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’.

As a Parliamentary candidate her least fashionable constituency was to be Birmingham King’s Norton, which she nursed for seven difficult years. The two elections which she fought, unsuccessfully, were at Cheltenham and ever-congenial Oxford. In the main her life was cast in pleasant places, as she would be the first to admit. The circuit of hospitality in these pages includes Clandeboye, Cliveden, Taplow, Compton Place and Charlton; also Carradale, in Argyllshire, home of another grande dame of the Left, Naomi Mitchison (‘In the morning Naomi would say “Shall I shoot a sheep for dinner?” ’).

At a Labour Conference in Birmingham in 1936 the author was involved in a ‘ludicrous scene’. While fastening her suspenders in a hotel room she heard a smart knock and in came a tall, handsome lady, very cross, saying: ‘This is my bedroom. Booked in my name. Why are you here?’ The sitting tenant, her temper rising, said: ‘I am within my rights ... I don’t have to be out until twelve.’ At this point the manager intervened with ‘This is the Hon. Mrs Frank Pakenham’ and ‘This is Mrs Beatrice Webb.’ The two then fell over each other to exchange civilities. As her Diaries show, Mrs Webb had fought a stiff fight not to be called Lady Passfield: but the author admits to no qualms about becoming a countess, even though as a Labour candidate she had dutifully demanded abolition of the Lords.

It was in 1936 that the Pakenhams were involved in the Mosley punch-up in the Carfax Rooms in Oxford, the occasion on which, as legend has it, Tory Frank was knocked silly and woke up a socialist (in fact, his wife had by now almost converted him). Her spirited account of the affray, as printed in the Sunday Telegraph, drew a decidedly crisp letter from Lady Mosley, who called it ‘fanciful in the extreme’. As Robert Skidelsky said of the meeting in his Oswald Moslev: ‘The number of future memoir writers and Labour politicians in the audience alone ensured that it would be talked about for years to come.’ There were also a hundred angry busmen present, out for trouble. Piquantly enough, Lady Mosley is one of Lord Longford’s authors, or was in 1981.

When the war came she and her children were ensconced at well-found Water Eaton Manor (‘we were all prodigiously well fed during the first ten months or so’). Her husband had joined up as a private, the kind of recruit who drove sergeant-majors to exclaim: ‘Why should England tremble?’ While in the ranks he became a Roman Catholic, omitting to mention his intentions to his wife, who was suitably shocked. She, for her part, did not ‘discover’ the New Testament until she was in her late thirties. In 1944 she joined the Anglican Church and two years later went over to Rome, to the quiet joy of her husband and the fervid satisfaction of Evelyn Waugh. It appears that church-going in Oxford had become an embarrassment, ‘with Frank alone turning to the right for St Aloysius and the rest of us’ – mother and three children – ‘turning left for St Paul’s’. This, she felt, was no way to conduct family life. Once converted, she found confession something of a problem. One day, entering the box with ‘rather a blank mind’, she asked the priest whether Catholic mothers should accept as many children as God sent them. ‘How many children have you got, my child?’ he asked, and on being told eight, said: ‘Well, then, there is nothing to worry about. I have rarely come across a family with more than sixteen.’ Jolly places, confessionals.

Not until she was in her fifties did Elizabeth Longford turn to writing. Her journalism included columns for Beaverbrook and ‘clean’ articles for the News of the World. Contemplating a biography of her kinsman Joseph Chamberlain, she tried hard to find out how far his amitié with Beatrice Webb had progressed. A knowledgeable cousin said that Joseph ‘could never have married a woman who rolled with Sidney on a carpet in front of the fire’. Her first biography, as it turned out, was that of Queen Victoria and she has interesting pages on the privileges and delights of working in the Royal Archives.

