The following is an edited extract from These Great Ladies (pub. The Mitford Society, £9.99)
History remembers Venetia Stanley, later Montagu, as a temptress in the Cabinet of Herbert Henry Asquith (known as Henry), Britain’s wartime Prime Minister. From 1912 until 1915 she was, with the exception of his wife Margot, the only woman in England to know his political secrets, and this gave her unreserved power. As the best friend of Henry’s daughter, Violet, she was therefore a significant presence within the Asquith home, and in the platonic marriage of Henry and Margot.
In any era, especially one of political uncertainty and social upheaval, the friendship between the twenty-five-year-old Venetia and the sixty-year-old Prime Minister was a dangerous subject. Adding to this tangled web was Venetia’s closeness to Violet, which many thought verged on lesbianism. Their impassioned letters spoke of their longing to be with one another: ‘I can think of nothing but you at every instant’; ‘Don’t stop loving me’; ‘I do want you SO much’.
There was also the close bond between Violet and Henry, which ousted Margot at every given opportunity, and she had once bemoaned that, during her long marriage to Henry, they had only spent six weeks together. Violet was possessive of her father, and since the age of four she had slept in his bedroom after the death of her mother. Presumably, Violet condoned his interest in Venetia because it caused Margot considerable worry. And behind the scenes at Downing Street there was the topic of rivalry. This came not only from Margot, who felt threatened by Venetia and was jealous of her stepdaughter Violet, but from the unsettling knowledge that Henry’s private secretary, Edwin Montagu, was in love with Venetia, and another, Maurice Bonham Carter, with Violet.
As the most powerful man in Britain, with the exception of King George V, Henry wielded his authority. And, amid his diary being filled with government business and Cabinet meetings, he reserved each Friday for drives with Venetia. It was a bitter pill, not only for Margot, but for his closest advisers who oiled the wheels of his propaganda machine. While young men were being slaughtered on the battlefields of France, Henry was falling in love. This love affair had been simmering for years, ever since Venetia had met Violet during their debutante season. A frequent guest at the Asquiths home and having accompanied Violet on holidays with her father, Henry recalled with crystal clarity the moment his avuncular feelings turned to love. They had been sitting in the dining room, chatting and laughing, when ‘in a single instant, without premonition on my part or any challenge on hers, the scales dropped from my eyes: the familiar features and smile and gestures and words assumed an absolutely new perspective; what had been completely hidden from me was in a flash half-revealed’.
In Conspiracy of Secrets, a book written by Bobbie Neate, the author suspects that her stepfather was the product of Venetia and Henry’s affair. The theories, although at first glance appear outlandish, are backed up with various snippets of evidence. She wrote that Venetia had been confined to the family home and was said to be ill with jaundice, and that letters written by her during this time reveal that she was suffering from a lengthier illness. The author believed this to be pregnancy, and Venetia was therefore adhering to the appropriate confinement before and after the birth. Neate explained that the baby, her stepfather, was given to a foster family, arranged by Venetia’s parents, and that he was possibly the second child born to Venetia and Henry.
Those who knew Henry were aware that he often took an interest in Violet’s friends. A flunky was surprised when he found Henry playing musical chairs with Violet and a group of young girls, one being Venetia. He was known to correspond with them and to consider such young women as companions. Margot herself referred to it as his ‘little Harem’, and his contemporaries dismissed him as a ‘notorious groper’. Lady Diana Cooper, then Manners, was a member of his inner-circle, and even she suspected his feelings for Venetia ran deeper than friendship.
