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Pakenham [née Harman], Elizabeth, countess of Longford (1906–2002), biographer and historian, was born on 30 August 1906 at 108 Harley Street, London, the elder daughter and eldest of four children of Nathaniel Bishop Harman (1869–1945), consultant ophthalmologist, and his wife, Katherine, née Chamberlain (b. 1874), a niece of ‘Radical Joe’ Chamberlain, the celebrated imperialist who split first the Liberal Party, in 1886, then the Conservative Party in 1904. The latter's two sons, Austen, foreign secretary from 1924 to 1929, and Neville, prime minister from 1937 to 1940, were her second cousins. She was always close to the political vortex, though her own three attempts to win a seat in parliament ended in disappointment. The Chamberlains were Unitarians but Elizabeth's mother died young and her religious education was entrusted to her nurse, a ferocious Baptist. On all sides in the family she was surrounded by successful and ambitious people, and of her siblings, her brother John made a fine career in medicine, and her sister, Kitty, married Donald McLachlan, the eccentric founder–editor of the Sunday Telegraph.

Elizabeth Harman was educated first at the Francis Holland School in London, becoming an Anglican in the process, then at Headington School, Oxford. An outstanding pupil, she succeeded, at the second attempt, in winning a scholarship to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where she read Greats (graduating with a second-class degree in 1930). Slim and beautiful, highly articulate and fun-loving, she made many conquests, including Hugh Gaitskell (who proposed) and Maurice Bowra. John Betjeman christened her the Aesthete's Moll. Her eye, however, fell upon , a Christ Church blood and Bullingdon Club freebooter, whom she pursued, in a decorous way. They married in the politicians' church, St Margaret's, Westminster, on 3 November 1931. The marriage lasted nearly seventy years, until her husband's death, and neither, so far as is known, ever had an affair. Their union was initially sealed by their enthusiastic engagement in the Workers' Educational Association (WEA), and then by mutual conversion. It was the slump, and Elizabeth's WEA work pushed her from Liberalism into Labour, whereas Frank worked for Conservative Central Office. By the mid-1930s, however, she (and his fellow dons at Christ Church) had converted him to socialism. At the same time, however, he had become a Roman Catholic. His weaning of her from Calvinism took longer, for she was brought up with a horror of Rome, and not until 1946 was she received into the Catholic church. Thereafter, however, both husband and wife remained staunchly Labour and papist, each in their different ways: Frank volubly proselytizing, Elizabeth, more judiciously perhaps, working by example.

Meanwhile, the Pakenhams pursued their philoprogenitive inclinations. Their eldest child, Antonia, was born in 1932, their son and heir, Thomas, in 1933. Thereafter followed three more sons and three daughters, and by the time of her death more than sixty grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Elizabeth Pakenham was not a hands-on parent: her view was that, having been provided with the externals of well-being (accommodation, schools, clothes, books, and holidays), children should be left to get on with it and not be overburdened with parental advice and direction. It was part of her Chamberlain entrepreneurial spirit that children of a large family should be highly competitive. Not only would the fittest survive but all would do better in consequence: certainly true in this case, since Elizabeth produced two highly successful historians (Antonia, writing as Antonia Fraser, and Thomas), one poet (Judith, b. 1940, writing as Judith Kazantzis), a novelist (Rachel, b. 1942, writing as Rachel Billington), a barrister (Patrick, b. 1937), a financier (Kevin, b. 1947), and an ambassador (Michael, b. 1943).

The one real tragedy in Elizabeth's family life illustrated how Pakenham competitiveness worked even in a difficult case. Her youngest daughter, Catherine (1946–1969), lacked the academic gifts so freely distributed among her siblings and lost caste in the family because she failed to get herself to university. At last, however, she landed a decent job on the Telegraph magazine, and called on an old family friend and editor to swank a bit. He admonished her: ‘Catherine, last week I saw you walking down Fleet Street with a coureur des dames much senior to you. Are you aware that he has had affairs with at least two of your sisters?’ ‘Yes I am’, she said fiercely, ‘but I've got him now!’ (private information). Alas, the next week she was killed, on duty, in a car crash. Elizabeth was stricken but, soon recovering, she determined (as always) to turn tragedy into something creative. She set up the Catherine Pakenham memorial prize, awarded annually to a promising woman journalist under twenty-five, arranged its finance, and picked a powerful jury. It quickly became one of the most successful of all such awards, helping to create some of the most brilliant stars in English-speaking journalism.

