Thursday, November 10, 2016

A Little Talk in Downing St.

[ed. And the media spent so much time and attention on it — always with the assertion that although there might not be anything nefarious or criminal there, it “raises questions” and so therefore had to get extended front-page treatment every time they could find an excuse to bring up — that this absurdly trivial matter became without question the single most important issue of the campaign. So Donald Trump, the most unqualified, ignorant, authoritarian, impulsive, reckless candidate in history is going to be president of the United States in part because, and let me repeat this, Hillary Clinton used the wrong email address. - Paul Waldman, WP via:]

How do you sign off an email? How, when writing to someone who is more than an acquaintance and less than an intimate, do you show that you mean well without being intrusively familiar? There is no common scale to draw on. You can make someone uncomfortable by sending them ‘xox’ in a work email when all they expected was a ‘cheers’. A late friend of mine always signed off ‘all good wishes’ – I felt that hit the right convivial-but-distant note. I started borrowing it, then ramped it up to ‘all best wishes’, fearing that ‘good’ might be interpreted as lukewarm, but now I am mildly regretting the inflation. I rattle out yet another round of doubly superlative ‘all best wishes’ and feel like Tchaikovsky giving the direction pppppp in his Symphony No. 6 when ppp would have done just as well. But it’s also possible to dial things down too far until a sign-off becomes an insult. The Twitter account ‘Very British Problems’ cites the problem of ‘receiving an email ending in “regards” and wondering what you’ve done to cause so much anger’.

In the age of letter-writing, deciding how to start and finish was so much simpler. In 1926, Fowler listed the various ways to end a proper letter:
Yours faithfully: To unknown person on business. 
Yours truly: To slight acquaintance. 
Yours very truly: Ceremonious but cordial. 
Yours sincerely: In invitations & friendly but not intimate letters.
But that didn’t solve every dilemma. In an age of ritualised courtship and repressed emotions the difficulty was more likely to have to do with intimate letters than those written to business acquaintances.

My Darling Mr Asquith is a deeply sympathetic and scrupulously researched biography of the socialite Venetia Stanley (1887-1948). One of its main themes is the complex gradation of affection that could be expressed by different salutations at the start of letters between very posh associates in Edwardian and post-Edwardian times. In the letters of love and friendship exchanged between the members of Herbert Asquith’s circle – he was the Liberal prime minister from 1908 to 1916 – ‘dearest’ meant something different from ‘darling’ and ‘my darling’ was something else again. As Stefan Buczacki parses it, plain ‘darling’ was so commonly used as to be ‘fairly meaningless’ and so if you wanted to show that you truly had feelings for the person you were addressing the ante had to be upped. Adding a possessive was one way of making ‘darling’ more meaningful: ‘My darling’ carried ‘a slightly different connotation, and ‘My own darling’ a different one again. Another way was to go for the superlative: ‘“darlingest”, or “my darlingest”, were particularly affectionate, if ungrammatical,’ Buczacki notes.

When Asquith wrote to his second wife, Margot (his first wife died of typhoid in 1891), she was ‘my own darling’. But when, as a man in his sixties, he wrote to the Hon. Venetia Stanley, the twentysomething woman with whom he was besotted from 1912 to 1915, he employed fifty shades of ‘darlings’ and ‘beloveds’, ranging from ‘my very own darling’ to ‘most loved’ to ‘my darling of darlings’. These darlings multiplied across nearly six hundred love letters written by Asquith to Venetia, totalling nearly 300,000 words.

Venetia was the youngest daughter of the 4th Lord Stanley of Alderley, who, like most of the men in Venetia’s life, had been a Liberal MP, in his case between 1880 and 1885. She was the cousin of Clementine Churchill; before Clementine married Churchill some thought that Venetia and Winston might make a match. She had long brown hair, a deep plummy voice, and was later said by Isaiah Berlin, who met her in Cambridge in the 1930s, to be a ‘handsome, smart, awful woman’. Whatever Venetia’s other callings – in middle age she took up aviation, and she had a passion for keeping strange animals, including a Syrian brown bear called Lancelot – her greatest talent seems to have been as a confidante. According to Buczacki, she addressed ‘almost everyone’ as ‘darling’ or ‘my darling’, regardless of her feelings for them, which stood her in good stead on the social scene. But Asquith took her ‘darlings’ to heart.

