The Princess and the Poet

An inscription in an old book is the clue to a lost world of literary salons and love affairs

Daniel Johnson

Of all the minor art-forms, inscriptions in books are among the most ephemeral. Unlike epitaphs, graven in stone, or letters, perhaps lovingly preserved, these fleeting thoughts on giving a book to a colleague, friend or lover are usually destined for oblivion. Books may indeed outlive their owners, but even if they do, most are destined to gather dust on shelves, unread and unloved. Unless and until, often generations or even centuries later, the significance of what antiquarian dealers call a “presentation copy” suddenly dawns on a chance reader. Then, and then only, the book and its history of ownership comes to life: the words on the flyleaf take on meaning — more meaning, it may be, than they possessed for the parties involved. For the blessings of hindsight enable us to evoke an entire world from the unique trinity of the donor, the recipient and the author. The past speaks to us through this long forgotten act of generosity, giving back to posterity what time has stolen away.

Such an inscription is the one I found in a copy of Occasional Addresses: 1893-1916 by H.H. Asquith, published by Macmillan in 1918. This unpretentious red-cloth volume, with its browned, torn and crumbling dust jacket, conjures up an era, only a century ago, when prime ministers were expected to discourse not only on politics but on criticism and biography, on “Ancient Universities and the Modern World” or “Culture and Character”, “The English Bible” and “The English Bar”. Asquith was as comfortable addressing the Classical Association as the Royal Society, and his speeches in the House of Commons were not reserved solely for polemics and philippics but also for paying tribute to the dead: to his mentor Benjamin Jowett, the Master of Balliol; to his predecessor in office, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, the only Prime Minister to die in 10 Downing Street; and to the War Secretary Lord Kitchener, whose death at sea in 1916 enabled Lloyd George to replace him and later to bring down Asquith himself.

These addresses mark this great Liberal statesman as a Victorian in his passion for political reform and personal self-improvement, but also as an Edwardian in his agnosticism. Of Kitchener, for instance, Asquith tells the Commons that “few men I have known had less reason to shrink from submitting their lives to those pure eyes/And perfect witness of all-judging Jove.” These lines from Lycidas needed no attribution in an era when educated people were expected to know their Milton, but what is striking is Asquith’s preference for a classical rather than a Christian vocabulary. Can one imagine any British minister today — except possibly Boris Johnson, like Asquith a Balliol man — apostrophising the king of the Graeco-Roman gods in a memorial address? President Macron may get away with comparing his style of leadership to that of Jupiter, though even in France he instantly acquired the nickname “Manupiter”, but in Britain such classical allusions now invite ridicule or disgust. A century ago, such learned oratory was normal and, indeed, expected from a statesman.

However exotic, and alien to the spirit of our time, the contents of Asquith’s Addresses were evidently of no interest to the owner: the pages are uncut. Yet the woman who gave the book and the author who wrote it are clearly connected: she was Asquith’s youngest daughter, Elizabeth, by his second wife, Margot. In 1920, she was 23, a famous beauty and, despite her lack of university education, an intellectual. That year she gave birth to Priscilla, who was to be her only child. The previous year she had married her Romanian lover Prince Antoine Bibesco at a grand society wedding at St Margaret’s, Westminster. Who was this Prince? He had been brought up in Paris among the politicians, diplomats and artists who frequented his mother’s salon at 69, Rue de Courcelles. Appointed First Secretary at the London embassy during a war in which Romania was an ally, his duties were light enough for him to enjoy an affair with Enid Bagnold, later author of National Velvet and The Chalk Garden, but after meeting Elizabeth Asquith he switched his attention to the Prime Minister’s precocious daughter. He felt at home with the Asquiths and, despite being more than 22 years Elizabeth’s senior, met with her mother’s approval. “What a gentleman he is,” the devoted but normally critical Margot cooed. We have vivid descriptions of Elizabeth and Antoine together in her sister-in-law Lady Cynthia Asquith’s Diaries 1915-18 (London 1968). Lady Cynthia found her “mental, physical, and moral archness beyond all description” and they seem to have played endless parlour games, “during which Bibesco lay on the floor cuddling Elizabeth’s feet”. Despite their embarrassingly public intimacy, her motives were mixed: “She told me he is going to leave the whole of his fortune to her.”

