– notes, frequently asked questions and useful links from the archivist and curator of manuscripts at Balliol College, University of Oxford. Opinions expressed are the author's own.

‘My dear Margaret’ – letters from Benjamin Jowett


Three letters from Benjamin Jowett to Margot Asquith

Balliol College wishes to thank Sir Adam Ridley (Balliol 1961) for the recent gift of three fascinating letters from Benjamin Jowett to Margot Tennant, later Asquith, from a family collection. They are now part of Balliol’s extensive Jowett archive.

Sir Adam writes of their provenance: ‘[The letters] come from a scrap book started by Margot in 1890, into which she stuck letters or other fragments and souvenirs from people of interest and distinction. These include Gladstone, Tennyson, Balfour, Milner, Harcourt, Lord Salisbury, Hicks Beach, Sir John Fisher, Woodrow Wilson…  After Margot’s death the scrapbook appears to have gone to her step-daughter, Lady Violet  Bonham-Carter (m Maurice Bonham-Carter, Balliol 1899); and thence to Lady Violet’s sons, Mark (Balliol 1940) and Raymond, in whose custody it remains.’

Only of the three carries a full date: 29 November 1892. Another is dated 8 October, and from internal evidence mentioning the recent death of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the Poet Laureate (6 October 1892), we can gather that it was also written in 1892. The other is undated, but from the subjects mentioned we may guess that it also dates from the autumn of 1892.

At this point Margot Tennant is 28, a brilliant (bordering on notorious) intellectual socialite at the centre of the ‘Souls’, and still a year and a half away from her eventual marriage to HH Asquith – a Balliol man from the early years of Jowett’s Mastership, and later the first Balliolensis to become Prime Minister. Benjamin Jowett, by contrast, is 75, at the end of an impressive academic and administrative career, in declining physical strength and intellectual power, and with just a year to live. However, he is still writing his own letters, and his interest in young people’s progress and the current issues of the day is as keen as ever. The contrast in their outlooks on life, and particularly his concern for her social and intellectual wellbeing, are marked in these letters, as in others published in her autobiography and his Life and Letters. Footnotes on all the people and events mentioned would occupy more space than the letters, but particularly noteworthy are Jowett’s remarks on the death and legacy of Tennyson, current politicians including Gladstone and Balfour, and political issues from Bimetallism to Fabianism, by way of disestablishmentarianism.

Sir Adam notes, ‘One interesting theme in Jowett’s letters is how keen he was to persuade her to write. Her diaries were remarkable, whether for their frankness, indiscretion, or shafts of insight expressed in uninhibited, mordant or witty language.’

How did these two very different people strike up such a long lasting, wide-ranging and evidently affectionate correspondence? Certainly Margot’s own social circle included many of Jowett’s former students, but according to her autobiography, she literally fell at his feet one day in 1887 or -8, when they were both visiting Gosford House in East Lothian, seat of the Earls of Wemyss and March. She writes, ‘When I met the Master in 1887, I was young and he was old; but, whether from insolence or insight,       >>>

I never felt this difference… Jowett was younger than half the young people I know now and we understood each other perfectly.’ In fact they must have met earlier, as the first of BJ’s letters to Margot published in Abbott & Campbell’s Life and Letters of Benjamin Jowett is dated August 1886. More research remains for future biographers…

– Anna Sander


An archivist’s note about transcriptions

Jowett’s letters are always an exercise in palaeography – although he has a highly characteristic ductus (the distinctive and easily recognisable ‘look’ of his handwriting), many particular letter forms and some recurring abbreviations, he is not entirely consistent and does sometimes simply fail to include letters, particularly at the ends of words.

When creating a word-for-word transcript, we first number the pages and lines of text per page. Writing the first draft of a transcript to fill such a form line by line should prevent missing out or repeating words or lines, will make it practical to skip difficult passages for now and concentrate on the ones that can be completed quickly, and will facilitate proof-reading and correction later. Sometimes when we ‘have our eye in’ we can easily read several lines at a time; but then there will be a word or two that seem entirely illegible. On a first pass, we may leave a blank with the right number of letters – or at least relative length. Often context will help, but not always. After exhausting context clues, we compare the form of each letter, or clusters of letters, to similar ones above and below. We may have to make a list of possibilities for each letter or cluster and try the combinations. Thanks to email and digital photography, the college archivists, all of whom work alone, can easily share the last difficult bits of a transcription to discuss with each other. This is immensely helpful to all of us and usually results in a solution. Have a look at the enlarged facsimiles provided and see how your reading compares, and what you can make of the remaining blanks!