Even by the standards of philandering old politicians, the outpouring of letters from Asquith to Venetia was extraordinary. When the letters started in spring 1912, there was nothing particularly political about them. Buczacki summarises the typical structure as ‘comments on the weather, where he was, where he was due to visit, snippets about his family, where and with whom he had dined, what he thought Venetia should be reading, a few literary or classical brainteasers for her to resolve, a wish for him to see her at the earliest opportunity and an affectionate valediction’. Often he wrote, in fairly conventional terms, about her physical charms or plans to take her out in his Laundalette car, which was one of his favourite fumbling grounds, since he couldn’t drive and therefore had to sit in the back, hands free. ‘Shall we go for a little drive, or will you come to Downing St & have a talk?’ he inquired in one letter. Other letters recalled snatched moments together. ‘It comes back to me – like a wave – that supreme half hour we spent in the gloaming on the wooden bench in the little garden.’

Increasingly, however, he interspersed his sweet nothings to Venetia with things that were ‘secret’, ‘very secret’ or ‘most secret’, to do with state business. A letter in which he lamented a new yellow dress that Venetia had bought – he jested that it was a ‘yellow peril’ – also contained his thoughts on the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, the Finance Bill and Sylvia Pankhurst. Venetia, he was glad to find, shared his opposition to votes for women. He confided to her his anxiety about Irish Home Rule (it was Asquith who introduced the Third Home Rule Bill in 1912, 1913 and 1914 and then postponed it when war started). In July 1914, he warned Venetia that the situation in Europe was ‘as bad as it can possibly be’ and not helped by the Austrians being ‘quite the stupidest people in Europe (as the Italians are the most perfidious)’.

In the third month of the war, Asquith warned Venetia – ‘strictly between you and me’ – that Britain was weak in arms and ammunition in the event of a German invasion. Venetia was kept fully briefed on secret discussions that Asquith had with the Committee of Imperial Defence. Sometimes he even sent bundles of papers to accompany the letters, the better for her to understand them. He occasionally wrote to her during cabinet meetings and once during a War Council meeting. During most of the time Asquith was besotted with her, she was also being courted by Edwin Montagu, a Liberal MP whom she would go on to marry. It’s quite possible that Asquith and Montagu sat in the same cabinet meetings, both writing letters to Venetia. When war started, and she took on work as a nurse at the London Hospital, Asquith wrote to her all the more often. ‘During Venetia’s three months as a probationer nurse,’ Buczacki notes, ‘Prime Minister Asquith, while leading the largest empire in the history of the world in a global war, wrote to her 147 times, occasionally sending four letters in a single day.’ During one seven-day period, Asquith wrote Venetia 14 letters amounting to ten thousand words in all; page after page was filled with secret details about the conflict.

The question is why Asquith – a relatively cautious politician whose flaws, at least during the war, had more to do with a lack of decisiveness than excessive daring – would have risked national security and his own reputation so recklessly. Then again, he wasn’t the first or last politician with an urge to expose himself in ways that might ruin him. When I watched the recent documentary about Anthony Weiner, the American politician who scuppered first his congressional career and then his bid to become mayor of New York City with a series of ‘sexting’ scandals in which he was found to have sent explicit photos of himself to several women, I kept wondering why he had to involve another human being in his predilections. Wouldn’t a mirror have done just as well? But maybe the risk of self-sabotage is part of what drove him on. Asquith, too, was aware that he might be ruined if his letters to Venetia fell into the wrong hands. He told Venetia he was ‘certain’ that she wouldn’t help any scurrilous biographers by passing on his letters, which shows that he knew it was a possibility.

More straightforwardly, people do crazy things out of sexual frustration and it may be that Asquith was ejaculating words in the direction of Venetia Stanley because he couldn’t offload anything else.

by Bee Wilson, LRB |  Read more:
Image: Margot Asquith and Venetia Stanley at the Scott-Sackville trial (1913)