Asquith, Emma Alice Margaret (generally known as Margot), Countess of Oxford and Asquith 1864-1945, was born at The Glen, Peeblesshire, 2 February 1864. She was the sixth daughter and eleventh child of (Sir) Charles Tennant, later first baronet [qv.], by his first wife, Emma, daughter of Richard Winsloe, of Mount Nebo, Taunton, Somerset. She was educated by governesses and tutors until the age of fifteen, when she attended for a few months Mlle de Mennecy's finishing school in Gloucester Crescent. From there she went to study in Dresden. Throughout her life she was a great reader of serious literature and remembered what she read. Benjamin Jowett [qv.], master of Balliol, described her as the best-educated ill-educated woman that I have ever met.
The year Margot Tennant came out she started a crèche in Wapping with her sister Laura (died 1886, the first wife of Alfred Lyttelton, qv.). From 1886 to 1894, whenever she was in London, she made frequent visits to a factory of women workers in Whitechapel. I have derived as much interest and more benefit, she wrote, from visiting the poor than the rich and I get on better with them. In 1880 she first took up fox-hunting. She was a fearless rider and for many years hunting, chiefly in Leicestershire, remained an absorbing interest. Her boundless energy, however, had already found an outlet in other fields. After fox-hunting, she wrote, the greatest pleasure I have had in life has been intellectual and endearing conversation. She was one of the group known as the Souls, men and women in London society whose bond of association was intellectual and aesthetic rather than political. Her close friendship with Jowett lasted from 1887 until his death in 1893. Among her other friends were W. E. Gladstone, Arthur Balfour, the Duke of Devonshire, the Cecil and Lyttelton families, Sir William Harcourt, Lord Milner, Lord Rosebery, Lord Haldane, Lord Midleton, Randall Davidson (archbishop of Canterbury), John Addington Symonds, John Morley, and Virginia Woolf.
In May 1894 she married, as his second wife, Herbert Henry Asquith [qv.]. If she took her husband with her into the innermost circles of the beau monde, this was, some believed, at the cost of his apparent partial withdrawal from those who had hitherto given him unwavering support as a fellow nonconformist. Her own attitude to politics was intensely personal. Of good Liberal stock by birth, as the wife of a Liberal leader she became a fervent party-politician. But if all outside the Liberal fold were automatically political enemies, many Conservatives remained her appreciative personal friends; and even within the Liberal ranks, as in every other walk of life, she discriminated with her own remarkable shrewdness. She was among the first, if not the first, to detect in David Lloyd George a discontented subordinate and to divine that his appointment in 1916 as secretary of state for war presaged her husband's departure from 10 Downing Street.
As her stepdaughter Lady Violet Bonham Carter has truly said, To her politics meant men not measures, and it was certainly in the politicians themselves that she was interested, rather than in their problems, of which she had little grasp. Political principles were in fact a blind spot with her, as was bridge, a game she played with ardent incompetence. Her loyalties, and their resulting animosities, were passionately her own, and passionately expressed: for being a woman of unrestrained candour she could never bring herself to believe that truth could wound. From 1908 to 1916—a period of increasing political tension—her very excellences as a human being were therefore politically always a potential liability, the more so in that she was the wife of a premier whom she herself described as possessing a modesty amounting to deformity. She was, said Sir Desmond MacCarthy, unteachable and splendid, neither of them qualities likely to appeal to the British public in the wife of a prime minister, especially in wartime. If her husband was accused of intellectual aloofness, she too was criticized for her over-impetuous generosities.
The years which followed the war were a time of discouragement for the Liberal Party. In 1925 Asquith entered the House of Lords with the title of the Earl of Oxford and Asquith, and he gave up the Liberal leadership in the following year. Until his death in 1928 Lady Oxford entertained regularly at The Wharf, Sutton Courtney, their country house in Berkshire, and at their London house in Bedford Square. She also found time for writing. The first volume of her Autobiography appeared in 1920; the second in 1922. Places and Persons, a record of visits to Egypt, America, Spain, and Italy, followed in 1925; Lay Sermons, a collection of essays on a wide range of subjects, in 1927; Octavia, a novel based on her early experiences in the hunting field and in political life, in 1928; More Memories in 1933, and Off the Record, further gleanings from the harvest of her recollections, in 1943.
Lady Oxford's writing is distinguished by directness, force, and wit. She was a master of the bon mot and the vivid, startling metaphor. From the Scottish ancestry of which she was always proud she may have inherited her devout, undogmatic Christianity, with its strongly ethical tone. She was fundamentally a puritan and the qualities she most admired in human nature were sincerity and heart. In More Memories she writes of the desperate seriousness of the moral choice, and the infinite difference between right and wrong. Critics who have accused her of frivolity were utterly mistaken. She was a crusader with a serious purpose in nearly everything she wrote and a quixotic, sometimes ill-judged determination to remedy abuses whenever she saw them. When I hear nonsense talked, she wrote, it makes me physically ill not to contradict.
Her writings, striking and provocative as they are, do not give the full flavour of her personality or explain how she came to be a legend in her lifetime. They testify to the courage on which she was frequently complimented, to the breadth of reading about which she was unjustifiably modest, and to her capacity for friendship, but not to less easily defined qualities—her instinctive kindness and generosity, the infectious gaiety of her presence, the magnetic originality which made even people who did not know her flock to see her. Her flair for what was beautiful left its mark on taste and fashion for nearly half a century. Owing to the different conditions prevailing now it is a little difficult to estimate or appreciate the influence she had on the social world; but she quotes Lord Balfour as saying that no history of society in the nineteenth century can fail to write of the influence which you and your friends have had in the social and political life of this country. Till the Souls emerged into London, Tories and Liberals of distinction never met.
Unperturbed by air raids, Lady Oxford spent the closing years of her life in London and died there 28 July 1945. She had five children, only two of whom—Elizabeth, afterwards Princess Antoine Bibesco (1897-1945), and Anthony (born 1902)—survived infancy. A portrait of Lady Oxford by Sir John Lavery is in the possession of her son.
Her own writings
The Times, 30 July 1945
Sunday Times, 29 July 1945
Listener, 11 June 1953
Contributor: L. P. Hartley.