Elizabeth Pakenham (who became Lady Pakenham on her husband's ennoblement in 1945, and countess of Longford on his inheritance in 1961) also put to good use her failure to secure a seat in parliament, standing for the last time in 1950 and from then on becoming (so far as her matriarchal commitments allowed) a full-time writer. To this she brought immense and judicious industry (‘never take more notes than you are going to use’ was one of her sound maxims), a superb eye for the telling detail, a shrewd and broadminded sense of character, and a pellucid grasp of written English. But even her books tended to have a family link. Her first success, Jameson's Raid (1960), remorselessly exposed her great-uncle's involvement in this supposedly shameful exercise in imperialism, and became the standard work on the subject. Her next, a two-volume biography of Wellington, The Years of the Sword (1969) and Pillar of State (1972), was enlivened by the fact that the Iron Duke's long-suffering wife was a member of the clan into which Elizabeth had married. Then, with the encouragement of the queen, she embarked on Victoria R. I. (1964), which most critics agreed was the best and liveliest life of Queen Victoria to date. These majestic volumes brought her many prizes, including the James Tait Black prize and the Yorkshire Post literary award, an honorary DLitt from Sussex University, and a CBE (in 1974), as well as membership of prestigious boards including those of the National Portrait Gallery, the V&A, and the British Library. She herself, always pragmatic and sensible, saw her literary labours as providing a useful addition to the family income. She often said: ‘Well, Victoria paid for the swimming pool at Bernhurst’ (their country house in Hurst Green, Sussex), which she and Frank used until they were in their nineties (private information). As she grew older, she often needed money to help her married children through difficulties and she put earning power before literary laurels. She did write one more biography based on original papers, A Pilgrimage of Passion: the Life of Wilfred Scawen Blunt (1979), but became bored and disgruntled with his endless affairs. Her other late works tended to be pot-boilers about the royal family, anthologies, or brief lives of well-worn heroes like Byron and Churchill.

What continued to absorb all Elizabeth Longford's ambitions, passion, omnivorous interest in detail, and powerful moral energies was her family, beginning with her husband whose multifarious and often bumpy career needed an occasional guiding hand on the reins. Her love and support never lessened, though she liked to joke: ‘What is the wife of a saint called? A martyr’ (private information). Her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren all benefited from her strengths and skills: great worldly wisdom, uncontaminated by snobbery, greed, or careerism; a huge, inexhaustible sense of humour and love of jokes; unshockability, admixed with a strong sense of right and wrong, and justice; and sheer kindness of heart. Unlike some matriarchs, Elizabeth's love was not absorbed solely by her family: all those her children loved were also the fortunate beneficiaries of her wisdom and interest. It would be hard to think of any woman of her generation who had more friends (as well as admirers) or whose friendship was more valued.

Frank Longford died on 3 August 2001, and Elizabeth outlived him by fourteen months, dying on 23 October 2002 at her home, Bernhurst. She had seven surviving children.

Paul Johnson

Sources  

The Times (24 Oct 2002) · Daily Telegraph (24 Oct 2002) · The Guardian (24 Oct 2002) · The Independent (24 Oct 2002) · The Scotsman (24 Oct 2002) · WW (2002) · Burke, Peerage · personal knowledge (2006) · private information (2006) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.

Archives  

 

FILM

 

BFINA, current affairs footage · BFINA, documentary footage · BFINA, light entertainment footage

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA, PEN recording, ‘Exploration’, interview with R. Billington, 10 Dec 1986, C125/66 · BL NSA, I was that teenager, interview with H. Davies, 1996, H7231/6 · BL NSA, ‘A double life’, M8064R · BL NSA, documentary recordings


Likenesses  

Bassano, group portraits, whole-plate film negatives, 1937, NPG · Bassano, whole-plate film negatives, 1937, NPG · photographs, 1947–72, Getty Images, London · photographs, 1947–72, Popperfoto, Northampton · Lenare, group portraits, photographs, 1948, NPG · photographs, 1957–2002, Empics, London · G. Argent, photograph, c.1970, NPG · M. Gerson, group portait, bromide fibre print, 1975, NPG · M. Magnus, bromide print, 1975, NPG · T. Heinemann, double portrait, resin print, 1980 (with Francis Aungier Pakenham, seventh earl of Longford), NPG · L. Willis, double portrait, oils, 1993 (with Francis Aungier Pakenham, seventh earl of Longford), NPG · photographs, 1995–2001, Universal Pictorial Press and Agency · photographs, 2001, Rex Features, London · obituary photographs · photographs, Camera Press, London

Wealth at death  

£637,563: probate, 26 June 2003, CGPLA Eng. & Wales · £8000: administration with will, 27 June 2003, CGPLA Eng. & Wales