Memories and Reflections, 1852-1927

by the Earl of Oxford and Asquith, K. G. Boston: Little, Brown Co. 1928. 8vo. xv+663 pp. 2 vols. $10.00.
IT was known some time before his death that the late Earl of Oxford was engaged upon the composition of an autobiographical work which should at once extend and amplify his previous reminiscences and include material relating especially to the years of the war, and it is needless to say that, in the usual phrase, these ‘revelations’ were awaited with the greatest interest and curiosity. The appearance of these two handsome volumes in no small degree justifies the expectations which were raised; yet it was not to be expected that the Earl of Oxford could or would gratify the audience which was accustomed to the more spicy style of his wife or of his latest rival. Indeed, as one begins these volumes, unless his patience persists, he is apt to be disappointed. If he stops with the first volume, he will conclude that what we have here is only the random reflections of a once eminent but never very ‘magnetic’ man on the events and, in particular, the characters of an age now as dead as that of Rameses. It is as if he had sat down by the fire and remembered aloud those figures of the Victorian past, summing up to himself the abilities and traits of a multitude of men with whom he was brought into contact, but whose names and achievements will be strange to many if not most of his readers outside that narrow but important circle in which they played their parts. Many, if not most, of those readers will find it dull, for it requires a good deal of rather specialized knowledge of circumstances and events to appreciate it quality.
But if the reader is patient — or if he skips these ‘Tales of a Grandfather,’ as he is very apt to do and — goes on to the second volume, he enters not only another age, but another atmosphere. He seems to be reading the work of another man. He comes at once into a narrative of great events, vigorous, entertaining, even enthralling; lively, ’revealing,’even at times more humorous than one conceived the author, and of the highest significance to the history of the Great War. Mr. Asquith did not keep a diary in the formal sense of the word, but he did, as he says, jot down from time to time a series of memoranda, and these ‘Contemporary Notes’ as they are here printed offer one of the most vivid and illuminating series of side lights — and even more than side light. — upon events and characters on the English side of the Great War which one reader, at least, has seen. Nor does it detract from their interest that much of the contents was already known or suspected, for the impressions made on a mind like that of Mr. Asquith are in themselves of the highest interestand importance. The impact of those events on such a mind as his, legal, parliamentary, logical, rather detached, and—as these memoirs prove—fair beyond most men, at once raises one’s opinion of the man and reveals the gulf which yawned between him and the politicians of the new generation.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the chapters which deal with the years since the war. The ‘Coupon Election,’ the Marconi episode, the ‘Contemporary Notes’ of 1920-1924, provide a comment on what are almost current events of the greatest interest. From the break-up of the first coalition to the virtual break-up of the Liberal Party will undoubtedly form a period in history of critical importance to British polities, and when that history comes to be written its historian will find here material of first-rate importance, as its readers now find it of first-rate interest. Yet, even so, historian and reader alike will find here little of that spirit of ‘now it can he told’ which has disgraced so much of these writings of recent years. For Mr. Asquith was not merely a great statesman of a passing school; he was a great gentleman of — shall we say? — also a passing school of polities.