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 had to act in a Greek play declaiming ancient Greek). The kernel of the book is the extraordinary triangle of Asquith, Venetia, and Montagu; and this leads outward to Levine’s main theme, the workings of anti-Semitism in upper-class England.
Venetia Stanley was brought up like the children of the equally aristocratic and outspoken Cecil family; she was encouraged to join in the dinner-table arguments and say what she thought. But whereas the Cecils were devout Anglicans, her father Lord Sheffield was a freethinker. One of his brothers was a Mohammedan and another a cynical, greedy, witty Roman Catholic bishop in partibus infidelium who enjoyed the excellent food and wine at his brother’s table. Venetia was a childhood friend of Violet, the youngest of Asquith’s daughters.
In 1910, when she was twenty-three years old, Asquith began to correspond with her. Two years later he was entangled and by 1914 was writing to her at least once a day, often twice; and in those times of excellent postal delivery on several occasions four times a day. If one of her replies was delivered to him when the Cabinet was meeting, he picked up his pen and began to write a reply, a habit which disconcerted his ministers, who imagined that it was the prime minister’s business to listen to what they were saying.
He told her all his plans and problems and—outrageously—the most recent war plans. Roy Jenkins, who first revealed the full extent of their correspondence in his biography of Asquith, made the wise comment that for Asquith “the writing of letters was both a solace and a relaxation interfering with his duties no more than Lloyd George’s hymn-singing or Churchill’s late-night conversation.” Whether or not his conduct of the war was affected by his relationship, Asquith was obsessed.
Sex, of course, came into it. Asquith had strong sexual appetites, and his wife, Margot, often sick in bed after pregnancies and miscarriages, did not assuage them. People noticed that he peered down ladies’ cleavage at table, that he squeezed hands and patted thighs. Did he and Venetia go to bed together? Naomi Levine sifts the conflicting opinions of various writers. What did Diana Cooper, a close friend of Venetia, say at one time and what did she say at another (as reported by some close and other not-so-close friends)? Levine concludes that Asquith, “though an importunate lecher,” and Venetia Stanley, though holding “totally unconventional and liberated views of life, sex and sexual experimentation,” were probably not physical lovers. Still, she writes, some of the language used in the letters “strongly suggests that the affair had a strong sexual component, even if actual consummation may not have taken place.”
Confronted with such a relationship biographers must do more than try to fit pieces of evidence together. They must use imagination and judge from their knowledge of the way men and women behaved in those days. What makes men the wrong side of middle age take up with women thirty-five years younger? It is not sexual desire alone. Asquith’s daughter, Violet Bonham Carter, was amazed when Roy Jenkins told her of the existence of the thousand-odd letters her father wrote to Venetia and exclaimed, “It cannot be true. Venetia was so plain.” She may have been, but in his relations with Venetia Asquith found other joys about which Ms. Levine has little to say. Old men long for spontaneous, fresh, uncomplicated reactions. Here was someone who would respond to Asquith’s hopes and fears, here was someone whose eyes he could open, here was someone eager, interested, ready to be captured, perhaps enraptured. Old men’s emotions about young girls appear silly: they are mocked by their families and their old friends make jokes. But to the old men the laughter is irrelevant. Vanity drives them on. People may nod and say they are in their dotage, but they are having an affair in which the objective is no longer bed. The object is to win affection, support, and above all admiration.
The evidence in Asquith’s case is in the letters. However full of longing the terms of endearment he used, they do not sound like the utterances of a satisfied lover. Asquith was neither fool nor knave. Even in those days when no gossip columnist would reveal the sexual secrets of the great, is it conceivable that the prime minister would try to go to bed with his daughter’s best friend—any more than Lloyd George, who had a reputation for seduction, would have gone to bed with his upperclass confidante Thelma Cazalet?
Venetia’s replies were destroyed, but her other letters to Asquith that survive, for instance on Montagu’s death, confirm that impression. Does a lover, even after all passion is spent, write “My dearest,” or sometimes, “my darling Mr. Asquith”? Of course one can never be certain; and what people say about their own sexual experiences is always suspect. Venetia said that on her wedding night Montagu brutally deflowered her—in other words, until then she was a virgin. Even that can be doubted, or read as an excuse for her refusal later to sleep with her husband. Naomi Levine finds it “more likely that Venetia was either exaggerating or completely fabricating a story for her own purposes.” But Ms. Levine is too cautious and disapproving to see the affair in perspective.