But Venetia was different from the other girls, and her appeal lay in the steadying effect which she had on him during the years of political unrest: Irish Home Rule, the Suffragette movement, the rise of the Labour Party, and the First World War. It was rumoured that, on the eve of Britain entering the war, Henry was not only on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but he was feeling suicidal. Apparently Venetia had lifted his spirits, encouraged his sobriety (political opponents nicknamed him ‘Squiffy’ because of his fondness for alcohol), and was a calming influence during those troubling times. And, unlike the gossiping Margot, she could keep a secret, even political ones. He was known to write to her during debates in the House of Commons and, on occasions, in Cabinet meetings. Amid his romantic prose, he offered her tidbits of his daily life: he spoke of a fretful king regarding the issue of Irish Home Rule; he wondered if he should create a new office for David Lloyd George; and he asked her opinion of a young Winston Churchill, an early boyfriend of Violet’s. All of which, he promised not to act until she had given him her response. Once he postponed a meeting with King George because a letter from Venetia had arrived, and his reading and responding to it took priority over the Crown.
It appeared Margot had suspected for several years, as far back as 1912, that Henry’s roving eye had been caught by Venetia. Tall, dark and handsome, and with ‘a gruff baritone voice’ – the description in which she had been described – Venetia had a masculine energy and a steely self-assurance that came with her background as the daughter of a rich baronet. As the youngest of seven children, she was spoiled, and her behaviour was established early on. A prankster, she was known for her outlandish displays in public, and on one occasion, during a christening, she spoke in a loud voice about ‘drowning the little gorilla’. Home was Alderley Park in Cheshire, with a menagerie of animals including a pet monkey which slept on top of the bookcases or pelmets and dropped on unsuspecting guests, and a bear cub who roamed around the grounds and pounded on doors. Her father, Edward Stanley, a Liberal politician was the heir to three baronies (Alderley, Sheffield, and Eddisbury), and she was a distant cousin of the Mitford girls who, a decade or so later, would run amok through high society. Above all else, she was single-minded and snapped her fingers at the morals of the day. She did not think a chaperone was necessary, she declined several marriage proposals, and, more importantly, she was not threatened by Margot.
If anything, Venetia emphasised the lack of poison in Margot’s venomous bite. Margot herself had confided to her stepson’s wife that Edward Stanley was not Venetia’s biological father and she had been the product of an affair between her mother and the 9th Earl of Carlisle. A jealous woman whose beauty had been obscured in her early twenties by a broken nose, she was reed thin with dark brown hair and was often painted with a crooked mouth, displaying her intolerance. She made enemies, and such feuds were usually the figment of her own imagination and meddling. Oscar Wilde’s former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, wrote a poem in which he referred to her as ‘Merry Margot, bound with lesbian fillets’. And, during Venetia’s spell over Henry, Margot turned her frustration towards Clementine Hozier, for having, as she viewed it, stolen Winston Churchill from Violet.
Venetia herself was privy to Violet’s supposed heartbreak, and it was said that she had tried to commit suicide upon hearing the news of his engagement to Clementine. They were at Slains Castle, in Scotland, when Churchill had broken the news. Violet retaliated by running away, and it was announced she had gone missing along the rocky coastline. Venetia, sensing something was afoot (or having been a part of it), had burst into the drawing room to deliver the news that Violet was in danger. Henry was convinced she had fallen to her death, and Churchill himself considered calling off his engagement. For hours the servants and guests trekked along the rocks, carrying fire torches and calling out, ‘Violet, Violet.’ The press reported that she had slipped on the rocks and had hit her head, thus explaining her faux vanishing act. Margot held the view that Violet, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, had staged the incident, and she would refer to it as: ‘This unfortunate, foolish and most dangerous escapade.’
Although the feud was between Violet and Clementine, Margot’s feelings about the marriage gave Venetia, a cousin of Clementine’s, some clout. Margot dismissed Clementine as having no brains and accused her of being ‘mad’, no doubt this was a jibe at Clementine’s often precarious mental health. But Venetia argued that her cousin was sane to the point of dreariness. Regardless of their dim view of the new Mrs Churchill, Venetia was armed with the knowledge that Margot was emotionally unstable, and she knew of the chinks in her armor. The biggest insecurity in Margot’s life was the doctor’s orders that she must ‘close the bedroom door’ to Henry, indefinitely, due to having risked her life throughout her five pregnancies, in which only two children had lived. Hence Venetia’s presence, and her husband’s preoccupation with this young woman, meant more than an idle fancy.
