Lord and Lady Astor

Lord and Lady Astor, and Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson

From the Whitefriars Journal, vol. VI, no. 2, January 1922, pp. 86-93.

The Christmas dinner was held on December 16th, 1921. Prior – Friar Dr Kimmins. Guests of the Evening—Lord and Lady Astor and Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson.

Prior Kimmins read the time-honoured formula, having first remarked that he did not propose to enter into competition with those misguided Priors who, in days gone by, had tried to commit the ritual of the Club to memory. Their attempts had been attended with a conspicuous want of success with, he believed, only one exception, that of their good friend Friar G. B. Burgin, who was letter-perfect! The Prior was conscious of the honour conferred on the Club by the presence of the distinguished visitor, who was to give them ‘The Spirit of Christmas’. No one in that large assembly had afforded so much genuine pleasure to all sorts and conditions of men and women as Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson. They had been fascinated by the wonderful parts he had played with such distinction, and some of his marvellous creations would remain as their most cherished stage memories.

Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson said it was a good thing that the Friars kept up the time-honoured custom of a Christmas Dinner; They were now on the edge of the time when the sun was about to assert itself: in five days they would have the shortest day; so that they were, in a measure, celebrating the renaissance of life, looking forward to the coming of the spring flowers, and full of hope. Christmas always had that for them. A time came when they entirely associated that great festival with the birth of the greatest of all Gentle Men; and it was becoming and proper – particularly in days when there was so much scepticism and materialism – that they should once again fall back on the old ceremonies which commemorated something great and important in the history of the world.

In such times especially, ceremonies were important to them all as reminding them of the higher ideals. In younger people they helped to foster the religious temperament. Whatever might be their creed or their dogmas, every really honest man and woman certainly had the religious temperament; and human nature desired symbols and ceremonies. They were part and parcel of their constitutions and their lives. That desire had been manifested in the erection all over England and Scotland of the beautiful memorials to their beloved dead, which would testify to coming generations what the sacrifice had been of the many thousands of men who had trod in the footsteps of the Lord Jesus Christ. As long as the individuals composing it had the true religious temperament, the country would survive and flourish.

The speaker was given to understand that religion had enormously increased in France; and it was for the English-speaking peoples, the world over, to see to the encouragement of the religious temperament among themselves. The individual man here, the ‘man in the street’, must be on good terms with the man in New York or California. On each side must they get upon good terms with each other; and in this way – not through agreements and governmental arrangements merely – would the ‘pin-pricks’ between the two great English-speaking peoples cease. He congratulated the Whitefriars’ Club upon its success in bringing together such a distinguished assembly to celebrate the great event of Christmas Day and the coming into the world of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Friar R. A. J. Walling, in proposing the toast of ‘Our Guests’, said that it was a great pleasure to see so many friends with them to-night. His duty was in the nature of a penance, and he was conscious of the peas in his shoes being extremely numerous and excessively unboiled. At the time when Lady Astor (with whose name the toast was coupled) was a candidate for the representation of the beautiful city by the western sea, he was associated with a distinguished and honourable journal there – a paper which the candidate had, with nice felicity and incisive vigour, described as his ‘rag’ – and did his utmost to keep her out; and it was in penance for that misdeed that he was called upon to propose the toast. He was bound to say, however, that, ever since the time referred to, he had rejoiced exceedingly that his wicked machinations had come to naught. The members of the Whitefriars Club who were connected with journalism had reason to be grateful to Lady Astor for having, during the last two years, provided them with a more continuous and varied stream of copy than any twenty mere men the town of Plymouth could have returned.

The quality which induced Plymouth citizens to send Lady Astor to Parliament was neither her prowess in the field of sport nor her humour, but that greatest of all qualities, which she possessed in astonishing measure – courage. At Plymouth they were fond of courageous people for Members of Parliament. In the sixteenth century they returned Sir Francis Drake, Sir John Hawkins and other buccaneers; and it was evident that the twentieth-century Plymouth found a kindred spirit in Lady Astor; for, if not another buccaneer, she was, at any rate, another pioneer, and that of a very great and important movement. Lady Astor was not only the Member for Plymouth; she was the Member for the women and children of this country.

Lady Astor at once accepted Friar Walling’s attribution of the quality of courage. It took a great deal of that quality for her to face such a company. She didn’t mind Bolshevists, the ordinary citizen, or the editors of ‘rags’; but it did take courage to face the distinguished White Friars. They must know a good deal or they wouldn’t be there. The proposer of the toast had been extraordinarily gracious and generous. She was glad he had fought against her; she would rather have it so than not have him at all. One of their troubles in Plymouth was that they had only one type of journal represented, and they would prefer some healthy competition.

Lady Astor was very grateful to the Club for its invitation; but she was no orator. She had heard so many orators pouring out words and rolling out sentences that did not mean anything, that she had determined that, no matter how badly she spoke, she would never be an orator, and thus escape the danger of getting drunk on her own words. The crowd adored oratory; and if the literary men present could induce politicians to cultivate plain speaking, they would be doing a great service to the country. It was discouraging to see how few persons in public life dared to say what they thought: yet the average Anglo-Saxon really liked courage more than anything.