Had Lady Longford been commissioned to write a definitive biography of herself, The Pebbled Shore might have been, not only a more orderly book, but a more penetrating and judgmental one. As it is, it is a benign and entertaining record of a richly packed life. Wifely affection does not prevent the author from telling of those bizarre incidents for which her husband is famous: how, after a fall, he rode round the point-to-point course in the wrong direction; how, at Buckingham Palace, he genuflected to the King instead of bowing; how, at Munich time, he tried to atone for a rush of legacies by paying the unemployed to dig slit trenches, which they did badly; how, on arrival in post-war Germany (Attlee had made him responsible for the British Zone), he stepped out of the aircraft without waiting for the steps. Those ever-ready literary critics in the family should have urged ‘Mummy Ogre’ (as she was once playfully called) to cut down on names, perhaps even on children’s cute sayings. A delightful photograph captioned ‘The Pakenhams: A Family of Authors’ at a Foyles’ lunch in 1969 almost suggests that the mini-skirt was a good thing.

Elizabeth Longford claims to have been dropped from a BBC Brains Trust after tastelessly arguing that life should be lived to the greater glory of God, thus ruining the enlightened image with which Julian Huxley had been trying to invest the programme. Huxley cuts a troubled figure in Leaves of the Tulip-Tree, his widow’s cautionary tale of love among the polymaths. Juliette Baillot was the young Swiss miss hired by Lady Ottoline Morrell as a governess at Garsington Manor in 1915. This community of high-piping attention-seekers was no place for a Calvinist, as she soon realised. Came the time when, walking in the silent garden, she became aware of ‘participating in the boundless pulse of life, conscious of a fusion of my spiritual roots with the very soil I walked upon, its daedal vegetation and imprisoned minerals, while at the same time perceiving the infinite treasures of the mind of man, in another dimension and reality’.

It was a perilous state for a young woman to be in. Soon, on a visit to his brother Aldous, arrived the dolichocephalous Julian, ebullient, a little insensitive, who was charmed by the young governess, though complaining that she had no back to her head. They corresponded (more love letters in print) and she was overwhelmed by this euphoric, driving figure ten years older than herself. Despite warnings by his relatives not to let him swamp her, she played rabbit to his stoat. Three months after marriage Julian had the first of many breakdowns. Was it her fault? Did he really need a mother figure? This was the start of years of self-examination. Gradually she learned he had ‘a protean daimon within’, driving him relentlessly – the Curse of the Huxleys, perhaps. His work involved much racing off to far places. While he was in Spitzbergen his wife watched over one of his experiments, separating frogs whenever they began to mate: a cruel task for a girl bride, and indeed for anybody. There was an all-star literary interlude at Les Diablerets, where Julian worked on The Science of Life, Aldous was deep in Point Counter Point, and Aldous’s wife was typing the first draft of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, under Lawrence’s eye. Allowed to read this work, Juliette, who had come on a bit, suggested it should be retitled ‘John Thomas and Lady Jane’, an idea which Lawrence liked but his publishers resisted.

Trouble began when Julian on a voyage to Africa met a pretty American girl in the ever-fatal Red Sea. It was to be no passing fancy and he demanded that his wife should rise to the situation, graduating from ‘the natural reserve and negativism of youth to the self-assurance that you deserve and need if you are to realise your life to the full – and our life’. These fine words meant that she was welcome to take a lover herself, if she felt like it (the young Gaitskell would have gone on about ‘prostitute powers’). Offended wives can use fine words too: this one refers to her husband’s ‘insistence on forcing me to accept his right to a Pelagian extension of experience’. H.G. Wells unhelpfully told her that Julian was an ass, ‘but also he is really a first-class man who must not be devastated’ – she was a witness of Wells’s notorious infidelities.

Much of the book is overshadowed by the author’s struggle with her conscience, her instincts and her family loyalties. During World War Two, when the infallible Julian had his second major breakdown, she agonised over whether to allow him to receive electric shock treatment and perhaps ‘devastate’ that high-powered brain. He survived to become Director-General of Unesco.

Writing, like Lady Longford, in her eighties, Juliette Huxley has had much time to rationalise, to theorise, to excuse, to consult Jung and to speculate about the Huxley genes. It is the honest, sometimes sad, often amusing and never censorious story of a sorely stressed union, the Pelagian aspects of which Julian Huxley did not care to make public in his own Memories.

Huxley crops up again in Anne Sebba’s life of the playwright Enid Bagnold, who as a young girl exchanged poems with him but dropped him when, in one of his letters, he tried to interest her in ‘the intimate interior arrangements of a frog’. During World War One she, too, had a glimpse of Garsington, where Lady Ottoline dismissed her as ‘that vamping girl’.

