Violet Bonham Carter was born in Hampstead on 15 April 1887 as Helen Violet Asquith, the daughter of Herbert Henry Asquith and his first wife Helen Melland. In 1891 Violet’s mother died of typhoid fever, and in 1894 Asquith married Margot Tennant. At the time of Violet’s birth, Asquith had just entered the House of Commons. His ascent was rapid: in 1892 he became Home Secretary in Gladstone’s last administration, in 1905 Chancellor of the Exchequer and in 1908 Prime Minister. Violet’s lifetime covered the zenith and the nadir of the Liberal Party and she occupied a ringside seat.
Educated at home, and finished in Dresden and Paris, she was, despite this lack of a formal education, a woman of formidable intellect. She was a passionate Liberal, and her father’s champion redoubtable (Winston Churchill’s characterisation): she worshipped him and he depended upon her. After his fall from power she became his standard bearer, discovering her own considerable gifts as an orator as she fought his Paisley campaigns. She continued after Asquith’s death to be his most resolute defender, and the voice of Asquithian Liberalism.
She was president of the Women’s Liberal Federation twice: 1923-25 and 1939-45. In 1945 she became President of the Liberal Party Organisation, the first woman to do so. She stood for Wells in 1945, and for Colne Valley in 1951; she was unsuccessful in both campaigns. In 1964 she was belatedly made a life peer and entered the House of Lords as Baroness Asquith of Yarnbury. Although by then seventy-seven, she made an immediate impact.
Bonham Carter’s interests ranged wide. She was a fervent believer in the League of Nations, and was a member of the League of Nations Union until 1941. Alongside her father, the other dominant political figure in her life was Winston Churchill, whom she first met when she was eighteen. Despite occasional differences of opinion, pursued vigorously on both sides, they remained devoted friends throughout their lives. She was an early and active supporter of Churchill’s anti-appeasement campaign, being passionately anti-Nazi. In 1933 she vigorously attacked Franz von Papen for the deal he brokered with Adolf Hitler which led to the Nazi leader’s appointment as Chancellor. After the war she embraced the European ideal, and in 1947 became vice-chairman of the United Europe Movement. She was an annual member of the Knigswinter Conference, her fluency in German as well as her character ensuring active participation.
She was a governor of the BBC from 1941-46, a role she relished. Subsequently she was a frequent broadcaster on both radio and television. She was also a member of the Royal Commission on the Press (1947-49), a governor of the Old Vic from 1945, and a trustee of the Glyndbourne Arts Trust from 1955. In 1953 she was appointed DBE.
She was a great orator; her first reported speech was in 1909 when she was twenty-two, and she continued until her death sixty years later to speak up for the creed she believed to be the only embodiment of political morality, Liberalism. In 1963 she became the first woman to give the Romanes lecture at Oxford. She spoke on the impact of personality on politics – a subject of which she had such first-hand knowledge. In 1915 she married Maurice Bonham Carter, her father’s principal private secretary, and they had two daughters and two sons. She died in London on 19 February 1969.
During her lifetime Bonham Carter only wrote one book: Winston Churchill as I Knew Him which chronicled their relationship and shared experiences, and was published in 1965. Since her death two volumes of her letters and diaries have been published: Lantern Slides, The Diaries and Letters of Violet Bonham Carter 1904-14 (Mark Bonham Carter and Mark Pottle, eds., 1995); Champion Redoubtable, The Diaries and Letters of Violet Bonham Carter 1914-45 (Mark Pottle, ed., 1998) and Daring to Hope, The Diaries and Letters of Violet Bonham Carter 1946-69 (Mark Pottle, ed., 2002).
Jane Bonham Carter is a daughter of Mark Bonham Carter and was working in television at the time this piece was written.