Transcription conventions vary and should be adapted for consistency and clarity. If I see that Jowett has in fact written ‘vey diffent’ and there are simply no marks on the page representing the rest of the letters he doubtless would have used to spell ‘very different’, should I: 1) create a ‘diplomatic edition’ reproducing only the letters that actually appear, ‘vey diffent’; 2) indicate the missing letters in square brackets despite Jowett’s lack of abbreviation marks, ‘ve[r]y diff[er]ent’ ; or 3) exercise editorial control and silently correct to what was probably meant, ‘very different’? What the writer ‘meant to say’ is rarely so clear as in this example, and the transcriber’s solution will not be the same for all situations.

Letter A – 8 October 1892

p.1 line 1                       Ball. Coll.

  1. Oct 8 [1892]
  2. My dear Margaret
  3. I send back the first volume
  4. of Plato which has been delayed
  5. because I wanted to send with it
  6. a printed list of extracts for Plato
  7. for general readers. The list has
  8. not yet been completed + revised
  9. (though it is nothing only a few
  10. pages) – you shall have a copy
  11. when it comes from the printers. It is
  12. not published, but only an invitation
  13. to a few friends to have a taste
  14. of the good things which he provides.
  15. So we have lost Tennyson – and
  16. this age of literature closes in
  17. darkness. I was with him about a

p.2 line 1. fortnight ago. He was suffering a good

  1. deal from neuralgia, but we none of
  2. us supposed that the end was so near.
  3. He took leave of me very affectionately as
  4. ‘his old friend’: I have known him I
  5. think about 35 years and during that
  6. time must have visited him more
  7. than 50 times. I shall be delighted
  8. to talk to you about him when we
  9. meet. Read the ‘in memoriam’ again, +
  10. let us think sometimes of friends who
  11. are gone. Of whom we both of us have
  12. many who are near + dear to us.
  13. Are you struggling to write, and
  14. what progress do you make and what
  15. subject or subjects have you in mind?
  16. I would not advise you to attempt a
  17. big book at first, but rather try
  18. the strength of your wings in a series
  19. of tales like the scenes in Clerical life.
  20. You have never sent me the journal of
  21. which you have written. Do not lose

p.3 line 1. the opportunity of gathering together every scrap

  1. about Gladstone. It will be very interesting
  2. twenty years hence – The insights which reporters
  3. for newspapers are able to give is very different
  4. from that which an observing person who has
  5. seen a man nearer has of him.
  6. I am always pleased to hear from
  7. you if you have time to write to me +
  8. + to tell me your ideas about things. I
  9. have been hearing a good deal about the
  10. working man lately. He seems to be rather
  11. a terrible personage and a considerable
  12. political power. If he goes on at the rate
  13. which he has been doing during the last
  14. five years he will swallow us all up,
  15. or at least a considerable part of us:
  16. he will expand the union, disestablish
  17. the church, make the poor much richer
  18. than they are and the rich much poorer,
  19. alas! and will give every body a good
  20. deal of what properly belongs to others.
  21. Meanwhile it is not quite certain how far
  22. he will hold together, or whether the
  23. rich above him + the poor who are below
  24. him + for whom he does not greatly care

p.4 line 1. may not be too much for him. I am told

  1. that the most remarkable of the working men
  2. are Tom Man[n] John Barnes Ben Tillett
  3. (who has a voice that can speak to ten thousand
  4. men). There are also Hyndman who is a Stock
  5. broker and ?Champion formerly an officer in the
  6. guards. – these are the leaders – a little shilling
  7. book called Fabian Essays is worth reading
  8. as showing the ideas which are floating in
  9. the air – the politics of the future –
  10. and are at least as important as the ideas of
  11. Church Congresses.
  12. I am afraid that young ladies are
  13. getting rather naughty in these latter days.
  14. Did you read what Lady Frederick Cavendish
  15. said about them at the Church Congress?
  16. My secretary is waiting for me to
  17. begin + I must not detain him any
  18. longer. And so my dear Margaret
  19. thank you much for your kindness +
  20. affection to me. I remain
  21. Ever yours
  22. B. Jowett

