In the Front Row

Susan Pedersen

  • . . . If Love Were All: The Story of Frances Stevenson and David Lloyd George by John Campbell
    Cape, 557 pp, £25.00, June 2006, ISBN 0 224 07464 4

Imagine you are hired, fresh out of college at the age of 24, as tutor to the teenage daughter of the chancellor of the exchequer. His wife is away in the country much of the time; he wanders about 11 Downing Street in his carpet slippers. He looks at you a lot, and brushes up against you in the hallway when he passes. You know he has a terrible reputation but if you are honest with yourself you have to admit you quite fancy him. The tension in the house becomes palpable (although your charge, convinced that her father loves her alone, is thankfully oblivious of it), and after some months the chancellor pops the question. Will you be his secretary, on the understanding that he gets to sleep with you as well? He won’t leave his wife for you, he won’t destroy his career, but as the confidante and adviser of one of the government’s brightest stars, you’ll share a good slice of his life.

What woman would agree to this unequal bargain? Well, early in 1913, when Lloyd George was the chancellor making the proposal, Frances Stevenson, the daughter of a Scottish accountant and his part-French, part-Italian wife, did so. I can see why. It isn’t just that I’ve always had a soft spot for Lloyd George, who was a flesh and blood human being, and not one of those conscience-laden stick-figures in morning coats that the Edwardian Liberal Party produced in such numbers. It’s also that so few real opportunities were open to a young woman with a head for politics in that era. There was the suffrage movement, of course, but the exalted martyrdom of the Pankhurst-led militants wouldn’t appeal to everyone, and a slightly older cabal of Newnham and Somerville graduates already had the leadership of the more sensible constitutionalist wing sewn up. The few elected women in local government were usually middle-aged spinsters with impressive records of voluntary work; even when suffrage was granted and a few women entered parliament, they rarely gained admittance to the clubby, masculine heart of political life. Only a few wives or daughters saw much of that world, and even they withdrew when, say, the foreign secretary and his German counterpart had a chat about naval requirements. A private secretary might be there, though, taking a few notes in the corner. Not without a moral struggle, Stevenson said yes.

The partnership would last until Lloyd George’s death 32 years later. Stevenson acted as his private secretary through the second half of his chancellorship, his periods at the Ministry of Munitions and the War Office, his six years as prime minister, and his subsequent decades in opposition. She accompanied him on official travels (to Paris for the peace negotiations, for example, and San Remo in 1920), headed up his private office after his fall in 1922, shared in planning his many opposition initiatives and campaigns, and prepared material for his multi-volume War Memoirs – a project that absorbed considerable time in the mid-1930s. She was also his mistress, maintaining a London flat but staying at his house in Surrey whenever his wife, Margaret, was (as she often was) in Wales. Neither Stevenson nor Lloyd George was entirely faithful: he had a notorious roving eye and she a serious relationship with Colonel Thomas Tweed, a political associate of Lloyd George’s, in the late 1920s. Her relationship with Lloyd George was, however, passionate and lasting, bringing happiness to both of them. It also burdened Stevenson with as many as three abortions before she finally insisted on bearing a child (which Lloyd George certainly thought his own) in 1929, when she was 40. They married in 1943, two years after Margaret died; Stevenson was 55 and Lloyd George 80.

A fair number of people, from key members of Lloyd George’s political and personal staff to – from 1916 – his wife, knew of the liaison, and a great many others must have suspected it, but in Lloyd George’s lifetime it was never publicly exposed. Margaret and David Lloyd George continued to share houses, holidays, family cares and political duties; and Stevenson’s competence at her job (not to mention the fact that she looked, as John Campbell notes, ‘too prim to be anything so improper as a mistress’) warded off suspicion. But the real reason this triangular relationship endured unmolested was surely that, in some crucial sense, all three principals played by the rules. Today, allegations of sexual infidelity can wreck ministerial careers and (nearly) bring down presidents; three-quarters of a century ago, a nicely pragmatic hypocrisy prevailed. As John Grigg remarked, discussing this same relationship, the view was that marriage ‘was an institution whose maintenance was in the public interest’, one that politicians were expected to uphold in public, the compensation being that private arrangements (provided they were kept out of the divorce courts and the scandal sheets) were discreetly overlooked. Asquith, Lloyd George’s arch-rival and then boss, pouring out epistolary love and war secrets in equal measure to the young Venetia Stanley in 1915, certainly understood this, and so did Stevenson. ‘So long as a man, or a woman, kept the conventions outwardly, the public would excuse or ignore his private behaviour,’ she wrote in a blunt comment on Edward VIII’s decision to renounce the throne to marry his mistress – an act Lloyd George found ridiculous and unpatriotic in equal measure. Stevenson rather agreed.

