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Balfour [née Lytton], Elizabeth Edith [Betty], countess of Balfourfree

  • Clayre Percy

Balfour [née Lytton], Elizabeth Edith [Betty], countess of Balfour (1867–1942), social hostess and biographer, was born on 12 June 1867 at Hyde Park Gate, London, the eldest of the five surviving children of Edward Robert Bulwer-Lytton, first earl of Lytton (1831–1891), viceroy, diplomat, and poet, and his wife, Edith (d. 1936), daughter of the Hon. Edward Villiers. Always known as Betty, she was educated by governesses wherever her father was posted, including India when he became viceroy. They returned to Knebworth, the family home in Hertfordshire, in 1880. Her father was a strong influence. 'He would take for granted', she wrote, 'that his children shared all his interests, whether in matters literary or political or domestic, and no direct instruction could have been so stimulating' (Letters of … Lytton, 2.257).

On 21 December 1887 Betty married Gerald William Balfour (1853–1945), the clever, strikingly good-looking MP and younger brother of Arthur Balfour; they had a son and five daughters, including Lady Evelyn Barbara (Eve) Balfour. Through her husband, she entered the world of the Souls, the group whose central figure was Arthur Balfour. Although Lady Betty Balfour never emulated the Souls' great worldly hostesses like Lady Desborough, her London house in Addison Road was nevertheless known for its good talk and for its musical parties. Betty shared with Arthur Balfour a love of music (especially for Handel). Although she was undoubtedly attractive, her contemporaries remarked more on her charm and her social gifts as a talker and even more as a listener than as a beauty. In 1895 Gerald Balfour was made chief secretary for Ireland, and in Dublin his wife's gifts as a hostess with wide-ranging tastes became apparent. The chief secretary's house became a centre not only for politicians but also, at that time of great artistic vitality in Ireland, for the arts as well: visitors included the poets W. B. Yeats and George William Russell (AE).

On their return to England in 1900 the Balfours commissioned Betty's brother-in-law Edwin Lutyens to build them a country house. This was Fisher's Hill, near Woking, where musicians such as Ethel Smyth and politicians of all parties would meet, including the marquess of Salisbury, as well as Sidney and Beatrice Webb. The latter counted Betty as her only real friend in society, and thought her 'a woman of quite unusual delightfulness, good to look at, sweet to listen to, original in purpose' (Diary, 3.50). Lord Balcarres, another friend, explained why he enjoyed her company:

She is to begin with a well of humour: then her reading has been extensive and prudently chosen. For years past she has lived among men who rule this country and help to rule the greater world: and this has quickened her critical faculties which gives acumen and breadth to her talk on everyday matters. There is moreover an unerring logic together with the warmest of hearts: what a combination!

Vincent, 44

By 1910 Lady Betty Balfour had become an active supporter of the suffrage movement, but she never participated in violent protest actions. Instead, her suffragist sister-in-law Frances Balfour described her as taking on the hardest of all tasks: attacking and trying to convince one by one the Conservative leaders. She was ahead of her time in her attitude towards female education, encouraging Ruth, her eldest daughter, to train as a doctor, and a younger daughter, Eve, to read agriculture at Reading University. Eve went on to become secretary of the Soil Association, and a founder of the organic movement.

Lady Betty Balfour edited her father's official papers and letters as viceroy. The History of Lord Lytton's Indian Administration, 1876–1880 appeared in 1899. In addition she published a selection of his poems (1894) and edited The Personal and Literary Letters of Robert, First Earl of Lytton (1906). In the latter volume, more biographer than editor, she described her father's character, his passionate desire to be a poet; and explained his difficult relationship with his father, Bulwer Lytton, the novelist. In an edition of the letters of her sister Constance Lytton (1925), she produced a perceptive portrait of the great suffragette.

On Arthur Balfour's death in 1930 Gerald Balfour succeeded as earl of Balfour and Lady Betty became countess. She died of a perforated duodenal ulcer at Fisher's Hill Cottage on 28 March 1942. Her husband survived her, dying in 1945.


  • private information (2004)
  • Personal and literary letters of Robert, first earl of Lytton, ed. E. E. Balfour, 2 vols. (1906)
  • The diary of Beatrice Webb, ed. N. MacKenzie and J. MacKenzie, 4 vols. (1982–5), vols. 3–4
  • The Crawford papers: the journals of David Lindsay, twenty-seventh earl of Crawford … 1892–1940, ed. J. Vincent (1984)
  • E. M. M. Fingall, Seventy years young (1937)
  • F. Balfour, Ne obliviscaris: dinna forget, 2 [1930]
  • Lady Gregory's diaries, 1892–1902, ed. J. Pethica (1996)
  • Letters of Constance Lytton, ed. E. E. Balfour (1925)
  • The letters of Edwin Lutyens to his wife Lady Emily, ed. C. Percy and J. Ridley (1985)
  • The letters of Arthur Balfour and Lady Elcho, 1885–1917, ed. J. Ridley and C. Percy (1992)


  • BL, corresp. with Arthur James Balfour, Add. MS 49831, passim
  • BL OIOC, letters to Sir Alfred Lyall
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Margot Asquith
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to countess of Selborne
  • Herts. ALS, letters to Lady Desborough
  • Knebworth House, Hertfordshire, corresp. with Lord Lytton
  • Plunkett Foundation for Co-operative Studies, Long Hanborough, letters to Sir Horace Plunkett


  • oils, 1920, priv. coll.
  • photograph, 1920, priv. coll.

Wealth at Death

£4899 7s. 1d.: probate, 9 June 1942, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

J. Burke, A general [later edns A genealogical] and heraldic dictionary of the peerage and baronetage of the United Kingdom [later edns the British empire] (1829–)
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]