the times of his death, 1888–1915 (1976)
  • J. Abdy and C. Gere, The Souls (1984)
  • The Times (21 Jan 1929), 13