Wednesday, December 5, 2018

DAY 48: Margot and The Souls

Margot Tennant, by John Singer Sargent
It was inevitable that Margot Tennant would end up in Jennie Churchill's dining room at No. 2 Connaught Place one night in the mid-1880s. They were two of the most intelligent and fascinating women in London, although Margot was a decade younger. 

As Margot explains in her memoirs, she was an artless ingenue in a white muslin dress, who stumbled into Jennie's evening party--almost a ball--for Prince Albert Edward of Wales and Princess Alix. Margot's father, who was a Liberal MP, had brought her along as his plus-one on the spur of the moment, and Margot was woefully underdressed. But this ingenuous tale ignores the fact that Margot always gave as good as she got: When Daisy Warwick, Bertie's mistress at the time, tittered over "the girl who came out in her nightdress," it was Margot who sat between Randolph Churchill and the Prince at dinner.

Bertie referred to her--approvingly?--as an Original. 
Margot remembered Jennie's brilliant eyes, as everyone did, and the warmth and sincerity of her welcome.

By the night of that encounter between the two women in Connaught Place, Margot was already a Fashionable Sensation. Raised by a Scottish industrialist, Charles Tennant, who was knighted for his wealth and influence, Margot was the sixth daughter and eleventh child to grow up fairly wild on the family's considerable Peeblesshire estate. She and her sister Laura were renowned beauties when they "came out" in London in 1881 (Margot was only 17); and being as intelligent and witty as they were attractive, they collected around them some of the most interesting men in Britain. The group met in the evenings in the  Tennant girls' Night Nursery on Grosvenor Square to discuss Art and Ideas and the Modern, without the dissension of politics. 

They called themselves The Souls. 
Arthur Balfour, George Curzon, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, Lord and Lady Elcho, George and Percy Wyndham and their sisters, who married other Souls, including Margot's brother George Tennant; Harry Cust, Violet Manners (the Duchess of Rutland) and her daughter by Harry Cust, Diana Manners. Alfred Lyttleton, who would marry Laura Tennant, and the Grenfells--Baron and Lady Desborough.

The Wyndham Sisters: Lady Elcho, Mrs. Adeane, and Mrs. Tennant, by Sargent, 1899.

John Singer Sargent painted the three Wyndham girls, of course. He was practically a Soul himself.

There was a great deal of overlap between this younger generation and Jennie's Marlborough House Set; but the Souls represented something different--a seeking after the Intellectual, which was rarely tolerated among Bertie's more frivolous and materialistic friends. Jennie was admitted to the Souls, however, and managed to bridge both age groups and both kinds of Society. She and Margot, although at times rivals for attention and public interest, were fundamentally friends.

And what of Margot?
She went on, after her sister Laura's early death in childbed, to marry Herbert Henry Asquith in 1894. H.H. was an Oxford-trained barrister and Liberal MP, a self-made man, an older widower with five children to raise. Margot became a stepmother to strong-willed and brilliant people not always ready to embrace her equally vibrant personality--chief among them eldest son Raymond Asquith, who died in the trenches of the Great War, and Violet, the youngest Asquith child, who fell violently in love with Winston Churchill in the years before his marriage to Clementine Hozier. 

H. H. Asquith became Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1908, was roundly criticized for his Government's unpreparedness for war by 1915, was voted out of office in 1916 and presided over the demise of the Liberal Party by 1918. Margot's pacificism was a public flashpoint during the war that probably helped end his political career. She and H.H. had five more children, but only two survived infancy. After her husband's death in 1928, Margot--by then Countess of Oxford and Asquith, due to the title bestowed on her late husband--struggled to maintain her place in Society on meagre financial means. 

Here she is, however, photographed by Cecil Beaton in 1927.

The Original.

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