I am so happy that I live in a place where the communal book shelf in the laundry room (recent source of that Simenon novel) also yielded Margot Asquith’s Octavia. I read her autobiography years ago, while researching the heiresses book, and remember quite liking it though not thinking too highly of the author. That impression has not changed.
Octavia, our heroine, is clearly a cleaned-up version of Asquith herself, who was no beauty. The photo to the right, taken when she was 35, is the most flattering one I could find. (I seem to remember a story about Nancy Astor bringing false teeth to a dinner table and cracking Winston Churchill up by putting them in and imitating Lady A….) Octavia, naturally, is gorgeous and men fall for her madly. That’s pretty much the plot. The settings change, from the rambling Scottish estate, probably based on Glen, where Margot grew up, to various grand houses in hunting country, to the Riviera. Octavia/Margot is a brilliant horsewoman, too, and the hunting passages are nice, shades of Siegfried Sassoon.
There chief narrative device is that Octavia, while not on horseback or conquering all in black velvet on a dance floor, talks about herself to a wide variety of fascinated men. The only tension concerns which of the men will finally win her hand: the lounge lizard Robin Compton, the handsome buffoon Lord Tilbury, or the reform-mad Greville Pelham. I’ll put you out of your misery, she marries Pelham, but they don’t get along. Owing to her “high spirits” (I always think this is code for being really spoiled) they spend their honeymoon miscommunicating and I think, though I can’t be sure, that the rest of the novel is about when they finally manage to have sex. That they do, finally, is certain, because in the last chapter Octavia has a baby which dies. I couldn’t discern why the author deemed this necessary.
The most substantial pleasure provided by the book is voyeurism: what the characters say to servants, which “ball-dresses” Octavia chooses to wear for which parties. But strangely enough, even though Margot Asquith must have been nearly unbearable in real life, a kind of good nature shines through her writing. She obviously thought very highly of herself but she’s so ingenuous in her enthusiasm that you almost forgive her.