There were striking similarities, not only in looks but in intellect, between Venetia and Margot which, undoubtedly, Henry found attractive. Margot came from the Anglo-Scottish Tennant family and, like Venetia and Violet, in her youth she had an inseparable companion in her sister, Laura. The two girls entered society together and had belonged to a set known as the Souls, a pre-war group of intellectuals whose main objective was to form a salon where they could meet without arguing about politics. The Souls abhorred hedonistic pursuits, such as violence, alcoholism and adultery, and they regarded the arts as, above all else, the most important thing in life. However when Laura married Alfred Lyttleton in 1885, Margot thought her life was over, and this was intensified by Laura’s death a year later following the birth of her only child. Margot never recovered from the death of her sister and closest friend, and as a result she began to suffer from chronic insomnia, which plagued her for the rest of her life. Venetia and Violet moved at the centre of the Coterie, a group of intellectuals who were the offspring of the Souls, but whose recreational habits were frowned upon. Nicknamed the ‘Corrupt Coterie’, they drank and smoked in an age when it was frowned upon for a woman to do either, and they took drugs which were easily obtainable through a chemist. Morphine and varieties of opiates were often the drug of choice, as was cocaine.
By 1915, Venetia had begun to receive two or three letters a day from Henry. Unfortunately her responses do not survive. Although the first political topic he had discussed with her was the economic budget, the correspondence began in earnest in August 1914 with France’s involvement in the war. Lord Kitchener had sent a telegram to Henry, containing military information, and Henry immediately enclosed it in his letter to Venetia. He spoke of inventing a code which they could use when corresponding by telegram, and he told her he wanted her to know what was happening across the Channel, before anyone else.
Undoubtedly this made Margot feel as though she was being usurped in her role as chief confidante to her husband. ‘My fondness for Venetia has never interfered and never could with our relationship,’ he wrote to Margot. Margot, however, was convinced Venetia was ‘teaching Henry to avoid telling [her] things’.
This loyalty and trust he felt for Venetia had been inspired by tragedy when, in 1909, Violet’s admirer, Archie Gordon, the son of Lord and Lady Aberdeen, had been injured in a motorcar accident. He had been hospitalised, after which he lived for twenty days, with Violet presiding at his bedside during his final hours. They announced their engagement, and Venetia was on hand for moral support. Violet recorded their last conversation in her diary, writing that Gordon said: ‘Venetia will nearly have to live with us, won’t she?’ And, then, he asked Venetia to kiss him.
During Henry’s dependency on Venetia, she was being pursued by another man. Edwin Montagu, Henry’s private secretary, had been in love with her since their first meeting in 1911 and had, on various occasions, proposed marriage. Despite her turning him down, he continued to accompany Henry, Violet and Venetia on their holidays, and on one particular trip they went to Scilly. They played hide and seek in the garden with Edwin, whom Violet thought was ‘the best person in the world to play it with’ and she wrote in her diary that he was ‘so frightened and so frightening’. Around this period, Henry and Violet visited Venetia’s family home, and the press failed to pin any significance to the visit, or to their friendship, and he was photographed with Venetia’s pet penguin. It was believed that Venetia’s mother was unhappy with the devotion the prime minister was showing to her daughter, and she encouraged Edwin’s pursuit.
In the years that Edwin had known Venetia, she did not hide the fact that she was stringing him along. This did little to quell his infatuation, and through time Venetia began to view him as a potential husband. This apparent change of heart occurred on her twenty-sixth birthday, which marked a watershed moment in her life. For, in those days, it would have been considered a comparatively late age for a woman to marry. She was reluctant to acknowledge her birthday, and wrote to Edwin that she hoped her future would be filled with ‘permanent fun’.
