Unquiet Souls [ePub]

by Angela Lambert

The Souls were a "set", a social group that formed around the end of the 19th century, of aristocratic friends. They had similar backgrounds and values as Edward VII's Marborough Set - divorce was unthinkable, but discreet adultery was perfectly fine - but thought of themselves as more intellectual. The Tennant sisters were kind of at their center and the group coalesced when Laura Tennant Lyttelton died in 1888. Her sister Margot Tennant eventually married Henry Asquith, who became Prime Minister in 1908, and other members of the group went on to fame: Arthur Balfour preceded Asquith as Prime Minister, George Curzon was Viceroy of India for six years (but was passed over as Prime Minister in 1923 in favour of Stanley Baldwin), and others distinguished themselves in various ways.

It's an interesting book in two ways: it follows a group of people and their children, and describes how they grew apart, or closer, as the years went by, and what happened to them all. In that way it's just a fascinating, gossipy read. It was written in 1985 so it's a little surprising that everyone seems to have been heterosexual, especially as all their affairs are described in detail. Surely there were some gay goings on, behind closed doors, like the affairs.

Its real strength is its descriptions of World War I and what it did to these people. Of course all the children of the first generation were young when war was declared, and they all enlisted, as did some who were older. Lambert points out how the percentage of deaths among the upper class was much higher than for the lower, in part because they were so much more fit. A large percentage of lower class youths weren't eligible for service because poor nutrition meant they were in poor health, or were too short or underweight to enter the Army or Navy. The sons of the families we've been following all became officers, and most of them were killed. As the war dragged on, the young men came to see it was futile, and that their own fathers and friends of their parents were the ones prolonging the horror. In the preface the author says "Much of what I have written in the final chapters of the book was inspired by the tone of voice in which [Lady Diana Cooper] said "They all died, you see." To live through a war in which nearly all the young men you grew up with, some of whom you might have married, are killed... devastating.

The book doesn't mention Stephen Tennant, English dandy and eccentric, son of Sir Charles Tennant, and Margot's nephew. Unfortunately, as he was quite a colorful character, but he has his own biograpy. Thanks to David Bratman on LiveJournal I learned that the model Stella Tennant is "Stephen's grand-niece, and Margot's great-grand-niece, as well as the grand-daughter of the last of the Mitford sisters. And you know that Anthony Asquith was Margot's son. And Helena Bonham Carter is her step-daughter's grand-daughter."

12.10.2011

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