In the final of her blogs inspired by her recent book, ‘Colonel Josiah Wedgwood’s Questionnaire: Members of Parliament 1885-1918’, Priscilla Baines takes a look at how Wedgwood used his questionnaires…
Wedgwood had a high response to his questionnaire, although the subjects were not always enthusiastic about completion! In a far more reticent age, the questions were seen as too personal and intrusive and many were reluctant to reveal publicly what were seen as personal feelings; they also often questioned the value to posterity of doing so. Some did so explicitly to please Wedgwood but others objected strongly and refused. Arthur Ponsonby found ‘something repulsive in auto-biography’ and Lord Astor ‘would have neither the knowledge, nor the desire, nor the nerve to answer 95% of your queries.’
Wedgwood probably planned to edit all the biographies himself but he greatly under-estimated the task he had set himself. He completed about 130 by May 1937, then did no more, although well into 1938 he was actively engaged in conducting correspondence. He was a skilled editor and shrewd observer with a sharp eye for behaviour and mannerisms and a vivid turn of phrase. Lord Hugh Cecil ‘had achieved nothing, save in the minds of men’, sitting in the corner seat below the gangway where ‘he twists his hands in agony as he straightens out his arguments.’ For Freeman Freeman-Thomas (marquess of Willingdon, married to the daughter of MP Thomas Brassey), ‘there has ever been Lady Willingdon … driving him on.’
Wedgwood’s biographies are a good read but many were not the dispassionate descriptions that their subjects had been led to expect. They often read more like the product of a sketch-writer or cartoonist than a work of serious scholarship. Wedgwood could be cavalier with facts and figures and was determined not to let the facts stand in the way of good stories. He had no hesitation in adding his own gloss to the biographies, based on his personal knowledge and opinions of his subjects, and the results were not always well received. Percy Harris remarked that instead of statements of fact, ‘you have thought fit to put in your personal impressions of myself … [and] … I object very strongly’ and J.R. Clynes particularly resented being described as ‘not really a socialist’. Even his close friends could be taken aback, George Lane-Fox (Lord Bingley) remarking that he did not object to being classed with Conservatives of his generation as stupid but he did object to being described as mean.
Wedgwood sometimes went to absurd lengths to flatter his subjects and although some were clearly embarrassed by what he said about them, they seldom asked for it to be removed. He may have been reluctant to spoil good stories but he almost always accepted any amendments and corrections, probably because he understood the need to retain his subjects’ goodwill.
The ‘self-biographies’ could only ever have constituted a small part of the two planned volumes for 1885-1918. The files do not reveal how Wedgwood intended to merge them with those being compiled by History of Parliament staff from published sources. We can only speculate about why, after his initial burst of effort and enthusiasm, Wedgwood gave up writing biographies in May 1937 and the self-biography project fizzled out. There is nothing in the History of Parliament files to suggest that he intended to abandon the project for good and he may well have meant to return to it when life allowed. The two planned late nineteenth and early twentieth century volumes would have been a curious mixture; the minority of the biographies by Wedgwood would have been ‘great fun’, the rest a useful source of reference of a kind not widely available at the time but dull, with little insight into their subjects’ personalities.