11 OCTOBER 1997, Page 40


My first countess

Bevis Hillier

ELIZABETH LONGFORD: THE AUTHORISED BIOGRAPHY by Frances Makower Hodder, £17.99, pp. 212 Christmas comes but once a year and when it comes it brings good cheer; but in 1992 the Literary Longfords did not have any Christmas at all. Lady Longford decreed that Christmas was cancelled for that year and that her family of umpteen children, grandchildren and great-grand- children would have to wait until February for their presents.

She was racing to finish a book, Royal Throne: The Future of the Monarchy, in time for it to appear in March, three months before the 40th anniversary of the Queen's coronation. Elizabeth Longford is a stickler for deadlines: in 1964, when asked if she would let her name go forward for the post of principal of St Hilda's College, Oxford (a role she would have loved and been per- fect in), she reluctantly declined so as to keep a promise to the Duke of Wellington to publish her biography of his ancestor, the Great Duke, in 1969, the bicentenary of . the soldier-statesman's birth.

Next year brings a carnival of anniver- saries. I predict a spate of new 'solutions' of Elgar's Enigma: it was in 1898 that the composer hit on the theme of variations. (Perhaps I can start the ball rolling. The opening three notes of the key 'Nimrod' variation form a knuckle of sound — the seventh, eighth and ninth notes — in the tune of 'Men of Harlech'. Elgar holi- dayed in Harlech.) Then there are the distinguished deaths of 1898 to commemorate. Tuberculosis killed Aubrey Beardsley, who was 25. (`Even his lungs are affected,' had been Wilde's macabre joke.) Lewis Carroll died in a house in Guildford which came on to the market a few months ago. And Gladstone was given a grand funeral in Westminster Abbey. Among those present was Henry Scott Holland, Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford. In his book A Bundle of Memories (1915), he recalled how he had spent much of the service looking straight at Joseph Chamberlain (father of Austen and Neville), and how he set himself the task of 'finding the signs in that face of the high qualities which the character behind it assuredly possessed': I could not make it out. The face, somehow, fenced me off. It refused to disclose its secret. Force, of course, there was, plain enough. No one could mistake the masterful- ness, the directness of purpose, the hard energy. But there I stopped. The compact outline had no suggestiveness in it. You left off at the face. You never got deeper. The clear clean surface repelled all inquiry.

Elizabeth Longford is a great-niece of Joe Chamberlain. Though she was born a Harman, her mother was a Chamberlain, and as a small child Elizabeth. met the by now decrepit statesman. In 1956 she had the idea of writing a new biography of him, a corrective to J. L. Garvin's official life of 1932. She spent five months familiarising herself with Chamberlain's backgrOund. Only then did she apply for access to the papers. It was refused. As Frances Makower records, a family connection, Terence Maxwell, son-in-law of Austen Chamberlain, was in charge of the archive. It was to be a gift to Birmingham Universi- ty, which was then building a new library; meanwhile the papers were sealed up in a bank.

It is a crying shame that Elizabeth Long- ford did not get the chance to 'write her kinsman's biography. If anyone could have penetrated Chamberlain's sphinx-like mask, she could. She would have put in all the work, as she did, with her masterly lives of Queen Victoria and Wellington. Her access to family lore, her human insight and intuition, her political nous and her literary gifts would have enabled her to answer Henry Scott Holland's questions. As it was, she reduced her canvas and wrote a book on the Jameson Raid of 1897, addressing the question of Chamberlain's complicity in it. It was her apprentice-piece in biography.

It is dangerous to try to detect hereditary traits. One is leery of the kind of historian who writes, 'Through his veins pulsed the• tempestuous blood of the Rochesters, mingled with a more cautious strain from the Cecils.' But you need only look at and listen to Harriet Harman, who is Elizabeth Longford's niece, to accept that blood is thicker than water. Lady Longford, with her vivacity and mischievous eyes, puts me in mind of Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair. But just once, the first time I met her, the face she presented was the basilisk mask of Joe Chamberlain.

Robert Browning wrote a poem entitled 'My Last Duchess'. Elizabeth Longford was my first countess. At Oxford her daughter Rachel (now the bestselling novelist Rachel Billington) was one of my best friends — she still is. In the freezing January of 1963, she invited me to her parents' home, Bemhurst, in Sussex, the house Frank Longford had been left by his great-aunt Caroline Pakenham. Rachel advised me to wear my oldest clothes, so we could skate on their frozen pond. I took her at her word and wore a pullover with holes at the elbows. When I arrived at the little station of Etchingham, Rachel was on the platform, muffled up and with a long scarf. Elizabeth Longford was outside in the car, listening to the news on the car radio. The news was that Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour leader, was dying. (He died on 18 January.) Only years later did I realise how shatter- ing that was for the Longfords. Elizabeth had been Gaitskell's close friend: he was once on the point of proposing to her. And Frank had shared rooms with him at Oxford and was admired by him. The death of Gaitskell meant the death of Longford's hopes of renouncing his British peerage and becoming an MP. In a Gaitskell government he could have expected high office — much higher than Harold Wilson ever offered him.