The author of National Velvet and The Chalk Garden died in her nineties, a registered morphia addict who became dependent on the drug after an operation: yet she was able to coerce her mental faculties to such effect that her last play, A Matter of Gravity, earned her £1000 a week in New York. Successful women playwrights are not ten a penny; this one had drive and ambition beyond the ordinary. The daughter of a Sapper colonel, she took off for London and edited magazines for Frank Harris, who after suitable ‘intellectual foreplay’ led her to the inevitable upstairs room at the Café Royal (an episode she disclosed herself). She married the head of Reuter’s, Sir Roderick Jones, a time-saving autocrat whose rule was that, when he left his London office by car, a messenger should run along the street to jump on the sunken pad in the road and turn the lights green. Sir Roderick soon introduced a relaxed marital understanding akin to that of the Huxleys: mutual liberty but not licence was the idea. The children talked of ‘Daddy’s little bits’ while Mummy, writing to a friend, said that to be in love ‘steals nothing from my husband. On the contrary, it lights me.’ Her first novel was Serena Blandish, a picture of smart society in the Twenties, by ‘A Woman of Quality’. It earned no orchids from her father, who thought it ‘loathsome’. Her very successful National Velvet (book, play, film) appealed to the nation’s passion for horses, though causing unrest in Rottingdean, where it seems that people were able to recognise themselves. The Joneses liked to keep up with top people and three times had von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s envoy, at their table. On the third occasion General Freyberg was present and attacked the bombastic guest so vigorously that the dinner broke up in disorder. (In her Autobiography Enid Bagnold does not mention this incident and says: ‘for me it was a dull meal.’) Late in 1938, the Woman of Quality went cycling in Germany and offered the Times a vapid article on ‘Hitler’s New Form of Democracy’, which was too much for Geoffrey Dawson, though not for the Sunday Times. When the war began she half-expected a visit by the men from 18b, but they were content to pull in Lady Mosley.

As Lady Jones, society hostess, she was politically innocent, though claiming (again in her Autobiography) to have been ‘no more naive over Hitler’s Germany than the Left were over Stalin’s Russia’. As Enid Bagnold, writer, she drew vividly, without inhibitions, on life as she and her friends lived it. Her novel The Squire broke new ground as ‘a poetic vision of motherhood’, though it shocked Vita Sackville-West and made H.G. Wells feel he had been attacked ‘by a multitude of many-breasted women’. (Perhaps Lady Longford, with her self-proclaimed ‘addiction to motherhood’, enjoyed it?) As a playwright her love of bons mots earned her, on her lucky days, compliments like ‘dauntingly literate’ and ‘wears her intelligence like a jewel’, but sometimes her ‘elliptical’ wit, as she liked to call it, muffled meaning. Before The Chalk Garden was produced she had a two-years tussle with the high-powered American producer, Irene Selznick, who kept demanding to know what the real theme was and insisting on endless rewriting. It was a clash of dragons. When finally staged, the play was hailed by Kenneth Tynan as the finest artificial comedy by an English pen since Congreve, though he felt it might be the end of an era: and so it was, for the next time round there were complaints about ‘mandarin old bags’ spilling pseudo-epigrams. Other once-established playwrights were suffering the same punishment. By 1975 she felt her rank in literature worthy of a DBE and a submission to that effect pointed to the ‘mediocrity’ of existing Dames, like Daphne du Maurier. In the circumstances she was lucky to get a CBE. Her husband had earlier submitted a request for a peerage and was offered one; it was withdrawn apparently because he had talked about it prematurely and had proposed to call himself Lord Rottingdean, thus inspiring jokes about ‘Lord Rotters of Reuter’s’. He was still lobbying for an honour years later. It says much for Anne Sebba’s objectivity that she can describe these blush-free solicitations deadpan. As a biographer she is sharp-eyed, sure-footed and has shown great industry. Her verdict on her self-absorbed and self-projecting subject is that ‘she became what she wrote and wrote what she became.’ Which will serve as an epigram as well as an epitaph.