Folie à Trois

Politics, Religion and Love: The Story of H.H. Asquith, Venetia Stanley and Edwin Montagu, Based on the Life and Letters of Edwin Samuel Montagu

by Naomi B. Levine
New York University Press, 843 pp., $39.95

Modern biographies are suffering from elephantiasis. Their authors collect letters and documents, consult virtually every secondary authority, dead or alive, worthy or worthless, and then mention them all so that no one can say that any piece of evidence has been overlooked. They rarely ask whether all that labor is appropriate. Here is a biography over seven hundred pages long on Edwin Montagu; and it is not only the publisher but the author herself who has to ask on the first page, who was he?

Montagu, a minister in the Liberal governments of Asquith and Lloyd George, came from one of the richest families of English Jews. He made his name as an undergraduate in the debates of the Cambridge Union, where he caught Asquith’s eye. Aged twenty-six, he was swept into Parliament in the Liberal landslide of 1906, became Asquith’s parliamentary private secretary, and continued to be his eyes and ears when Asquith became prime minister. In 1910 Asquith made him undersecretary of state for India and he answered for his department in the House of Commons. Asquith promoted him four years later to be financial secretary in the Treasury where he made an advantageous deal with J.P. Morgan to buy munitions during the First World War. Indeed, he followed Lloyd George as minister of munitions. When Asquith fell in 1916, Montagu in loyalty to his old chief did not join the coalition government at once, but he agreed later to serve under Lloyd George first as undersecretary, and then as secretary for India.

From his undergraduate days he had urged bringing Indians into the government of India and he is one of the few Englishmen to whom statues still stand in India. But his policies were detested by the Conservative Party; Lord Curzon, a former viceroy was jealous of him; Lloyd George never liked him; and when Montagu’s concern for the Muslim population of India led him to oppose Lloyd George’s crazy policy of encouraging the Greeks to attack in Turkey, Lloyd George sacked him. Shortly afterward the Coalition government collapsed, Montagu lost his seat in Parliament, and the Liberal Party disintegrated. Two years later he died. Othello’s occupation had gone.

Montagu married Venetia Stanley who came from a well-known aristocratic family, the Stanleys of Alderley. But at the very moment when he fell in love with her, so did his chief Asquith, thirty-five years his senior; and it was the publication of Michael and Elinor Brock’s edition of Asquith’s letters to her—letters in which the besotted Asquith wrote to her daily, often revealing Cabinet secrets—that set Naomi Levine off. A New York lawyer, she is vice-president of New York University. “Never having written anything more complex than a legal brief,” she found herself at the age of sixty writing a major historical study. She does credit to Montagu and to herself. She handles his career with assurance and good judgment and makes hardly a slip (though it was not true even then that every Cambridge graduate…

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