With his inheritance, Edwin could offer her all the ‘fun’ she desired, and it would grant her the freedom to continue her unconventional behaviour. And so, after years of refusing his proposals, she agreed to marry him. But she made it clear to Edwin that, not only did she find him unattractive, she did not love him and had apparently warned him that their marriage would be a celibate one. Edwin himself had agreed to such terms, perhaps he did not believe Venetia’s stipulations and imagined that, once they were married, he would take charge of their relationship. This was not to be, and from all accounts he was devoted to her, and she walked all over him.
The news of Venetia’s engagement was badly received by Henry. ‘This breaks my heart,’ he wrote in a letter on the day she had told him. She responded with only one word, which caused him further anguish, and he implored her to write to him. She did, and sent him a ‘most revealing and heart rendering letter’. It appeared they had a disagreement, recorded in their letters, for Henry declared her response as ‘terrible . . . No hell can be as bad’. Perhaps Venetia had suggested they refrain from writing to one another, owing to his feelings about the engagement, for he called their mutual silence ‘cruel and unnatural’. He was glad when they resumed their correspondence after ‘two most miserable days of my life’. Violet was equally disturbed by the news, and she wrote in her diary that the thought of Venetia marrying Edwin ‘filled [her] with horror”. She then listed the reasons for this ‘horror’ and spoke of his ‘physical repulsiveness . . . the thought of any erotic amenities with him is enough to freeze one’s blood’.
Despite Venetia’s mother thinking Edwin would serve as a welcomed distraction from Henry, she, along with her husband, were alarmed by their daughter’s conversion to Judaism. This undertaking was done on behalf of Venetia for materialistic gain, rather than religious reasons. Her late father-in-law had made stipulations in his will, stating that Edwin could only inherit his millions if he were to marry a bride of the Jewish faith. Marrying a Christian would have seen Venetia and Edwin living in reduced circumstances, and so it made sense to her, a shrewd character, to convert.
Henry voiced his disapproval, and he sent a poem to her in which he described her as a ‘Christian child’ who had been ‘too easily beguiled’ by the ‘silken tents of Shem’.¹⁹ The silken tent was a reference to the nickname Venetia and Henry had given Edwin’s lavish family home at 24 Queen Anne’s Gate in London. There were antisemitic undertones, too, as Jews were said to have descended from Shem. His openly expressing such views was deemed acceptable in not only that period but in his class. Venetia’s parents also held a similar disdain for Judaism. Marrying Edwin was one thing, but converting to his faith was another.
Prior to Venetia confirming her engagement to Edwin, Henry suspected something was afoot and he sensed her attention, when responding to his letters, was being spent elsewhere. He warned her not to fail him, for that would precipitate his complete collapse, not only emotionally but politically too. ‘Will you still be the same in 1915?’ he had asked. It is therefore poignant that her letter, containing the details of her engagement, arrived on the day he received the worst press of his political career. And then, feeling as though he had lost his element of stability, his thoughts turned to betrayal. Not only had Venetia betrayed him, but Edwin had too, for he had confided in him his love for Venetia. Henry wrote to Venetia’s sister, Sylvia: ‘I don’t believe there are two living people who each in their separable ways are more devoted to me than she and Montagu: it is the irony that they should deal a death-blow to me.’ Margot had also used Edwin as something of a confidante, years before, in the early days of Henry’s writing to Venetia. She expressed to him her opinion of Venetia, claiming she was a young woman with an immoral outlook, and she said: ‘How I loathe girls who can’t love but claim and collect like a cuckoo for their own vanity.’
Adopting an unorthodox view of marriage, Venetia suggested a prenuptial agreement to Edwin, and they both agreed that she could have affairs with others. He could too, but his love for Venetia prevented him from doing so in those early days, or at least from flaunting them so openly. Although, to a certain extent, she was granted freedom she was reluctant to continue with her plan to marry Edwin. Aside from his religion, his physical appearance came under scrutiny from her closest friends and she worried they would give her up in ‘disgust’. Her friends loyalty was important to Venetia, for her own family, especially her elderly father, had disapproved of her conversion to Judaism. To quote Venetia, her parents ‘boycotted’ both herself and Edwin.