The second side of the triangle is sadder. Montagu’s love letters, unlike Asquith’s, are full of sexual longing. Why did she marry him? She had turned him down more than once. Naomi Levine thinks that it may in part have been growing apprehension at the strength of Asquith’s feelings. But the answer may also be that the terrible course of the war determined her. Venetia was no fool. So many of those who might have been suitors had already been killed. Montagu was at the center of affairs to which Asquith’s letters had introduced her, and his house was a rendezvous for her friends. On his father’s death he had inherited money. But there was a snag. If he did not marry a Jew, he forfeited his inheritance. That did not deter Venetia; and she was indifferent to the gasps of disapproval when she converted to Judaism.
There was a further snag. Montagu was witty, charming, and a prince among gossips. But she did not find his ugly bony face and his moody silences sexually attractive. He married for love, she for convenience, and she treated him badly. Within a short time she was having a series of affairs beginning with the amusing and dashing baronet “Scatters” Wilson (said to be the only man who ever brought her to orgasm) and later with Max Beaverbrook, among others. Montagu continued to pour out devotion; she spent his money and brought him into the “Corrupt Coterie” as Diana Manners and Duff Cooper called their circle. He suffered agonies from her sexual rejection, which was known to their intimate friends; and when his political career was finished, what was there to live for? And yet some cynics might have said that he had achieved his ambition. The daughter of a famous aristocratic family had accepted him. Did not this prove that he was on equal terms with the rulers of the land?
He was not. Saddest of all is the third side of the triangle—the relations of Montagu to Asquith, and it brings Naomi Levine to the main theme of her book. She is revolted by English anti-Semitism. Asquith’s attitude to Jews, she says, resembled his attitude to women. They were fun to be with, but not truly equal to their Christian colleagues. He considered Jews as foreigners, slaves of a tribal creed with oriental habits of ostentation. He called Montagu “The Assyrian” and warned Venetia not to frequent too often “the silken tents of Shem.” The coterie “saw nothing strange in loving Montagu and at the same time calling him ‘Shylock the merchant of Venetia.’ ” Diana and Duff Cooper said the most appalling things about Jews. George V, said Diana, “represents to me all that I most heartily dislike…except that I thank God he hates the Jews.” Duff Cooper was amused and not particularly pained by the attacks of the conservative rightwing press on Montagu for being a Jew. Lloyd George was worse. Montagu admired him as a man who got things done, an outsider, distrusted by the establishment. But the outsider had no regard for other outsiders. His biographer, John Grigg, has said that it is one of the ironies of history that Lloyd George with his venomous prejudice against Jewry should have made possible the return of the Jewish people to Israel. Like Asquith he considered Jews cowards, one minute arrogant, the next obsequious.
Isaiah Berlin in one of his most famous essays* coined a simile to describe the reaction to anti-Semitism of Jews in the Western world. They behaved as if they were hunchbacks. Some indignantly denied they had a hump: and if anyone suggested they differed in any way from the rest of the human species they denounced him as a monster of prejudice. Others, however, said it was true. They had a hump and they were proud to be despised. A third group whispered that indeed they had a hump—but the hump was diminishing; and by never referring to it, people might come to believe in time that it did not exist. The fourth group were the Zionists: they said that if Jews went to Israel they would find the hump fell off once they got there.
Montagu belonged to the third group. He reacted against his Orthodox father, the banker, who was strict in his observance of the dietary laws and the high holy days. To his fury his son refused at Cambridge to follow them. “I will never disguise my Jewishness or be ashamed of it (for why should I),” he wrote his father, “but I must leave its ceremonial ritual and law excellent in their way but not parts of a religion.” His father bullied him, kept him short of money, and exploded when he declined to settle to a job and went into politics within a few years of leaving Cambridge. He framed his will in the fear that Montagu would marry a gentile. “I don’t as a rule like Jewesses,” Montagu admitted, and later added to Venetia, “I never think of myself as [a Jew]…. If people never thought of us as Jews, Jews like myself would forget all about it.”
Montagu put his trust in assimilation and for that reason was anti-Zionist. So in those days were most of the leaders of the Jewish community in Britain. He believed that to set up a homeland for Jews in Palestine would fuel anti-Semitism, and used to ask his friends whether they regarded him as an oriental alien who should be repatriated to Palestine. He fought against the Balfour declaration and made, so Weizmann believed, a significant modification of the original draft that had been proposed by Lord Rothschild. He died believing that a Jewish state would alarm the Muslim world and harm both Jewish and British interests.
The theme that runs through Naomi Levine’s book is that not only Montagu’s beliefs, such as respect for Indians or his anti-Zionism, but his failure to achieve higher office as well, were affected by the humiliations and evils that the insouciant anti-Semitism in the circle in which he moved inflicted upon him. “One of the tragedies of Montagu’s life,” Naomi Levine thinks,
was that he accepted such [anti-Semitic] teasing…and never fought back. This is understandable in a boy of twelve. It is much harder to accept in a grown man, a political leader, of thirty-three.
