Lady Bonham Carter

Lady Bonham Carter and Mr T. P. O’Connor MP

From the Whitefriars Journal, vol. VI, no. 1, January 1921, pp. 16-21.

Ladies’ Night Dinner held on May 7th, 1920; Prior:– Friar Robert Donald. Club Guests: – Lady Bonham Carter, Dr Agnes Savill and Mr T. P. O’Connor, MP.

The Prior proposed the toast of ‘The King’, and then gave the welcome to Friars and Guests. In submitting the toast of ‘Our Visitors’, the Prior said that they were looking forward to the time when women would knock at the door, as they were knocking at other doors. If women had taken part in the Peace Conference, there would have been no nonsense as to secret diplomacy. If they had women governing the League of Nations, it would make more progress; it was a child which wanted careful ministering; some new spirit of love and sacrifice was needed to get away from a world governed by fear and force. They wanted women to take part in this world

The Prior had to associate with the toast the name of Lady Bonham Carter, who had recently come before the public as a speaker. She was a speaker before, but the public did not know it. The newspapers discovered her. Lady Bonham Carter was not seeking notoriety although about 20 constituencies would now like to get her as a candidate. The newspapers admired her brilliant speeches and her great sense of humour. She had been telling him some of her experiences. Amongst those stories there was one which related to an old Scottish couple who had been impressed by ‘Pussyfoot’ speakers, and they decided to give up whisky. They thought, however, that it would be a nice thing to have a bottle of whisky in the cupboard in case of accident. The old man went to the cupboard to look at the bottle and saw it was almost empty. The old man said: ‘Where is the whisky? I want a wee drappie as I have a sinking feeling.’ ‘Ah,’ the old lady said, ‘I had a sinking feeling all the week.’

The Prior also coupled with the toast the name of Mr T. P. O’Connor, who was the father of the House of Commons. Mr O’Connor had plied his pen in every phase of journalism during the last 50 years, and was a finished craftsman of his art. Had he been in France or some other country he would have received honours, distinction and recognition which would have made him memorable; he was one of the great undecorated. Mr O’Connor always had this satisfaction, that every journalist had a warm corner in his heart for ‘T.P’.

Lady Bonham Carter thanked the gathering for the great honour conferred on her in drinking the toast. The Prior was far too kind and flattering. She wished that he had praised anything else except her power of speech. As a speaker, she was afraid that she was being unmasked. If he had said what a good mother she was, what exquisite water-colours she painted, or how well she played the harp, she might have gone out of the room with her reputation intact. This she felt she had now but little hope of doing.

She wanted to begin by saying that this evening had been to her, so far, at least, a most overwhelming surprise. In her ignorance she imagined that the Friars were bound by harsh ascetic vows, and she thought every member would be very particular about the company he kept. It appeared that the Friars admitted to their society without any outward sign of disapproval one fresh from the hustings, and a mud-slinger like herself. This monastic life for the first time explained what Wordsworth meant in his line: ‘The world is too much with us.’

Some of the members of this brotherhood were engaged in pursuing the profession which the Friars of old made peculiarly their own. She meant the writing, of history – only the present Friars wrote in the modem way in very short instalments. They were writing what she might call history in a serial form.
This new method had many great and far-reaching results. The writers took everything in short notices – including our own reputations. A friend of hers was talking to a very well-known politician – some people called him a statesman. Her friend spoke of Bertrand Russell, the Fabian philosopher and mathematician, who was imprisoned under the Defence of the Realm Act, and said that his name would be remembered long after the politician had gone. The politician pricked up his ears: ‘How soon will that be?’ Her friend replied: ”You might be remembered 50 years or so.’ ‘Fifty years!’ exclaimed the politician, with ecstacy, ’50 years will do for me.’

‘After all, what were laurels arid bay leaves to us when we had headlines?’ Lady Bonham Carter continued, ‘What did it matter to posterity? What we wanted was to ring m the ears and stink in the nostrils of the public to-day. We wanted our friends’ praises and our enemies’ execrations in our own hearing. We wanted, above all, to hear about ourselves in our own day. Was it a gain or a loss? Were we living better and acting a finer part than in the days gone by? The age of bronze and marble was past; the “movies” had arrived, and the handle was being turned faster and faster. The great names of the past shone out like stars – Alexander, Pericles, Caesar. Stars nowadays had no fixity of purpose. Hero-worship survived in snap-shots.’

