Bonham Carter, (Helen) Violet, Baroness Asquith of Yarnbury 1887-1969, political figure, was born in Hampstead, London, 15 April 1887, the fourth of the five children and the only daughter of Herbert Henry Asquith (later first Earl of Oxford and Asquith) and his wife, Helen Kelsall, daughter of Frederick Melland, a well-known Manchester physician. The youngest child, Cyril, became Lord Asquith of Bishopstone [qv.]
Her mother died of typhoid fever in 1891, when Violet was four. In 1894 her father married Margaret (Margot), daughter of Sir Charles Tennant [qv.]. There were two surviving children of this second marriage, one of whom, Anthony [qv.], achieved prominence in the film world. In 1892 Asquith became home secretary in Gladstone's last administration. Violet Bonham Carter often said she could not remember a time when she did not hear talk of politics. Her devotion to her father, and after his death in 1928 to his memory, was absolute. Some of the fiercest battles she fought in later years were in defence of his conduct as wartime prime minister. She would not let even trivialities go unchallenged. A powerful controversialist with a biting wit, she excelled in curt ridicule. As with all other causes she took up, she would never compromise or give up a battle.
Violet Asquith had no English schooling. Educated privately and unsystematically by a series of governesses, she read English literature widely and was taught French and German. Finished, as the term was, in Dresden and Paris, she returned to England with a full knowledge of both languages and of their literatures. However politically busy, she always made time for reading. Some of her warmest friendships were based on a shared love of the classics.
But her overriding interest was in public affairs. From the time of her mother's death her father treated her as an adult. She could remember how on his return from the House she would ask him Did Mr Gladstone speak? and What did the Irish do?. He gave her careful answers. When she was eighteen he was appointed chancellor of the Exchequer in Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman's Government. He became prime minister (1908) in the month of her coming of age. She was with her father when the suffragettes stopped his car and lashed at both of them with dog whips. She had been also with him throughout the 1906 general election that produced the Liberal landslide. She won her own political spurs in the Paisley by-election of 1920 that returned Asquith to Parliament after his defeat at East Fife in the khaki election of 1918. She was his most effective platform supporter.
Fourteen years earlier she had met the other immortal whom I was blessed to call my friend. In the first volume of Winston Churchill as I Knew Him (1965), a work which, alas, she never finished, she described how at a dinner party in the early summer of 1906 she found herself seated next to a young man who seemed to me quite different from any other young man I had ever met. She was nineteen, Churchill was thirty-one. These were the years when she made her early contacts with famous men—Grey [qv.], Balfour [qv.], Morley [qv.], Lloyd George [qv.], Kitchener [qv.], and others. But the relationship with Churchill became a thing apart. She had too strong a mind to follow him blindly. There were periods of disagreement which Churchill resented. But throughout almost sixty years the friendship held to the day of Churchill's death.
Violet Bonham Carter—she married in 1915 (Sir) Maurice Bonham Carter (died 1960), her father's principal private secretary; they had two sons and two daughters (one of whom, Laura, married Joseph Grimond, who became the leader of the Liberal Party)—must, however, be seen in her own right, not merely as an accompanist to others more famous. She was the last Asquithian Liberal. Her bitterness towards Lloyd George never diminished. But her father's death closed for her the aftermath of the Edwardian age. Soon thereafter Britain was faced with problems and menaces which the first three decades of the century were thought to have banished. In October 1931 she declared in favour of the national Government brought into being by the perilous state of the nation's finances. Inherently against both Conservatives and Socialists she regarded this as merely an emergency measure. She was president of the Women's Liberal Federation twice (1923-5 and 1939-45). In 1945 she accepted an invitation to succeed Lord Meston [qv.], who had died in 1943, as president of the Liberal Party Organization, an office which she held until 1947—the first woman to do so.
In the general election of 1945 she gave one of the Liberal Party's broadcasts, ridiculing Churchill's efforts to panic people with the threat of Mr Attlee and the Gestapo. She stood for Wells in that election, coming bottom of the poll, behind Lt.-Col. D. Boles, a Conservative who had won the seat unopposed in a by-election in 1939, and C. Morgan, the Labour candidate. She tried again in 1951, standing as Liberal candidate for Colne Valley. This time she had Conservative support, the local Conservative association being split. Unfortunately for her her opponent was one of the most attractive members of the Labour Party, William Glenvil Hall [qv.]. He won by a majority of 2,189 in a poll of over 58,000. Finally she entered Parliament as a life peeress, Baroness Asquith of Yarnbury, in 1964. Although she had never sat in the Commons and was then seventy-seven, she immediately engaged in the work of the House of Lords, her last speech being about Biafra.
