Elizabeth Longford (Elizabeth, Countess of Longford)

b. 1906 – d. 2002

Elizabeth, Countess of Longford, was a British historian. She was a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and was on the board of trustees of the National Portrait Gallery in London. Her biographies include those of 19th century luminaries such as Queen Victoria (1964), Lord Byron (1976) and the Duke of Wellington (2 volumes 1969).


Elizabeth Longford (Elizabeth, Countess of Longford) remembered – by Lord Blake

Matriarch of a notable leftish literary dynasty, biographer and historian Elizabeth Harman – Countess of Longford after her husband Frank Pakenham succeeded to his brother’s earldom in 1965 – was born in 1906, one of the outstanding personalities of her time. Like her husband’s (whom she married in St Margaret’s, Westminster in 1931) her political and religious views changed drastically over the years. She was born the daughter of two wealthy Harley Street doctors of Unitarian persuasion and some austerity in their mode of life. Her mother was a niece of Joseph Chamberlain, and she was a second cousin of both Austen and Neville. She was educated at Headington School, Oxford and went up to Lady Margaret Hall in 1925. With her good looks and first-class mind she soon became known as the ‘Belle of Oxford’ and figured in the glittering circle inhabited by Maurice Bowra and Hugh Gaitskell, both of whom proposed marriage. Other stars in that constellation included Lord David Cecil, Isaiah Berlin, W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender and John Betjeman. Politically influenced by Gaitskell, she moved away from her parents’ conservatism toward the liberal left, and when she went down from Oxford lectured for a spell at Stoke-on-Trent in the Workers’ Educational Association.

She first ‘met’ Frank Pakenham when he was asleep in a deck chair after a Commem Ball and she gave him a kiss. Acquaintance changed into love. Frank, an eccentric scion of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, worked for the Conservative Central Office till he became Tutor in Politics at Christ Church, Oxford in 1934. I succeeded him in 1946 when he exchanged academic for real politics and was given office by Attlee, having been recently converted to socialism. He had also by this time converted to Catholicism, and his wife had followed him in this.

Elizabeth, after several unsuccessful effort so be elected for Parliament and the birth of her eighth child, took to journalism and then to serious history and biography. Her first major attempt was an account of Jameson’s Raid (1960). It was an episode in which her great-uncle Joseph Chamberlain had played an equivocal and controversial role. She did not attempt a whitewash, and held the scales evenly on the question of his collusion. Reviewing it, I said that it was the best portrait I knew of Chamberlain. A.J.P. Taylor named it as his book of the year. It received wide acclaim and made her name. Her next major work was a biography of Queen Victoria (1964). Despite all that has been written since about the Queen, her account remains the best and most perceptive. She followed this with a two-volume biography of the Duke of Wellington, whose unhappy wife Kitty Pakenham was a collateral ancestress of Frank.

The Years of the Sword (1969), which takes the career of Wellington till 1815, contains the best account of Waterloo ever written and conclusively refutes the view once held that women cannot write about war. It was at once a best seller. The second volume, Pillar of State (1972) came as a bit of an anti-climax, but only because the same was true of the twilight of the great man’s career. It is just as reliable and well researched as its predecessor. Thereafter she became something of a court painter in prose – The Royal House of Windsor (1974), The Queen Mother (1981), Elizabeth R (1983) severely categorised by John Grigg as ‘all guff and gush’. Her last serious biography, Pilgrimage of Passion (1979) was not a success. The subject, William Scawen Blunt, was hardly worth such a study and she became bored with it herself. She wrote several more books about the royal family – readable pot-boilers, the last being Royal Throne (1993).

Her other great source of fulfilment was her family, several of whom followed in her literary footsteps – Thomas Pakenham and Antonia Fraser (Pinter) being the outstanding ones. Her daughter Judith Kazantzis is a poet, and Rachel Billington is a popular novelist. The one tragedy in an otherwise very happy life was the death at 23 of her daughter Catherine in a car accident.She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1965, and was one of the Society’s most loyal supporters, attending lectures and Fellows’ lunches until she was well into her nineties. She was appointed CBE in 1974. She and Frank were both well-off and continued to entertain generously at their London and country houses. She died on 23 October, Frank Longford predeceasing her by 14 months.