Rachel introduced the tatterdemalion figure that I cut that day. My parents owned a Morris Traveller. To get into the back seat, you pushed forward the front seat. My first gaffe was to try this manoeuvre on the Longford car, which of course had doors at the back. My second was to skate across the pond with my best Streatham ice rink skid, and plunge through the ice. I was lent a pair of one of the sons' rugby socks and given a drink.

'Tell me,' Lady Longford said, 'are you related to the famous market gardening Hiniers of Winchester?'

At lunch I met Lord Longford, Rachel's beautiful younger sister Catherine (later killed in a car crash) and her youngest brother Kevin. Rachel told me that in another room was an old gramophone with a big trumpet. To the family, she said, 'Perhaps Bevis can tell us what it's worth.' 'Yes, I'm sure he knows what everything's worth,' said Lady Longford.

I recently repeated this conversation to the Longford's eldest son, Thomas Paken- ham. He said, 'I'm sure you must have mis- interpreted my mother — she's not like that.' He may be right: at that time I was nervous and a bit chippy. But I think it more likely that Elizabeth Longford felt anger as well as grief over what was happening to Gaitskell — not unlike the anger Earl Spencer expressed over Diana in Westminster Abbey — and that I was a handy punchbag. On that day I felt humili- ated and angry; but later I made allowances for Elizabeth's reactions to the Gaitskell news and to my scarecrow appearance, and forgave. She has been a good friend to me for over a third of her long life.

Having read her sparkling, candid auto- biography, The Pebbled Shore (1986), I wondered what an 'authorised biography' would be able to add. The answer is: virtually nothing. Frances Makower's kind, sympathetic face gazing from the back jacket-flap and her work for homeless youngsters and drug-users (which she wrote about in Faith or Folly, 1989) make me wish I had some nice things to say about this biography. Two things can be said in its favour. First, it is not a hagiography. Makower is sometimes critical of Elizabeth and she does not minimise the conflict between the Long- fords' socialism and their living on inherit- ed wealth and sending their children to private schools. Second, she writes crisp, engaging prose. The book is perfectly read- able, indeed enjoyable, as a brief life of its subject. But it is neither as vivid nor as revealing as Elizabeth's own memoirs.

Makower does set out, with some clarity, why a biography of Elizabeth Long- ford might be desirable. She writes of The Pebbled Shore:

Though most eagerly awaited, it was a disap- pointment to some of her friends. Elizabeth is not an introspective person, being fascinat- ed by every human being, with the single exception of herself . .. Roy Jenkins was among those who felt some dissatisfaction with Elizabeth's benignity, writing that 'some hills might stand higher if the whole land- scape were not painted quite so fair'.

Very well then: what seemed to be needed was a book more inquisitive about Elizabeth and more critical about others. In neither respect does Makower deliver. We are told that Makower 'became a Roman Catholic in 1952 and joined the Society of the Sacred Heart in 1967'. So she is interested in Elizabeth's conversion to Roman Catholicism; though it is arguable that a non-Catholic would have brought greater objectivity to the task. (To the view that only a Roman Catholic is qualified to write a biography of Gerard Elizabeth and Frank Longford Manley Hopkins, the answer might be, 'So does one need to believe in witches to write about Matthew Hopkins, the 17th-century Witch-Finder General?') Makower is also a feminist, so we get such observations as `[Elizabeth] believes passionately that women should be in charge of their own fertility.' Away from these subjects which engage her interest, Makower is just not nosey enough. Curiosity killed the cat; but lack of it can deaden a biography.

First of all, Elizabeth Longford is alive to talk to; but there is little evidence of inter- views, and what there is is strained through the muslin of oratio obliqua. Makower does not appreciate how vivifying the odd flash of direct quotation can be. This is how she relates an episode in Frank Longford's courtship of Elizabeth. (He was then Frank Pakenham, and they were staying at Paken- ham Hall — now Tullynally — in Ireland.)

On the final evening at Pakenham, as the guests were going upstairs to bed, Waugh made a point of waylaying Elizabeth and urging her to follow Frank to his bedroom . .. Neither then, nor on subsequent occa- sions before their marriage, did they sleep together, and both came to their wedding night as virgins.

Contrast that with Selina Hastings' treat- ment of the same occasion in her Evelyn Waugh (1994):

On the last night, as everybody was going upstairs to bed, Evelyn hissed in her ear, `Go after Frank. Follow him. Go on.' So Eliza- beth followed Frank into his bedroom, where the two of them had a long and decisive talk about their future. Evelyn in his diary wrote, 'Frank and Elizabeth slept together on Frank's last evening but did not fuck.'