Letter B – undated

p.1. line 1.                    Headington

  1. nr Oxford
  2. My dear Margaret
  3. It was very pleasant to
  4. me to get your note this
  5. morning at this place where I
  6. am staying about 2 miles from
  7. Oxford looking down upon its spires.
  8. Mr Abbott has lent me his
  9. house + I am here with Fletcher who
  10. you may remember, who is a very
  11. good companion + grows surprisingly
  12. in ability
  13. I am greatly touched by your
  14. affection for me. Nevertheless
  15. to use a phrase of Dr Johnson’s
  16. “I should become a very complete
  17. rascal”, if I believed all the kind

p.2 line 1. things which you say of me. But I

  1. quite agree that the two last Oxford
  2. parties were very pleasant, but that
  3. was due to the guests + to one of
  4. them in particular.
  5. I am glad that you keep friends
  6. with Mr Balfour. His friendship is
  7. a real honour, enough to turn any
  8. young lady’s head. I have always been
  9. of opinion that there may be friendship
  10. of a noble sort between men + women
  11. provided that, if possible, they are
  12. formed without consideration of marriage
  13. + there is no weakness or self indulgence
  14. in them; + that they are such that
  15. the world (for we must take some
  16. cognizance of the world) respects them.
  17. It requires a strong head + a great
  18. deal of self-control to carry them
  19. out. But I am not certain whether
  20. these exceptional qualities are to be
  21. found in youth.

p.3 line 1. Now about writing: I shall be delighted

  1. to help you, if you think that I
  2. can. I should like [you] to keep some record
  3. of what such men as Mr Balfour
  4. or Mr Gladstone or Lord Rosebery
  5. say – (not of course to be seen by any
  6. one but yourself.) To do this you
  7. must get to understand the politics
  8. of the day – Greville’s Memoirs are
  9. a good model for this, because
  10. he gives the gradual growth of his
  11. judgment from day to day, which he
  12. often alters as he knows more of persons.
  13. The Court is worth studying too as
  14. well as Politics if there is the
  15. opportunity of doing so. In England
  16. it is very powerful and hardly at all
  17. shorn of its greatness. Then as
  18. to writing stories I should read over
  19. Scenes in Clerical life, + some of
  20. Mrs Gaskell’s stories like Cranford +
  21. read also the Vicar of Wakefield
  22. + Miss Austen + see whether it is
  23. anything of this sort which you

p.4 line 1. are disposed to write; if possible ‘tap’ a

  1. new subject + tell people what they
  2.           all know but have never seen in a
  3. book: your tales should be unlike
  4. a French Novel or an American
  5. novel for different reasons. Read
  6. ‘with avidity’ all the best biographers
  7. which you can lay hold of – there
  8. is no better preparation for writing
  9. fiction – and write a book which will
  10. do some good in this sceptical +
  11. sensual age which will restore men
  12. to their better selves + give them
  13. confidence in goodness + respect for truth
  14. of all kinds – But I only wish to suggest
  15. possibilities to you + not to set[17]you a task.
  16. Will you send me + allow me to read
  17. some part of your Diary from time to time
  18. You have never explained to me the
  19. meaning of ‘Souls’- A lady tells me that they
  20. are a religious order of which you are the
  21. foundress. But I suppose that this is a free
  22. –mason’s secret. They are said to be the
  23. descendants of ‘Montagu’. I remain
  24. My dear Margaret
  25. Ever yours affectionately B Jowett

