‘The Secret of Stanway’: Cynthia Asquith as Literary Networker

Posted by Matt Foley on October 31, 2015 in Blog tagged with , , , , , , , , , ,

‘In every relationship I am conscious of doubling the parts of Pygmalion and Galatea; I make and I am made’ – Cynthia Asquith (1950, xiv-xv)


1912 (© National Portrait Gallery, London)

Much of the limited scholarly literature that has read biographer, diarist, and ghost story collection editor Lady Cynthia Asquith’s contribution to early to middle twentieth-century British fiction stages her as a Galatea-esque figure: a passive recipient of roles fashioned for her by both D.H. Lawrence and J.M. Barrie. There are certainly circumstantial reasons for reading Asquith in this way. Lawrence’s desire to paint, as Asquith recounts, a “word-picture” of her was the genesis for her Lawrentian avatars in his novella The Ladybird (1923) and his two macabre short stories, which were written for Asquith collections, ‘Glad Ghosts’ (1925) and ‘The Rocking Horse Winner’ (1926). D.H. Lawrence’s letters also form part of his aggressive pursuit of Asquith and, in objectifying her so, do little to paint the complex nature of her character. Indeed, they provide more of an insight into Lawrence’s narcissistic (and absurd) fashioning of the aristocratic Asquith as his political pawn. Barrie, however, valued Asquith more highly. In a professional capacity, she was Barrie’s secretary from August 1918 until his death in 1937. Having once dubbed her his ‘Private, Private Secretary’ (Asquith 1954, 4), he left to Asquith the majority of his monetary and literary estate on his death in 1937. These biographical facts are well established but Asquith’s significant role as a networker and editor in twentieth-century literary circles is almost entirely overlooked. She formed professional relationships with writers such as May Sinclair, Elizabeth Bowen, Arthur Machen, and Algernon Blackwood. Yet, aside from a brief reminiscence of feeling, at a young age, that Machen was “matchless at conveying by suggestion the sense of mystery at the heart of things” (Asquith 1952, 117), these significant contributors to her collections remain conspicuous by their absence in Asquith’s Diaries 1915-1918 and her two memoirs of 1950 and 1952.

asquith 2

1912 (© National Portrait Gallery, London)

Secondary literature on her life and work, then, is certainly limited. Most notable of this body of research are Nicola Beauman’s now aged biography Cynthia Asquith (1987), an article by Ruth Weston from the same year which pursues a feminist reading of Asquith’s short stories and memoirs (published in vol 6 of Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature), a chapter on her—and her son Michael’s—relationship to Barrie in Lisa Chaney’s Hide-and-Seek with Angels: A Life of J. M. Barrie (2006), and Rosemary Reeves Davies’ (1983) paper on her influence upon ‘The Rocking Horse Winner’ (see vol 18 of Studies in Short Fiction). This body of literature tends to focus on her relationships with Barrie, Lawrence, the Asquith family (she was the daughter-in-law of Prime Minister H. H. Asquith), and the Royal family. Perhaps of more interest to Gothic scholars, her several and often overlooked edited collections of fiction between 1926 and 1955, in their various guises, embody ghost story fiction, murder mystery, and children’s literature.[1] The list of contributors to these annuals and collections is impressive: Lawrence, Barrie, Sinclair, Bowen, Blackwood, Machen, G.K. Chesterton, Walter De La Mare, Thomas Hardy, W. Somerset Maugham and A.A. Milne, to name but a few.