Violet, too, refused to accept Venetia’s decision, and she accused Edwin of blackmailing Venetia into converting. She thought him manipulative, and instrumental in (potentially) ruining Venetia’s reputation, both socially and within her family circle. Edwin resented Violet’s words, and he forwarded her letter on to Venetia. But Venetia misread the criticism as concern for the step she was taking, and she thought Violet ultimately approved. Margot however, did approve of the marriage and she encouraged Violet to refrain from teasing Venetia. Her motives were clear: she was glad Venetia would have a distraction and would be too busy devoting herself to Edwin’s promising political career to give Henry much thought.
With Venetia’s brother’s encouragement, her parents began to come round to the idea of her marrying Edwin. Although they did not accept her decision to convert to Judaism, they realised that Venetia, now aged twenty-eight, and with no suitors other than a married prime minister forty years her senior, would finally settle down. But her extended family remained unconvinced and they accused Venetia of ‘turning Jewish for the sake of £8,000 a year’.
Before the wedding took place, and in the interim of Venetia’s official conversion, she accepted a voluntary nursing post at an army hospital in France, tending to the wounded and dying soldiers. It had been rumoured that, during Venetia’s short stint at a London hospital the year before, Henry did not bid farewell to his son who was leaving for the Front. He had more important matters to deal with: he had gone to the hospital to catch a glimpse of Venetia in her nurse’s uniform.
During her time at the French hospital, in 1915, her letters to Edwin lacked any mention of the conflict surrounding her, or of her feelings for him. Instead she wrote to complain about the ‘dreadful condition’ of her hands, caused by the ‘acids and disinfectants’, and of the pimples and freckles that had developed on her face. The hospital, she told Edwin, was crowded and dirty, and ‘the one real tragedy about the place’, she explained, was the inability to have a hot bath. ‘Isn’t that dreadfully squalid?’
Thinking she might change her mind about marrying him and of her impending conversion, Edwin implored her to confirm a date for her departure from France. But Venetia remained vague and explained that her hospital work was ‘too thrilling’ to leave. In the end, Edwin told her the two rabbis he had engaged for the conversion were leaving for the Front in July, and he encouraged her to submit her application for conversion before the twelfth. She agreed, and returned to London on the 10 July.
Venetia’s arrival in London was greeted with mixed feelings. Edwin was ecstatic, but Henry adopted a high-handed approach when writing to her. He ‘prayed with [his] whole soul’ for her happiness, and he admitted it would have been out of character for him to be disloyal to her. However in his letter he asked her not to respond and to not ‘wish me now to say more’. Then, after what he perceived to be Venetia’s desertion, he wrote to Diana Cooper to offer her the ‘vacancy’ as his mistress. Although fond of him, Diana had no interest in becoming the mistress of an ageing politician. She allied herself with Venetia and Edwin, and for years to come would receive the Montagus hospitality at their marital home.
The conversion was, as Venetia had warned Edwin, a farce. She went through the motions in order to save his family fortune and, as she had told him, to restore the relationship with his mother, whom she met for the first time on her wedding day. Religion, she explained, meant nothing to her, and she proclaimed to have none. When he requested their future children should be brought up Jewish, she called him a hypocrite, for Edwin himself did not practice his faith, and she said she would raise them without religion. ‘I go through the formula required,’ she wrote to him, ‘because you want it for your mother’s sake and because I think one is happier rich than poor.’ But there were other factors at play which threatened to undermine Venetia’s religious conversion. She complained that she could not study the book that ‘Old Joseph’, the rabbi, had given her because it was too boring. This caused Edwin considerable worry, but in the end she memorised enough of the text to pass the test and was therefore received into the Jewish faith.