Today, we profess to hold politicians to the most stringent standards of marital fidelity, while insisting on learning every pointless detail when they fall short. Campbell’s book is a tale for our times. Little of the content is entirely new: the basic contours of the relationship became known with the publication of Stevenson’s memoir and then A.J.P. Taylor’s editions of her diary and letters in the early 1970s. The emphasis has, however, shifted. A story that Stevenson told as one of love and devotion (‘nothing I could ever do would be so worthwhile as to help this man’), and that Taylor’s editions treat partly as a great political partnership, becomes, in Campbell’s hands, ‘a romantic adventure, made up of love, sacrifice and destiny’. Everything about this book – from its powder-blue dust jacket to its cloying title and forensic attention to the timetable of clandestine meetings – places it within the genre of popular romance.

There is something to this. Letters from ‘your old Pop’ to ‘my girl’, or from ‘Pussy’ to ‘my own darling little man’, scraps of doggerel, occasional erotic meditations and Stevenson’s unpublished but heartfelt fiction all attest to the strength of the pair’s emotional and sexual bond. Although Stevenson’s diary and letters were mostly about politics, by quoting selectively and mining some additional sources, notably the diary of Lloyd George’s creepy assistant A.J. Sylvester and Stevenson’s stabs at fiction, Campbell has found plenty of material to write a behind-the-front-door – if not quite between-the-sheets – account. Yet, reading my way through love letters, family arguments, speculations about the parentage of Stevenson’s daughter, Jennifer, and observations on Lloyd George’s sexual obsessions, I felt a mounting sense of unease. It isn’t that the details Campbell dwells on are, taken individually, inaccurate, but together they comprise a very partial portrait of these two people – and of their relationship.

To begin with, a portrait of Lloyd George that leaves out politics effaces almost everything that made him Lloyd George. Rather like Bill Clinton, he lived for politics, and the years with Stevenson were his years of greatest achievement and power. Between 1913 and his death, Lloyd George ran several ministries, led two governments, prosecuted a major war, dealt with serious social insurrection, hammered out peace treaties or stabilisation strategies for Europe, Ireland and India, broke and then remade and then broke with his party, launched a number of recovery plans, ‘new deals’ and comeback schemes – and, when most of this was over, wrote something like a million words of memoir. Campbell, who has written an excellent study of Lloyd George in opposition, is well aware of all this: indeed, it may have been out of a scrupulous wish not to revisit fields already ploughed that he pays so little mind to it here.

Yet, however intended, this was a poor choice. In the thirty years since Campbell’s earlier book, Lloyd George has become something less than a household name. Simply telling the reader to ‘be aware that LG was the dominant personality on the political stage from the turbulent Edwardian period of the People’s Budget and the House of Lords crisis (1909-11), right through his wartime and postwar premiership (1916-22) and well into the interwar period’ is not enough, especially when we more often see him shuttling between his women or pinching the odd farmgirl at Churt than struggling to rebuild the Liberal Party or (even in opposition) keeping a research and political staff of twenty hard at work. Campbell pauses over the depressing and disturbing story of Lloyd George’s cowardice and defeatism during the Second World War, but doesn’t put it in the context of his record in office and his unwearying opposition campaigns in favour of a more activist economic and foreign policy in the 1920s and 1930s. As a result, we get a skewed sense of the man as a whole.

The same can be said for Stevenson. We hear a great deal of her flirtations, pregnancies, vacations and social life, much less about the political work that absorbed her, daily, for almost thirty years. Campbell, indeed, seems rather uncertain about what she actually did – which is odd. Anyone who has used the Lloyd George papers, and discovered Stevenson’s letters to his collaborators and admirers, should have little trouble answering that question. She was a consummate political secretary, with the emphasis on ‘political’ quite as much as ‘secretary’: she acted as gatekeeper but also as surrogate, flattering and placating supplicants and dispensing the soothing impression that their views were Lloyd George’s own. Over the years, she developed acute political judgment, evident in the way she handled politicians, leaked information and contributed anonymously to the Sunday Times (‘very proud of myself,’ she uncharacteristically wrote in her diary about her series on international statesmen). Campbell notes the depth of her involvement in every plan and crisis – her diary for November 1921, for example, is devoted almost entirely to Irish affairs – but he tells us almost nothing about those concerns. Instead, he lingers over the spectacle of Stevenson flirting with the Quai d’Orsay’s Philippe Berthelot or dining with the Prince of Wales, making her appear more frivolous or power-seeking – in a word, more mistressy – than she was.