Yet Prince Bibesco was fickle, indeed a “bird of prey”, with his “strange obsession about statistics of virginity” and “leading questions about erotics”. A few months later Elizabeth confides in her sister-in-law that the affair is over, while over lunch with Cynthia, Antoine “took pains to convey the fact that he was cured of Elizabeth”. “I see he means to make love to me,” Cynthia records, but concludes: “I’m afraid I can’t oblige him.” According to their mutual friend Desmond MacCarthy, Elizabeth had told Bibesco: “You treat me half as a mistress and half as a nurse.”  She promptly fell in love with an American diplomat, Hugh Gibson, even announcing her engagement, but it ended unhappily. “She had had ten days bliss with her Gibson, who had then gone to his doctor and said he had absolutely prohibited his marrying and only given him a year to live.” Another sister-in-law, Betty, shocked the Asquiths by doubting the sincerity of Gibson’s excuse for breaking off the engagement; as he actually lived another three decades, she was probably right to do so.

Elizabeth did marry her Prince in the end, but this did not preclude infatuations with other men. The recipient of the Asquith volume was the literary critic, Christian socialist, pacifist and poet John Middleton Murry. Now remembered mainly as the apostle of D.H. Lawrence, Murry was as passionate about women as his hero — notoriously, he had an affair with Lawrence’s wife Frieda von Richthofen. He also had four marriages of his own. Murry had come into the orbit of the Asquith family partly by association with Lawrence. Lady Cynthia was attracted to, even ecstatic about Lawrence — “He is a Pentecost to one . . . I have never known such an X-ray psychologist” — but she disliked “that little sneak Murry”. Elizabeth, by contrast, seems to have found Murry much the more dashing of the literary duo. The inscription reads as follows:

For John Middleton Murry —
Elizabeth 1920.
“She could not believe . . .
that there had been a time
before they knew one another”
“There was no parting, all
Those days were lies.”

These verses are by Middleton Murry himself, first published in his Poems 1917-18, privately printed in 1919 by his own Heron Press in a small edition of only 120 copies. Perhaps he had presented one of them to Elizabeth Asquith and she was thus quoting his own words back to him. Were these words originally meant for her? And what message did she mean her inscription to convey? We do not know, but clearly the Princess and the Poet were enjoying an unusually intense relationship at the time. They may or may not have crossed the line into adultery, but for a married man in his early thirties to have received such a suggestive gift from a married woman in her early twenties would suffice to arouse suspicion — at any rate on his wife’s part.

In 1920, when Elizabeth presented him with her father’s book, Murry had been married for two years to a writer from New Zealand, Katherine Mansfield, after a stormy relationship that had begun nine years earlier. She was a year older than Murry and he was her second husband, though the first marriage to George Bowden was never consummated. Like him, she believed in free love, having suffered a miscarriage after becoming pregnant by another lover before meeting Murry, and her bisexuality had caused her mother to cut her out of her will. In 1917, Katherine was diagnosed with the tuberculosis that would eventually kill her. That year, for the second time, she broke off her relationship with Murry and resumed her long-standing lesbian relationship with the writer Ida Baker. Her divorce from Bowden enabled her to marry Murry, but they lived together only intermittently until her death in 1923. Katherine struggled to support herself; she did, however, benefit from Murry’s editorship of the Athenaeum, contributing more than a hundred reviews, which helped to finance her brief but brilliant writing career. Her final years were spent mainly in Italy and France, seeking spiritual and physical cures from such dubious gurus as the theosophists Gurdjieff, Ouspensky and Alfred Orage. Murry was, though, her constant correspondent, came to the rescue when summoned, and after her death edited, published and promoted the posthumous works on which her fame chiefly rests.

Mortally ill, poverty-stricken and sexually unconventional though she might be, Katherine still valued her status as a respectable married woman. Hence when Katherine, during one of her brief periods of cohabitation with her husband, discovered that Elizabeth had been besieging Murry — and giving him tokens of her admiration, such as her father’s book — she reacted very sharply indeed. Katherine Mansfield’s letter to Elizabeth Bibesco, dated March 24, 1921, is perhaps the most famous she ever wrote: one of the most crushing put-downs in literary history.