Letter C – 29 November 1892

p.1 line 1.            Balliol College

  1. Nov 29, 1892
  2. My dear Margaret,
  3. It gives me great
  4. pleasure to hear that the Bazaar
  5. has be[e]n such a success. I
  6. suppose that you cheated a good deal
  7. but then
  8. the pleasure ____ is quite as great
  9. of being cheated as to cheat.
  10. and then as famous authors tell us
  11. the end always justifies the means
  12. – I shall value your portrait
  13. I intend to hang it up in the small
  14. gallery of distinguished friends. I like
  15. Mrs Grenfell very much, but I do
  16. not believe that she is better than
  17. you, and I have not known her
  18. half as long : ( We are quite old

p.2  line 1. friends by this time; and I always wonder

  1. that you don’t get tired of me. You
  2. who are a bright young lady of fashion
  3. and I who am going the way down-
  4. –ward in life and am not far from
  5. the end.
  6. You are right in saying that I
  7. like you best when you are serious. I
  8. doubt whether you have yet quite discovered
  9. the way of mixing life in its true
  10. proportions. Do you sometimes feel yourself
  11. fired with the desire of living for others
  12. _ ____ far above fashion + splendor
  13. + great houses. Let us give to God
  14. our youth if possible – If I were the
  15. confessor of any one I would say to them
  16. Do all the good you can among the rich
  17. first, and afterwards among the poor; use
  18. all the faculties of your mind + all your
  19. experience of the world in the effort; I

[p.1 crossed lines – end of letter]

  1. Will you send me anything that you can possibly scrape together in
  2. recollection about Lord Tennyson? Hallam has asked me to send him
  3. something. (Private). Ever yours affectionately
  4. B Jowett

p.3 line 1. do ___ ?be found out.

  1. I know Dr Caird + his wife a
  2. little + his brother Edward Caird the
  3. Professor very well – The latter is one of
  4. my oldest friends + pupils – They are
  5. excellent men + have greater influence in
  6. Scotland than perhaps any two other men.
  7. Dr Caird is an admirable preacher –
  8. but I suspect that he has a little impaired
  9. his preaching of philosophy for which he is
  10. not equally suited
  11. You asked whether I thought that
  12. the Church should be disestablished. I
  13. rather find myself going in that direction.
  14. But disestablishment ought to be accompanied
  15. by disendowment, with a _____ clause for
  16. vested interests. It is a very difficult subject
  17. + the change except in Wales + perhaps
  18. in Scotland is not likely to be carried
  19. out in the next twenty years. The
  20. English Church has so little regard for

[crossed lines]

  1. Do you ever read Plato: I send you two copies
  2. of a list of passages for general readers. Put them
  3. into your copy.

p.4 line 1. truth – that is my quarrel with it, ____

  1. it has also so much to do with preferment
  2. ‘getting on’ that it is ?more unlike perhaps
  3.        the ^ ____ ____ religious body to the ideal society
  1. on the other hand I am sensible of the
  2. desirableness of having a gentleman in
  3. every parish: that has a great deal to do
  4. with the well being of English society
  5. and yet the ‘gentleman’ not having a wife
  6. + family is too apt to turn into a mere
  7. priest
  8. I am afraid that our friend Mr Balfour
  9. is getting rather into a scrape about
  10. Bimetallism. Do you take any interest in that
  11. question? Ask Sir C Tennant about it.
  12. Gladstone calls it rubbish – To me it
  13. appears to be chiefly a scheme for making
  14. ‘money cheap’ a thing which I abhor –
  15. I observed that in his speech Mr Balfour
  16. said nothing about the original proportion which
  17. gold + silver were to bear to each other at
  18. the first start off – that appears to be
  19. the most important point of all.

[see crossed lines at end of p.1 for end of letter]

Transcript of a letter from Margot Tennant to Benjamin Jowett, also produced for the exhibition. In this case the transcription is written out in ordinary lines without numbers, to make it more natural to read; however, the page divisions are reflected by paragraph sections.

Balliol College, Jowett Papers IIC.1.11

The Glen, Innerleithen, NB

Oc. 26. [18]91

Dearest Mr Jowett

It is too nice of you to bother to write to me when you must have such a lot of things to do + think about + when you are so gravely ill.

I am glad you do not think me frivolous. I do not ask any one to know how much I try to be good + intelligent to fill my life with energy + interests. I shall never never

forget all you have done for me. I am always writing either in books or people + altho’ I do not jump into print I daresay in time I may. You won’t forget to give me your Plato will you. Do not think me selfish

+ write please my name or yours or something in it. Any of your books or sermons I should value beyond all words just to have by my bedside + always to feel you leave some touch of your self and your work near to help me.

Ever your own true loving Margot


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