The only note Lady Astor had taken for her remarks was that of the words spoken by the Prior: ‘By this wine we commemorate the Whitefriars of old, fortified with spirit’ – and she was relieved to know that it was ‘the spirit of admiration’, for that became better as it went on; whereas in the case of the other spirit, there was very little admiration left in the morning for anything. Then the Prior spoke of ‘a cordial’ – the cordial of welcome. Well, they were on the right path, They had gone far ahead of old Friar Tuck – the only friar she knew intimately, She felt that she could speak to them, because they were on the right path, and would like to say a word on the woman’s point of view, the importance of which she did not think half the world realized, nor how great a change it was going to make.

The speaker did not agree with the opinion that this was an age of materialism. Materialism was on its last legs. One of her reasons for thinking so was – Woman. Through evolution, women had gradually attained to where they now were. She herself was only a symbol, a symbol of what women want in public life and everywhere, and that was certainly not materialism. (She was speaking of the right sort of women – the women their mothers were and the women they would want to marry.) It was a sort of spiritual energy.

The men who wanted the right things, a better and a cleaner world, were not frightened of women. They did not want to put them on pedestals and keep them there; but those who wanted the same old world were terrified of women; they had ‘got the wind up’; and well might they, because the women were desperately in earnest. Not that they thought themselves better than men, but their qualities were different from men, and as much needed.

What had kept the world back, in Lady Astor’s view, was that women’s qualities had not had full play. The woman’s essential quality was spiritual: it was the things of the spirit women cared for. They wanted their sons to be clean, straight and brave. They would like them to be wise; but they cared far more for their characters than about their wisdom. And they wanted their daughters to be the same.

Lady Astor honestly believed that woman’s entry into politics meant the assertion of the spiritual in that domain. The character of public life was largely determined by the sort of God the people believed in. False conceptions had been all too prevalent, but they were breaking up, and people were genuinely thinking about what God is, which was really the only thing worth thinking about, the only thing that could save any country. The future of the country would depend on the children, and it was worth while teaching them that God was Spirit and Love and near the heart of everybody. Mothers were thinking a great deal in these days about what to teach their children, and the country’s destiny would be in peril apart from the new spiritual impetus brought into public life by women. They would make mistakes, no doubt – she had herself made mistakes in the House of Commons. But no one knew how difficult was the position of the first woman in the House. That was over, however; and now she had a splendid woman along with her. The other members of the House had been amazingly good and she made no complaint as to their attitude; but there had been a mental, subconscious sex-antagonism to contend with. Mr Balfour himself had said to her: ‘My dear, I have all my life wanted women to have the vote; but I never thought it would come to this!’ The women would never kill that feeling in men by fighting it; the only way was to recognize it and help them out of it.

The speaker did not look at the matter from a personal point of view. She was only a symbol; but it was not a mere matter of chance that a woman got into the House of Commons – it simply had to be. The Whitefriars, as literary men, would know that the country owed its greatness to the West of England, whose sons had defeated the Spanish Armada; and from which the Pilgrims had set out. Her return was curious, since, being very much of a Virginian, she was wholly British.

Lady Astor concluded by thanking her hosts for ‘a good meal. I can’t get over how well you Friars live. I really wonder whether you are thinking as much about “the spirit” as you ought.’ They would be doing her another kindness if they would advise her on one thing. She supposed something would have to be written about ‘the first lady MP’. Should she write it herself, or leave it to them, as literary men ? She was afraid, if she did it herself, she would be even more frank than a recent writer of reminiscences, though not so thrilling. In the name of the guests, she thanked them for their hospitality, and would promise, if they asked her again, to come fortified with appropriate literary quotations and speak in the most approved literary style; but – by that time she would be out of politics!

Lord Astor, in proposing the health of ‘The Prior’, imagined that he had been asked to speak through a desire that as many as possible of the forces for public good should be represented on the programme the Stage, the Press, the House of Commons, and the House of Lords (which included the Church). Of Dr Kimmins’ qualities as Prior he was able to judge from the way in which he handled the ritual, which indicated that he obviously possessed the gift of caution.

It was a platitude to say that we were living in a time of revolutions. Revolutions were more or less associated with guillotines. At the present moment he (Lord Astor) was desperately nervous about ‘the Geddes axe’. A statement had appeared that large reductions were to be made in respect of education. Well, if the Geddes axe were to fall, let it cut off a hand or foot, but they must see to it that it did not cut off the head. The Prior had done great work for child welfare, and it was to be hoped that when, after a distinguished career, he shortly left the public service and ceased to be an administrator, he would be an agitator. Governments were under constant pressure from the forces of reaction, vested interest and self-interest; but there never was a similar amount of pressure from the forces of progress, unselfishness and service. He therefore asked them to drink to the toast of the potential agitator – the Prior.

The Prior promised to become an agitator in the near future, and would always look back with extreme pleasure to that ‘glorious Christmas party” at which he had the honour to be Prior.