Dear Princess Bibesco,
I am afraid you must stop writing these little love letters to my husband while he and I live together. It is one of the things which is not done in our world.
You are very young. Won’t you ask your husband to explain to you the impossibility of such a situation.
Please do not make me have to write to you again. I do not like scolding people and I simply hate having to teach them manners.
Yours sincerely,
Katherine Mansfield

This letter, often anthologised, requires interpretation. Its delicious irony and colossal condescension mask a deep insecurity about matrimonial and class status. “While he and I live together” is carefully worded, for Elizabeth knew, and Katherine knew that she knew, that they were very seldom under one roof. Nor was it the case that such liaisons were “not done in our world”: Murry’s world overlapped with those of Lady Ottoline Morrell and the Bloomsbury set, for whom not only adultery and homosexuality but even incest were scarcely taboos. Katherine’s hypocrisy was breathtaking: she appealed to marital fidelity to put an end to her husband’s infatuation while herself carrying on her own, more or less open, lesbian relationship. Even more unavoidable was their unequal social status: Katherine was poor and from a colonial background, while Elizabeth was rich and from one of the most distinguished families in the land. Hence Katherine turns the tables, by affecting to hate the idea of teaching the younger woman a lesson in etiquette, while actually drawing attention to her bad manners — a perfect example of the rhetorical device of apophasis.

In the eyes of both women, however, it was intellectual rather than class status that mattered. In Elizabeth Bibesco, Katherine saw not a serious rival but a frivolous flapper, unworthy of her husband’s attentions. The Princess’s vocation as a writer was not yet established — her first collection of short stories only appeared that year — while Katherine already had a reputation as one of the most talented authors of her generation. Lovely as she was, Elizabeth must have struck Katherine as a mere dilettante, a rich socialite whose obsession with Murry was as hollow as her intellectual pretensions. Politics may have come into the equation, too: the Murrys were serious about the post-war prospect of a socialist utopia, while for them the liberal Asquiths represented the Edwardian era. All these factors made up a combustible combination in the form of a letter that must have taken even the most self-confident Princess aback. It must also have put John Middleton Murry firmly in his place. No more was heard of “little love letters”.

Yet that is not quite the end of the story. Elizabeth was by now living mainly in Paris. The Bibescos’ house at 45 Quai Bourbon on the Ile St Louis was one of the most extraordinary residences of their time or any other, decorated with huge canvases by Vuillard (now in the Musée d’Orsay), giving the impression of a luscious garden. It was a favourite haunt of an old friend, Marcel Proust, who was a close friend of Antoine’s. Elizabeth also came to know the great novelist in his last years, and he praised her looks and, more importantly, her intelligence as “probably unsurpassed . . . by any of her contemporaries”. She left a memorable vignette of their encounter at a ball: “Here was Marcel Proust crossing the floor towards me, dressed in his fur coat, and dragging a small gilded chair after him. With a bow and a flourish and a sort of humility which I very much resented, he asked permission to sit with me while I rested and fanned myself between dances.” She wrote one of the first obituaries of Proust for the New Statesman in November 1922 when his work was not yet familiar to more than a handful of English-speaking readers. “Gently, deliberately, he drew me into that magic circle of his personality with the ultimate sureness of a look that needs no touch to seal it.”

Proust’s friendship seems to have consoled Elizabeth for the loss of Murry, giving her the confidence to become a successful writer. Over the next two decades she published ten books: novels, stories, plays and poetry. Her life between the wars was peripatetic as her husband’s diplomatic duties took him from London and Paris to the United States and Spain. Unfortunately, she found herself trapped when Romania entered the war on the Axis side in 1941, and her English family and friends lost touch with her. As the Russians advanced into Romania in March 1945, a Red Cross letter reached London, informing Margot Asquith that Elizabeth was safe in her husband’s palace at Mogosoaia near Bucharest and planning to return to England. Before she could leave, however, and no doubt weakened by lack of food and medicines, she contracted pneumonia and, aged just 48, she died in April, a month before the war ended. The shock was too much for Margot, who followed her daughter a few months later. Prince Antoine outlived his wife by six years, dying in exile in Paris; their daughter Princess Priscilla lived on in Paris at the house on Quai Bourbon until her death in 2004.

Elizabeth Bibesco’s epitaph, from a poem of her own, reads: “My soul has gained the freedom of the night.” All she ever wanted was freedom, and she found it among the men and women of letters, not the politicians with whom she grew up. Her 1924 portrait by Augustus John, the second he painted of her, shows her wearing the mantilla given to her father by the Queen of Portugal, and mentioned by Lady Cynthia as a favourite garment. She is holding one of her own books, looking at us quizzically, as if unsure whether she is a society lady or a writer. Back to the John Middleton Murry inscription: “There was no parting, all those days were lies.” She had turned her back upon a Westminster world that held no appeal for her, and instead embraced the intellectual, the literary life. The Princess, too, had become a poet. 

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