Two days before the wedding, Venetia visited Henry in person, and it turned out to be their last meeting for some years. Afterwards, he wrote to her that he valued her companionship and that she had given him ‘unforgettable and undying memories’. She married Edwin in a traditional wedding ceremony, and absent among their small gathering of family and close friends were Henry and Violet, who chose not to attend. Instead, Henry sent Venetia two silver boxes with a brief note: ‘With all my love and more wishes than words can frame for your complete and unbroken happiness.’
In the years following Venetia’s desertion and marriage, Henry had begun to write his memoirs and, naturally, Venetia featured. He struggled with his portrait of her, aware that he could not speak frankly about the true nature of their relationship. Instead, he focused on her personality traits and of her much publicised conversion. He wrote that ‘she had no sense of sin; no penitential moods; no waves of remorse; no mystic reveries . . . ‘
Although in its day and with a degree of hindsight Venetia’s relationship with Henry has been analysed, her marriage to Edwin has also come under scrutiny in various publications. Some believed that the marriage was never consummated and that Edwin, a man torn apart by self-hatred and hypochondriac tendencies and who sensed he would die comparatively young, was satisfied with whatever crumbs Venetia offered him. Although intelligent and with a political mind, she found him a boring politician and took little interest in his work. He appeared to have had a mistress named Pearl, and by whom he had a child – ‘Pearl has just given me a little daughter and we are very happy about it’. Edwin’s admission, by letter, was written before Venetia gave birth to her own daughter, Judith. Despite the claims that Edwin was asexual and pined for Venetia, it seemed he had forged his own life in London and during his political tours of foreign countries.
Venetia, too, was conducting her own affairs, and a significant admirer was the press magnate Lord Beaverbrook, whom she trusted with her investments and who offered her financial advice. They travelled around Europe, often accompanied by Beaverbrook’s close friend and employee, Viscount Castlerosse, and their mutual friend Diana Cooper. Although she would be replaced by Jean Norton as his chief mistress, the two would enjoy a lengthy friendship which outlasted their affair.
In 1923 Venetia gave birth to her first and only child, Judith Montagu. It was widely accepted that she was the daughter of William Ward, later the 3rd Earl of Dudley, and Venetia did not dispel such rumours. Judith, however, was brought up as the child of Edwin and he settled a trust fund for her. It was a timely gesture, for in 1924 he died at the age of forty-five from unknown causes, but it was believed to have been the result of blood poisoning. His death did not upset Venetia, and she settled into widowhood with a generous inheritance which granted her the freedom to live as before, and to travel extensively around postwar Europe. She entrusted her baby daughter into the care of nannies, and Judith herself claimed her mother treated her with an air of indifference. Regardless of Venetia’s parenting skills, she would ensure Judith was given a good education and was taught to be independent, as she valued those qualities above all else.
After the death of Edwin, Venetia and Henry resumed their friendship. Although it was not as intimate as before, he visited her at her country home, Breccles, and made the acquaintance of Judith. Judith recalled the tears on Henry’s face as he said, ‘This, then is the child.’ It was an emotional visit for both Venetia and Henry; he was in ill-health and had suffered the loss of movement in one leg, and upon arriving at Breccles he could not exit the car without assistance. Although he knew his days were numbered, he did not disclose his illness in great detail to Venetia, and she sensed he was fading away. He died three months after their final meeting. ‘It was most good of you to take me in,’ he had written in his last letter to her. His death closed a chapter in her life, though in those days it was a select group of friends who knew the true nature of their relationship. And Venetia herself, as daring as she could be, did not kiss and tell. Refusing to be bound by her gender and class, she continued to live with the freedom she had always known.
Until her death from cancer in 1948, Venetia travelled around the world in her own private aeroplane, smoked, drank, gambled, and pursued various love affairs. Beaverbrook remained her ardent admirer long into their old age, and she always retained a fondness for him. But it was Henry Asquith who had captured her heart.