The Pebbled Shore: The Memoirs of Elizabeth Longford. (Weidenfeld, £14.95).
HISTORY provides some fascinating might-have-beens. Elizabeth Longford as the first woman Labour Prime Minister, for example. She had the talent for it, and the following. Had she not decided, when she already had six children, to forsake the political arena, she could well have forestalled Margaret Thatcher, and changed the complexion of British politics.
But, in that case, we should have missed her excellent books: Victoria RI and the two-volume Wellington to mention but the best-known. We should have been the poorer for their loss.
Now that she is 80, Lady Longford has given us a set of memoirs that range from her Jeunesse doree to a viellesse distinguee among her innumerable children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, the talented Pakenham clan. Entertaining, lively, forthright and exceptionally well-written, these memoirs offer an invaluable insight into her life and times.
As an undergraduate at Oxford in the late 1920s, Elizabeth Harman, (great-niece of Joseph Chamberlain and cousin of Neville), was one of the few women to be accepted as an equal by the scintillating intellectual elite of the Univerity. She was the first woman Isis Idol, Maurice Bowra and Hugh Gaitskell were in love with her, John Betjeman, Lord David Cecil, Quintin Hogg and Roy Harrod were among her closest friends.
From this gilded society of aesthetes and future politicians, she chose Frank Pakenham, the future Lord Longford, drawn, even before they met, by his "face of monumental beauty". To Frank, a brilliant student, but inhibited and plagued by self-doubt, Miss Harman's deep certainties and steadfastness brought reassurance as well as romance. The story of their courtship is touching, and it is good to know that theirs is a genuine love story which time has not dimmed.
Radicalised, like so many of her class and generation, by the social conditions of the 1930s, Elizabeth Pakenham became a socialist long before her husband. Left-wing politics were her life, even after the children began to come. But Frank preceded her into the Catholic faith.
Her antipathy to the Church was acute, due partly to the prejudices instilled by her Unitarian childhood, but even more to the Church's proFranco stance during the Spanish Civil War.
It was her later reading of True Humanism by Jacques Maritain which showed her that humanism was not synonymous with atheism but with "a faith that centred itself on God". Maritain convinced her that "all belief", all hope, all truth were not to be judged by the events of two particular years in Catalonia and Madrid".
Through him she was led to read the New Testament, and eventually to follow Frank into the Catholic Church. "Please let me join the Saints and Angels in their chorus of welcome", wrote Evelyn Waugh on that occasion.
Her "addiction to motherhood" pre-dated her conversion: she had her eight children because she wanted them. (There were two miscarriages besides). The "addiction" did not win favour with the members of the Birmingham (King's Norton) Labour party, whose parliamentary candidate she had become in 1936. They forgave her, but ultimately, in 1944, her devotion to rearing children caused her to resign her candidature. By such a narrow margin did she miss the New Jerusalem of 1945, when Labour swept into post-war power.
Lady Longford (as she became in 1961, upon the death of the sixth Earl, Frank's brother) charts her husband's career and fluctuating political fortunes with affection and understanding. Of his various campaigns, howevcer, she says disappointingly little, despite making the neccessary point that of them all, the pornography issue made the least appeal to him. The book ends in 1966, and so does not require a comment on his controversial championship of notorious criminals, in particular Myra Hindley.
Her views on that might have been instructive. But she feels reluctantly impelled to note the terrible year 1969, in which, on the one hand, the full flowering of the Pakenharn talent won the accolade of a Foyles Literary Lunch; and, on the other, the youngest Pakenham daughter, Catherine, was killed in a car crash shortly afterwards — "an appalling black, slippery rock suddenly out-cropping on my pebbled shore".
For all its ebullience, glamour, and real achievement, Elizabeth Longford's life has not been unmarked by tragedy.
Mary Craig's latest book The Crystal Spirit: Lech Walesa and His Poland was published by Hodder in June.