The speaker did not know whether the history was more or less true of the days when it was written, but it was as unquestionably believed. In the present day we would rather look at figures than facts; we prefer from day to day life in the raw. You hold up the mirror daily and we see just anything you care to show us. You are not chroniclers of events, but manufacturers or controllers; you can drive our opinions and thoughts, driving us like swine from the top of the cliffs to the depths of the sea.

Proceeding, the speaker pointed out that people were afraid to take in a newspaper, even when they agreed with it, for fear it would change their minds. Personally, she might wake up one morning and find herself a member of the National Party, a follower of ‘Pussyfoot’ or Bottomley, or, worse, a passionate supporter of the Coalition Government.

‘In conclusion, may I say that I envy your power. I thank you for having allowed me to share the rigorous austerities of your existence. I warn you that if I should return amongst you, I shall probably take the veil myself.’

Mr T. P. O’Connor, in the course of his response, said it had been stated that it was not discovered that Lady Bonham Carter had a sense of humour until she went to Scotland, If Scotland was anything like its reputation, it was the last place where anyone would expect that this would take place.

As regards the House of Commons, continued Mr O’Connor, he had never found a more agreeable assembly than the present one. There was a time when a Liberal and a Conservative would glance at each other and would not dine at the same table. But this had all passed away. He had had one or two difficult problems to solve. Recently, Sir William Joynson-Hicks wrote a pathetic appeal for his corner seat, which had been taken by Lady Astor. He got up in the House and asked whether it would be possible by an act of courtesy to allow Lady Astor to retain the seat. Sir William turned around and said: ‘If you are so anxious for her to have my seat, why don’t you give her yours?’ He would have willingly done this but for a slight difficulty. Lady Astor had an extremely charming personality, but she had the habit of making frequent comment on the proceedings in the House of Commons. Sitting next to him he had a peppery Irishman from Belfast – Mr Joe Devlin – and there might be difficulties if he were placed in close proximity to Lady Astor. He thought that there should be women in the House of Commons, but that they should not be under fifty-five.

Mr O’Connor came there that evening partly for the sake of Lady Bonham Carter and partly for the sake of her father. He remembered Mr Asquith as a stuff-gownsman at the Parnell Commission, and witnessed his first great success in the cross-examination of Mr Macdonald, of The Times. He had known Mr Asquith since that time, and was perfectly sure that when the verdict of history was given everybody would see that a finer or more high-minded man never appeared in public life.

Friar Sir Arthur Spurgeon announced that he appeared on the programme as ‘an extra turn’. During the existence of the Whitefriars Club they had had experience of the special services rendered by various members. Among those men who had rendered exceptional service to the Order was Friar G. B. Burgin who, as a labour of love, had edited the Whitefriars’ Journal for some ten years past. As a token of their love and admiration for Friar Burgin, the Club had asked him to make a presentation consisting of the works of Harrison Ainsworth and Tobias Smollett. He asked Friar Burgin’s acceptance of the gift as a token of their respect, admiration and gratitude for the arduous and exacting work done in past years out of sheer love for the Brotherhood.

Friar G. B. Burgin was greatly touched by the kindly way in which Friar Spurgeon had made the presentation. During the last ten years, his editorial duties had been much lightened by many contributors among the Brethren. His other editorial experiences had not been so pleasant, (or on one occasion a dirty and bibulous old woman came into his office and asked for a loan of sixpence with which to go to Paris. As this was such a reasonable request he produced the sixpence. She departed to Paris, via the public house round the corner, and a little later returned with the statement that as the cost of living was very great in Paris she wanted another sixpence to come home again. That seemed to him the quickest journey on record, and his utterances that night would be equally speedy. There was a great popular orator, a certain photographer, who attended prominent literary banquets always made the speech of the evening. The speech consisted of a few words which invariably provoked great applause: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you very much.’

Dr Agnes Saville, in proposing ‘The Prior’, gave some of her personal experiences with the Scottish Women’s Hospital in France.

The Prior briefly replied to the toast, and the proceedings then terminated.