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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in