Elizabeth Longford: 'Aesthetes' Moll' and Royal Biographer

By Doering, Jonathan W. | Contemporary Review, May 2003 | Go to article overview

Elizabeth Longford: 'Aesthetes' Moll' and Royal Biographer


Doering, Jonathan W., Contemporary Review


LADY Longford, who died late last year at the age of ninety-six, was a modest hero of social change and a celebrated biographer. From a comfortable background, with strong connections to the higher echelons of power, she belonged to a section of the upper classes that viewed its position in society as containing responsibilities as well as rights. Despite great determination, she failed to win election to the House of Commons, but in many ways she was a spiritual forebear to more successful female Labour politicians, from Barbara Castle in the Labour Cabinets of the sixties and seventies, through to the more recent 'Blair Babes'. Indeed, two members of her own family have been in recent Cabinets: Harriet Harman in a Labour Cabinet and Virginia Bottomley in a Conservative Cabinet.

Lady Longford was born Elizabeth Harman. Three influences were strong in her life: family, religion, and politics. Her father, Nathaniel, was a prominent doctor; a Baptist, he had had to convert to Unitarianism in order to marry her mother Katherine. Tension between different Christian denominations would later recur in her marriage. Within the political realm, her great-uncle was the Tory colossus Joseph Chamberlain, who would feature in her first serious work, Jameson's Raid, dealing as it did with his involvement in anti-Boer intrigue prior to the Boer war.

After a nannied childhood, she attended Francis Holland School in London, and the Headington School in Oxford, and seemed destined to make her own mark upon the world. During her time reading Classics at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, she became the first female editor of the University magazine Isis.

Socially, she could not have been better-placed, rubbing shoulders with figures like Evelyn Waugh and John Betjeman (who dubbed her 'one of the aesthetes' molls'), and enjoying the romantic attentions of future Labour leader Hugh Gaitskeil, and his housemate and friend Frank Pakenham, the future Lord Longford, whom she married in 1931. Whilst presiding over an expanding family in the thirties, she made several bids to become a Labour M.P., firstly contesting Cheltenham unsuccessfully in 1935. Rewarded with the candidacy for the safe seat of Birmingham King's Norton, she cultivated her prospective constituency until 1945, fending off doubts amongst her local party as to the ability of a pregnant mother to perform effectively in Parliament. Ultimately, however, she chose to withdraw in the light of her husband's dwindling prospects in the Oxford race. Clear-eyed about his personal ambitions in the field of politics, she devoted herself to the raising of their six children; fulfilment beyond the home would come later, in different areas of endeavour.

In the 1945 landslide Labour victory, Quintin Hogg (later Lord Hailsham) held Oxford for the Conservatives. Frank Pakenham, who was still a commoner, was anyway created a peer by Attlee, beginning his career in government, rising to Cabinet rank under Wilson in the sixties. Lady Longford's resignation of her Birmingham candidacy effectively ended her political hopes, although she stood for Parliament once again in 1950 to satisfy her 'political debt', against Quintin Hogg at Oxford. Again triumphant, he later declared that of the two Pakenhams, Elizabeth was the more formidable. Her public duty was discharged in other areas: as a member of the Cranbrook Committee on Maternity Services, and of the Labour Party Youth Commission.

Pakenham worked for a time as a tutor for the Workers' Educational Association in the Potteries; Elizabeth worked alongside him having already converted him to socialism. Throughout their long married life, they complemented one another, at times overlapping in their interests, at others running in parallel, always moving in the same direction.

In the early years of their marriage, Frank Pakenham had attempted to make a career in journalism, ruefully reflecting in his memoir, Avowed Intent, that his most notable piece had been one on women's fashion, sketched out for him by a sympathetic editor.

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