This was highly characteristic. Violet Bonham Carter's horizon was never insular. She knew Europe well; moreover, she had visited Egypt in her twenties and the Middle and Far East in her seventies. She also crusaded for the League of Nations from its conception, and was a member of the executive of the League of Nations Union until 1941. In May 1933 she vigorously attacked Franz von Papen who, having made a deal with Hitler, had forced Hindenburg to appoint the Führer chancellor, and had himself taken office as vice-chancellor. She was an active supporter of Churchill's anti-Nazism in the 1930s, joining him and Sir A. Sinclair (later Viscount Thurso) [qv.] in their campaign to create a Ministry of Supply. She became a vice-chairman of the United Europe Movement in 1947. She was, in addition, a delegate to the Commonwealth Relations Conference in Canada in 1949, and president of the Royal Institute of International Affairs 1964-9. Letters to The Times concerning international as well as domestic causes often had her as one of their signatories, and unfriendly fun was sometimes made of this. But if occasionally her zeal did outrun her discretion, of her passionate care for fundamental freedoms and her sympathy for suffering people in all nations there was no doubt.
The general election of 1945 briefly interrupted one of Violet's most fruitful services to the nation. When Churchill, on becoming prime minister in 1940, restored to the BBC its full muster of seven governors—at the outbreak of war Neville Chamberlain had left only Sir (George) Allan Powell [qv.], the chairman, and C. H. G. Millis, the vice-chairman, in office—he appointed Violet Bonham Carter as one of them. Under the stresses of war, a novel situation for every broadcasting organization, the BBC had become apprehensive, narrow, and inhibiting to the point of intolerance. With (Sir) Harold Nicolson [qv.] and J. J. Mallon [qv.] as her supporters, Violet Bonham Carter swung a hesitant board behind a new director-general committed to freeing the BBC from its political and psychological straitjacket and to enlarging its provision for information and culture. She had to resign from the board to fight the Wells seat in 1945, was reappointed on her defeat, and finished her term of office in 1946. She was also a member of the royal commission on the press (1947-9), a governor of the Old Vic from 1945, and a trustee of the Glyndebourne Arts Trust from 1955.
In 1963 she became the first woman to give the Romanes lecture at Oxford; she spoke on The Impact of Personality on Politics. It was a historic and memorable occasion. Starting with her personal experiences, she ended with a denunciation of the fallacy of Historic Fatalism. In all ages great human beings have overcome material odds by the inspiration they have breathed into their fellow men. She was also a speaker at the Royal Academy dinner in 1967, the first time in over a century and a half that women had attended. She had a pure carrying voice, which she was able to modulate with thrilling effect. She depended on gestures hardly at all, and indeed, she seemed frail to carry such a load of conviction. When she died, the tribute to her from Jeremy Thorpe, the Liberal leader—The Party has lost its greatest orator—was valid beyond politics.
Violet Bonham Carter never thought of herself as an orator. Her voice was a minor weapon in her lifelong battle for her beliefs. Her major one was the alliance of cogency and passion. She exemplified the dictum of William Hazlitt [qv.]: The seat of knowledge is in the head, of wisdom, in the heart. Her lifetime covered the rise, zenith, and nadir of the Liberal Party of her youth. Her first reported speech was in aid of funds for Liberalism when she was twenty-two. Never did she lower her flag. She was still fighting gallantly, if rather forlornly, at the end. She was appointed DBE in 1953, and received an honorary LLD from Sussex University in 1963. She died in London 19 February 1969.
A portrait of her by (Sir) William Orpen, the gift of the House of Commons on her marriage in 1915, is in the possession of her son, Raymond. Her elder son, Mark, has a water-colour portrait by E. Barnard (1910). A bust by Oscar Nemon (1960-9) is in the National Portrait Gallery.
Violet Bonham Carter, Winston Churchill as I Knew Him, 1965
The Times, 20 February 1969
Contributor: William Haley