Campbell focuses so relentlessly on the personal that it’s hard to catch the importance of politics to the emotional economy of the relationship itself. Yes, they were in love, but politics – the daily work of politics – was the basis of that love. ‘Beloved, let us love so well,/Our work shall still be better for our love,/And still our love be sweeter for our work,/And both, commended for the sake of each,/By all true workers and all lovers born,’ Lloyd George wrote, leadenly but perceptively, at the outset of their long affair. He was certainly besotted with Stevenson and made her his secretary in order to make her his lover, but it’s fair to say that she would not have remained his mistress for nearly thirty years had she not been his secretary too. As John Grigg bluntly observed, it suited Lloyd George to be in love, but he was too politically driven and too busy to be willing to tolerate a ‘love affair involving a lot of toing and froing’ for long; it was a great convenience for him to have a mistress who was in the next office and also took excellent notes. But if Lloyd George shaped his love to suit his ambitions, so did Stevenson. It isn’t that she slept with a man old enough to be her father in order to get ahead (though many women have done so): it’s that she found his power erotic and loved to share it. She felt the humiliation of having to duck out of sight when his wife or his fiercely jealous daughter Megan arrived, but she loved her ‘front-row seat in the theatre of politics’ and knew she shared his life more fully as his secretary/mistress than she would have done as his wife. She was more devastated than he was when he fell, and just as determined to see him climb back.

Campbell sees the tensions and conflicts; he tracks the passions and reconciliations. But the framework he has chosen constricts him, making him surprisingly incurious about the thousands of hours the two spent in meetings and cabals and the way that affected their relationship and Lloyd George’s political course alike. This is a shame, for their romance was moderate and in many ways conventional; it was the cross-generational and cross-gender political collaboration that was unusual and remains inadequately explored. Plenty of Lloyd George’s contemporaries had mistresses; others (Asquith, Baldwin) developed complex emotional bonds with young women while keeping their marriages intact. What was unusual about Lloyd George is that he integrated his young lover, entirely and for ever, into his political establishment, providing himself with a more loyal and effective ally than any of his contemporaries had. Stevenson may have been the most influential female political secretary until Harold Wilson’s right-hand woman Marcia Williams, but you would never know it from this book.

Campbell’s single-minded concentration on the private also unintentionally makes Lloyd George what he never was in life: boring. Love letters are riveting when written to oneself, but except in the hands of especially anguished and literary lovers, they tend to be repetitive and tedious. Lloyd George’s are distinctly commonplace, and often trail off incomprehensibly (to me, but also – less forgivably – to Stevenson) into Welsh. ‘Yours is the tenderest & purest love of my life Pussy bach anwyl aur,’ he writes in 1915; ‘I do want to get back to Pussy bach anwyl aur chus melyn siwgr mel yn gariad I gyd bob tamaid o honi & all the rest which I dare not commit to writing,’ he adds in 1923. Thanks to the zeal of the gutter press we know that Prince Charles wanted to be a tampon; Lloyd George, in the summer of 1918, wanted to be a cold: ‘I have been envying that cold & wishing I were it. In the dead of night I should have crept down to the lips & had a great time – pressing their softness & then scampering along those pearly teeth – then touching the top of the tongue – then back to the lip.’ Campbell mourns the many letters that were destroyed, but given the very full tranche quoted here, it’s hard to share his grief. One leaves the book with the slightly soiled feeling of the voyeur without the compensatory thrill of having at least seen something especially interesting.

Stevenson, who watched Lloyd George persuade trade unionists into giving no-strike pledges and Irish nationalists into taking loyalty oaths, didn’t mind his limitations as a writer of love letters – although she did read more gifted practitioners with pleasure. ‘Have you read the love letters of Abelard & Héloïse?’ she wrote in July 1919, when he was in Wales with Maggie. The letters were wonderful, she thought, but rather sad; she wouldn’t advise him to read them. ‘They did not manage things very well,’ she concluded rather smugly, ‘& I think I know two people who would have arranged things better.’

Lloyd George and Stevenson did arrange things rather better, satisfying not only themselves but also, in some measure, Margaret, who didn’t like the relationship but preferred it to living year-round in London with her exhausting husband. This arrangement was both politically and personally functional, but only on a political level was it consequential. That is as it should be, for although Lloyd George set out to remake British politics, he was neither a sex reformer nor a bohemian, and had no interest in remaking the institution of marriage. International borders and British political institutions still bear traces of the forms that he pressed on them (with Stevenson at his side); marriage, by contrast, survived their discreet private arrangements intact. It’s as well that Campbell found himself unable to turn this story into a bodice-ripper. Lloyd George – a man who could charm birds off trees, who could make rural allotments interesting, and who, for my money, is still the most significant 20th-century prime minister – may not now be well remembered, but at least he won’t be remembered mostly for having slept with his secretary.