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Left, the princess: Elizabeth Bibesco, c.1919 (Bain Collection, LOC). Right, the poet: John Middleton Murry, c.1920 (©Culture Club/Getty Images)

Of all the minor art-forms, inscriptions in books are among the most ephemeral. Unlike epitaphs, graven in stone, or letters, perhaps lovingly preserved, these fleeting thoughts on giving a book to a colleague, friend or lover are usually destined for oblivion. Books may indeed outlive their owners, but even if they do, most are destined to gather dust on shelves, unread and unloved. Unless and until, often generations or even centuries later, the significance of what antiquarian dealers call a “presentation copy” suddenly dawns on a chance reader. Then, and then only, the book and its history of ownership comes to life: the words on the flyleaf take on meaning — more meaning, it may be, than they possessed for the parties involved. For the blessings of hindsight enable us to evoke an entire world from the unique trinity of the donor, the recipient and the author. The past speaks to us through this long forgotten act of generosity, giving back to posterity what time has stolen away.

Such an inscription is the one I found in a copy of Occasional Addresses: 1893-1916 by H.H. Asquith, published by Macmillan in 1918. This unpretentious red-cloth volume, with its browned, torn and crumbling dust jacket, conjures up an era, only a century ago, when prime ministers were expected to discourse not only on politics but on criticism and biography, on “Ancient Universities and the Modern World” or “Culture and Character”, “The English Bible” and “The English Bar”. Asquith was as comfortable addressing the Classical Association as the Royal Society, and his speeches in the House of Commons were not reserved solely for polemics and philippics but also for paying tribute to the dead: to his mentor Benjamin Jowett, the Master of Balliol; to his predecessor in office, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, the only Prime Minister to die in 10 Downing Street; and to the War Secretary Lord Kitchener, whose death at sea in 1916 enabled Lloyd George to replace him and later to bring down Asquith himself.

These addresses mark this great Liberal statesman as a Victorian in his passion for political reform and personal self-improvement, but also as an Edwardian in his agnosticism. Of Kitchener, for instance, Asquith tells the Commons that “few men I have known had less reason to shrink from submitting their lives to those pure eyes/And perfect witness of all-judging Jove.” These lines from Lycidas needed no attribution in an era when educated people were expected to know their Milton, but what is striking is Asquith’s preference for a classical rather than a Christian vocabulary. Can one imagine any British minister today — except possibly Boris Johnson, like Asquith a Balliol man — apostrophising the king of the Graeco-Roman gods in a memorial address? President Macron may get away with comparing his style of leadership to that of Jupiter, though even in France he instantly acquired the nickname “Manupiter”, but in Britain such classical allusions now invite ridicule or disgust. A century ago, such learned oratory was normal and, indeed, expected from a statesman.

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