Then again, Makower says she has been shown Elizabeth Longford's diaries. What a superb source they must be; yet for all we learn from them in this book Elizabeth might have said, 'Do have a peek at my diaries while I make the tea.' There is pre- cious little input from Frank Longford either — after all, Elizabeth has spent over 65 years immured with the man of whose role as a prison visitor it was said, 'It has added a new terror to a custodial sentence.' We find morsels of contribution from the Longfords' talented children. There should have been much more, for one of Eliza- beth's main achievements has been as the matriarch of her large and extraordinary family. Makower does tell us how, when Rachel, the fifth child, was born, Elizabeth, who was Labour candidate for a con- stituency, was told by the local party agent that there must be no more children or party support would be withdrawn. Pre- dictably and justly, 'Elizabeth was furious: no one was going to dictate how many chil- dren she should have.' She had three more.

Weak on the primary sources, the biography is no less so on the secondary ones — books lying around in libraries just waiting to have their contents rifled. For example, Makower records how, as an Oxford undergraduate in the 1920s, Elizabeth met the radical writer Naomi Mitchison. Makower has been in contact With Lady Mitchison, who will be 100 in November, but she has not looked at her books. If she had read her 1979 memoir You May Well Ask, she would have found Mitchison's note that Elizabeth was the model for the character Metrotime in her novel The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931). And if she had turned to that book, she would have found this striking evoca- tion of the young Elizabeth Harman:

She leant away from [Ptolemy] stiffly, her weight on one foot that slid against his, so that from one open sandal to the other, their toes touched . . . Her eyelids flickered. She said: 'You shall have virgins. If we have to hunt Alexandria for them. I'll be your huntress. I'll be Artemis for Dionysos!' Her darkened eyes blazed at him with some momentary god-like quality and he felt him- self divine enough not to need to kiss her...

Makower gives us Elizabeth's splendid Speech at Birmingham in the late 1930s — 'What sort of Government is this, that cannot say boo to the goose-step?' — but she has not read Hugh Gaitskell's Diary (edited by Philip M. Williams, 1983), in Which he records speaking for Elizabeth, then Labour candidate for Oxford City, at the Oxford Union in 1950. After the debate, Elizabeth said to him of Aneurin Bevan, 'He has every virtue but Virtue' — a quip worthy of Tacitus.

The Letters of Ann Fleming (edited by Mark Amory, 1985) would also have helped Makower. Fleming, who became Gaitskell's lover, was not especially fond of Elizabeth; but in December 1969 she wrote to Nicholas Henderson:

Elizabeth Longford was suddenly totally loveable and very pathetic at the Weidenfeld Wellington Beano. She looked frail and was clearly in considerable pain from her motor accident.

Makower says that Elizabeth is one of those rare people who will spend an hour or more recounting all the literary and political gossip of the day without uttering one word that is unkind.

How boring she makes her sound. It is true that Elizabeth is not a malicious gossip like Ann Fleming, that professional bitch. But What always strikes me about her is her honesty; and that sometimes leads to sharp comment. Here again a secondary source would have enlightened her: Tony Benn's diaries (Against the Tide, 1973-76, 1989).

29 April 1973. [Lady Antonia Fraser] described how her mother, who lived in Hampstead and was a friend of Hugh Gaitskell's, bitterly hated Harold Wilson; how contemptuous she was of his style of life kn Hampstead 'Garden Suburb. This explains a great deal of Wilson's dislike for that snobbish Hampstead establishment of upper- middle-class socialists and Fabians.

Of course the biographer will not neces- sarily accept such sources at face value. Bitterly hated' is perhaps too strong; but it is likely that Elizabeth held it against Wilson that he was not the beloved Gaitskell; and perhaps there was a touch of de haut en has too, for the Longfords and Gaitskell (Benn also, for that matter) stood in relation to the Labour movement rather as Mirabeau and Malouet stood to the French Revolution — they were for the workers, but had not suffered with them.

Frances Makower is a better critic than biographer. Her chapter on Elizabeth as an author is the best in the book. It is by her biographies that Elizabeth will be remembered, and as matriarch of the most remarkable family since the Wedgwood- Darwin-Huxley group. But in one of the few really penetrating passages in her book, Makower reminds us what sacrifices were made for these achievements: Elizabeth enjoyed a good life, but was it real- ly the 'full life' to which she had always aspired? What had happened to the radical who had met the hunger marchers in Cambridge, or been thrown out of the Labour party for following her own line in King's Norton? Might not her life since then be regarded as representing an abandonment of earlier principles?

If Elizabeth Longford had got into par- liament, it might have been she, not Mrs Thatcher, who became the first woman prime minister of the United Kingdom. If it had happened, think what fun Private Eye could have had with 'Lord Longford's Diary'.