In her professional life, Asquith was caught often between the roles of the fashioned and the fashioner. Barrie, for instance, constructed Asquith’s symbolic  role as masculine, by insisting that she sign all his correspondences under the pseudonym ‘C. Greene’. Already in a state of anxiety after the War, Asquith experienced a rupture in her identity, as she told her poet husband Heb Asquith in a letter of November 1918: “While ‘C. Greene’ knits his brows, Barrie […] may address a remark to Cynthia Asquith, and I feel myself painfully splitting into two” (Asquith 1954, 18). Unsurprisingly, given her familial and, consequently, political involvement in the Great War, the 1910s were an often uncertain time for Asquith. Her published diary, which recounts the period April 1915 to September 1918, ends just days before “a brief nervous breakdown,” its anonymous editor notes (Asquith 1968, 480). In the 1920s, she evidently blossomed professionally and began to assert her own identities. Suggesting a marked change in their professional dynamic, Barrie writes in May 1920 to Asquith, that “You are an artist, and I am your chief work” (Barrie 1944: 174). At this time Asquith became a writer of women’s columns in The Times and she began, too, to publish more widely. Her first edited collection The Flying Carpet (1926) was an illustrated annual for children that contained two self-penned pieces alongside contributions by Thomas Hardy, G.K Chesterton and A.A Milne. The National Library of Scotland holds six more collections edited by Asquith, dated up until The Third Ghost Book (1955), and including What Dreams May Come (1951), her own book of collected short stories. The genesis of these collections has not yet been fully covered in scholarly literature.

Some of the many reasons that I am drawn to investigate Asquith are her interesting links to Scotland; these are ties that predate her relationship with Barrie. Daughter to Mary Constance and the Scottish politician Hugo Charteris (the 11th Earl of Wemyss), she spent much of her childhood in the Wemyss estate of Gosford House, by Longniddry, East Lothian. It would be disingenuous, however, to paint Asquith as patriotic Scottish, as her most frequented residence was at Stanway House, an estate in Gloucestershire, which Barrie rented each summer in his later life. Asquith recalls feeling more vital at Stanway than at Gosford: “A peculiar depression—“Gosforditis” we called it—often fell on me at Gosford. Compared with Stanway the house seemed so bleak—so without atmosphere, like a handsome person without charm” (Asquith 1950, 63). Foreshadowing her sensibility for the literature of terror, Asquith recalls that her grandfather—the 10th Earl of Wemyss—showed her as a young child at Gosford a decorative but “ferocious […] Roman Eagle” that he claimed “had once belonged to a clever gentleman called Horace Walpole” (60). Perhaps setting a precedent for Asquith’s own penchant for entertaining and networking at Stanton, her mother, too, was a favourite of both Barrie and H.G. Wells, and she was the leading light of ‘The Souls’ group of the late nineteenth century (Asquith 1952, 13). J.M. Barrie wrote to Cynthia in 1921 that she was now the “Secret of Stanway” (Barrie 1942, 192) and that “Stanway is just another name for you” (191).

by Walter Benington; Fry, chlorobromide print, mid 1930s

by Walter Benington; Fry, chlorobromide print, mid 1930s

In an idiom that eschews her pragmatic role as an editor, it is easy to fall back upon metaphors of haunting so as to add a macabre flourish to descriptions of Asquith’s character. This is a rhetorical fault that arises often given the uncertainties over identity expressed in her Diaries, her collecting of ghost books, and D.H. Lawrence’s figuring of he and Asquith as phantoms in his dedicatory poem ‘The Turning Back’ (1915).[2] Even in her feminist account, Ruth Weston constructs Asquith as spectral.  To regard Asquith as a haunted or haunting figure, as Weston does, is to do her a disservice: it eschews entirely her active role as a networker. This is the problem at the heart of the scarce body of secondary literature on Asquith: in suggesting her as a passive and ghostly figure, it turns away from seriously investigating the ways in which she managed to liaise and work with such an array of writers. Clear from her biographical and autobiographical writings is that Barrie’s influence did exert itself to connect Asquith with two writers he admired greatly: Thomas Hardy and G.K. Chesterton. Their meetings are only given, however, the briefest of mentions by Asquith and her prose is often elliptical in its recounting of many of her literary connections. In order address these gaps in knowledge, I am keen to connect with scholars who are interested in Asquith or who are working on tales that were collected in her edited collections.

[1] The tripartite Ghost Book series (1927-55) and When Graveyards Yawn (1935) are her modern Gothic contributions, The Black Cap (1927) her “murder book”, and the beautifully illustrated The Flying Carpet (1926) her children’s collection.

[2] This is an overlooked and uncollected poem found in his letters (Lawrence 1979-2001, vol. 2, 424).

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