This is to ask Montagu to step out of Isaiah Berlin’s third category and into the second. The second is more noble; but the third was not dishonorable—and it was the only practical one for someone in politics in those days. Nor did Montagu ever fail to stand up for the Jews on any public issue when they were attacked, and he asked Venetia to do the same when she agreed to marry him.
Anyone who reads the memoirs of those times must cringe when he reads the things that were said about Jews. And not only by those in power. In the garden at Charleston a point arose in conversation among Virginia Woolf’s Bloomsbury friends, and she turned to her husband and said, “Let the Jew answer that.” “I will if you ask me nicely,” Leonard Woolf replied. Hitler made open anti-Semitism in the Thirties unacceptable, and the Holocaust transformed opinion. But anti-Semitism never dies; and only a few years ago a Tory knight could be heard complaining that Margaret Thatcher had too many Jews in her Cabinet.
Naomi Levine tries to be evenhanded. She writes that in his later years Duff Cooper supported Zionism and that when Diana’s son as a boy, while describing how nice a new friend was, added “though he’s a Jew,” received a stinging box on the ear and heard his mother say, “And what, pray, is there wrong with that?” But it is understandable that Naomi Levine is not much impressed by the explanation that most English biographers would give, namely that to make nasty, sneering remarks about Jews was the commonplace of upper-class life then, while at the same time Jews were taken on their merits and treated as dear friends.
Nevertheless, it is important to see such prejudice in historical perspective. Naomi Levine reminds us that Montagu was born into the Jewish Cousinhood—the Montefiores, Rothschilds, Solomons, Cohens, Goldsmids, Waleys, and Samuels—who had amassed great wealth, but she does not explain why they grated on their contemporaries. The landowning families who by the end of the century were feeling the wind of the agricultural depression resented their wealth and assurance. They saw the heir to the throne, later Edward VII, welcome Jews into his entourage. They saw these former outsiders aspiring to live as they did—sending their sons to public schools and the ancient universities, buying country estates and sometimes riding to hounds. The novelists noted the resentment. Dickens and Trollope created Messrs. Merdle and Melmotte, scarcely veiled Jewish financiers who dazzled the benighted by their wealth and ruined thousands when they crashed. One of Somerset Maugham’s best stories, “The Alien Corn,” concerns a Jewish family such as Montagu’s and there are hints of Montagu in one of the characters.
Part of Oswald Mosley’s strategy for his fascist movement was to provoke the Jews in the East End of London. But it is doubtful that, as Naomi Levine suggests, upper-class anti-Semitism was in some general way responsible for the fascist marches of the Thirties. Britain was the only major European country in which fascism gained negligible support. Nor did the upper classes give Hilaire Belloc’s vicious anti-Semitism “the respectability it needed to gain wider acceptance.” It lost Belloc his seat in Parliament. Nor is it tenable that Montagu failed to get the high office that he deserved just because he was a Jew. In England Jews rose to the top in politics, in the judiciary, in the medical colleges, and in the universities earlier than they did in East Coast America. Rufus Isaacs despite his having a part in the Maconi scandal was made Lord Chief Justice and later viceroy of India, and Herbert Samuel became eventually leader of the Liberal Party. Montagu was too volatile in temperament, too given to euphoria and then to dejection, too apt to appeal to his colleagues for support. When Naomi Levine asks why Churchill survived the disastrous collapse of the Liberal Party and was forgiven his “treachery” in changing sides and Montagu was not, the answer is that Churchill had a bravura and originality as well as a ruthless and cruel egoism that Montagu lacked.
Keynes admired him. He had been his friend at Cambridge and Montagu brought him into his counsels when he was at the Treasury. Montagu had not, Keynes thought, great aptitude for finance, still less in money making. He spotted the weakness that made Montagu attractive company in upperclass society but somehow diminished his stature. “I never knew,” he wrote, “a male person of big mind like his who was more addicted to gossip,” and he went on to give a telling description, cited by Levine, of how Montagu would emerge from Cabinet and give a dazzling imitation of all those who spoke on a particular issue:
But he loved it better when he could push gossip over into intimacy. He never went for long without an intense desire to unbosom himself, even to exhibit himself, and to squeeze out of his confidant a drop of—perhaps reluctant—affection. And then again he would be silent and reserved beyond bearing, sitting stonily with his great hand across his mouth and a staring monocle.
November 21, 1991