Women of Quality

E.S. Turner

  • The Pebbled Shore by Elizabeth Longford
    Weidenfeld, 351 pp, £14.95, August 1986, ISBN 0 297 78863 9
  • Leaves of the Tulip Tree by Juliette Huxley
    Murray, 248 pp, £7.95, June 1986, ISBN 0 7195 4288 X
  • Enid Bagnold by Anne Sebba
    Weidenfeld, 317 pp, £15.00, September 1986, ISBN 0 297 78991 0

Wider still and wider grows the span of authors’ acknowledgements. My forbearing husband/wife, my secretary who corrected my spelling, my patient editor and Lord Weidenfeld Whose Idea it Was – these we have grown to expect and honour. Elizabeth Longford, now in her eighties, thanks two family doctors who ‘made life so secure for us’ (and who themselves survived to 90 and 86). She is grateful to one son-in-law for ‘introducing me to the perfect diet during a critical time in the writing of this book’ and to another for a stimulating holiday in the sun: ‘It was an exhilarating experience to listen to the Pinters’ and Billingtons’ play-reading sessions, interlaced with passionate talk about Amnesty and Star Wars under the stars.’ She is grateful, too, for the custom of ‘manuscript bartering’ prevalent in the family, on the basis of ‘I’ll read yours if you’ll read and criticise mine.’ All of which is a foretaste of the warm family feeling which pervades this chronicle of politics and parturition (babies are born to the author on pages 143, 149, 179, 204, 211, 217, 239 and 252).

The Pebbled Shore will disappoint those who hope to learn of tensions caused by Lord Longford’s self-imposed missions to Myra Hindley and ‘Reg and Ron’ (as the Krays are referred to in his books), by the great anti-pornography campaign or by the advent of Harold Pinter into the fold. The book ends in the mid-Sixties, just as the author, in full literary flight, has completed that excellent life of Wellington.

Page one introduces us to the author’s jolly orange-haired nurse, once of the music halls, doing the splits, an exercise she sometimes funked with the excuse ‘I’ve got a bone in my leg’ Elizabeth Harman, her admiring charge, was the daughter of a Harley Street ophthalmic surgeon, Nathaniel Harman, and Katherine Chamberlain, first cousin of Neville and niece of the great Joseph. In later life Elizabeth was told that her father, a serious citizen, never made love the night before a cataract operation. His courtship had been all but shattered by a religious tug-of-war, which led to a nervous breakdown: he clung to the mysteries of Christianity while his bride-to-be was a sturdy Unitarian. His daughter quotes from their courtship letters, as she later quotes from her own.

At Oxford, as the Zuleika Dobson of the Twenties, Elizabeth Harman entered the ‘charmed circle’ of aesthetes after passing a shibboleth test imposed by Hugh Gaitskell, who asked: ‘What do you think of Oscar Wilde and all that?’ Her reply, ‘Oh, I think that’s quite all right,’ was spoken with the assurance of one who ‘had not really thought much about it’. After this avowal of broad-mindedness (the tale has already been told in Philip Williams’s Hugh Gaitskell) she was fit to be introduced to (Sir) Maurice Bowra and all the other intellectual roisterers. Was it really as simple and half-baked as this? Gaitskell, we learn, was ‘eager to fix his own identity through instructing others in what he saw as the certainties of life’. What comes over is not his charm but his juvenile arrogance. Complaining that his protégée was ‘so unshaped in some ways’, he wrote urging her to develop her ‘prostitute powers’: ‘This is the way, first to disillusionment, secondly to knowledge, thirdly to freedom from inferiorities and fourthly to anything that may be worthwhile.’ This, from a curly-headed minor who, to compound his cheek, ordered her to read the whole of Proust in French. Yet he approved of her sufficiently to propose marriage. Elizabeth Harman, it is clear, had the measure of him, as she had of Bowra, who blinded her with Pindar at lunches and also asked her to marry him. His proposal, never answered, never repeated, kept her in a glow for months.

Down from Oxford (which gets three chapters) she joined Frank Pakenham, who had been her fellow undergraduate, giving educational lectures to the workers in the Potteries. Hitherto apolitical, she was sufficiently moved by conditions in the Five Towns to join the Labour Party. Frank Pakenham was, and would remain for some time, a High Tory (Bullingdon Club, Carlton Club, Conservative Central Office, Daily Mail leader writer). He escorted Elizabeth to Pakenham Hall and Dunsany Castle, home of Uncle Eddie (‘Lord Insany’). The courtship, though beset by difficulties, was virtuous; once, invited by hosts to share a room, they resorted to ‘bundling’, with a bolster down the middle of the bed. At last came a good socialist wedding at St Margaret’s, with 12 bridesmaids and an officiating canon who was ‘the second husband of my great-aunt Mary Chamberlain, Uncle Joe’s third wife’.

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