Page 5, 30th July 1993

30th July 1993
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Page 5, 30th July 1993 — Conversions to Rome and Westminster
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Conversions to Rome and Westminster

Naim Attallah asks Elizabeth Longford, matriarch of the Pakenham clan, about her political and religious conversions, her marriage, and her chum Evelyn Waugh You wERE ONE of the very) first and very few women to be admitted to the male intellectual enclave at Oxford. Were you aware of that at the time? Did you feel privileged, or did you regard it as your right?

I certainly didn't regard it as my right. It was more a feeling of being tolerated than having rights in that particular society.

You were not influenced by religion in your student days?

Not at all I had quite a number of dear friends at Balliol College who happened to be Roman Catholics, and had been to Ampleforth or Downside. I knew they were Catholics, but that's as far as my knowledge went. I wasn't the slightest bit interested or influenced by them. I can tell you a rather ridiculous story to illustrate the point. I don't think I had ever met a Roman Catholic priest until I went to some lunch party at Balliol with these undergraduates.

They had invited a very famous Catholic priest called Fr Martin D'Arcy. He was extremely brilliant, charming, and right wing, and I remember thinking, with rather a tremor, of childhood stories like Westward Ho! by Charles Kingsley, where the Catholic Church is the Scarier Woman. Fr D'Arcy was wry good looking with crimpy hair, a faintly hooked nose, and very fine features.

I decided he was Mephistopheles and that I must beware. When we got up from lunch he helped me on with my coat, and to my amazement I noticed that he handed it the wrong way round, so that the sleeves were hanging down inside.

This gave me a sudden new intuition that he couldn't after all be Mephistopheles, who was a very polished courtier-type gentleman who would never hand a lady's coat the wrong way round. I concluded that he must be indeed a priest, and I took great interest in him from then on.

You were related to Chamberlain, so politics were in your blood, but it was Frank Pakenham who awakened political interest in you. Do you think the fact that you were drawn to the left was a very serious threat to your relationship?

We had tremendous arguments about it. He was a professional in politics while I was an absolute baby. I put up very silly arguments, but I believed in them all the same. In any case, being half Irish there was a kind of leftward vein in him which remained at peace until he met me, and then I stirred it up. He had his revenge on me by getting rid of my rational humanism.

I had the impression that although you contested two elections, your heart was not really in politics and the pull of motherhood was stronger. Is that a fair assessment?

Ifs true that the pull of motherhood was stronger because I did make a choice at one particular point in my life. There was a time when I was very ambitious and was encouraged by some of the dear old boys in the Labour Party I remember Ernest Bevin telling me I ought to stand for the women's section of the Executive and this rather fanned my ambition. However, it was just a temporary blaze, and when I was forced to choose, I chose the family.

Your husband's conversion to Catholicism, which he kept secret from you, shocked and distressed you and although you say you knew that "even the rustling curtain of priests would never separate us" you must have felt very angry, betrayed even?

I wouldn't say betrayed exactly. I certainly felt indignant and angry that he should have taken this step without consulting me and certainly without my consent or any discussion. I realised, however, that it was better for me to have been faced with a fait accompli than to have an argument that went on forever; I would have felt bound to keep my end up and to have thought of all the arguments against it, even to have created some in order to keep the battle going. So in a way, although I didn't agree with the principle, in practice it worked out better.

But did it take you a long time to get over the shock?

No, not very long, I began to think it was one of God's mysterious moves. Frank had done this to annoy me, and he had annoyed me • so much that the Holy Spirit entered into this angry person, me, and before I knew it I was reading books about religion which I'd never looked at since I was a small child.

Evelyn Waugh had greatly influenced your husband in his conversion. Given that Waugh had already opposed your marriage and offered the opinion that Frank had married beneath himself, you must have felt outraged by his interference?

I was more amused than outraged, because I was very fond of him and I didn't know at that stage that he had opposed our marriage. In fact, all the evidence was that he'd pushed it forward.

On one occasion before we were married Evelyn came to stay with us at Frank's brother's house in Ireland.

He was very friendly and we were all fond of each other, and I remember when the parry was breaking up one evening and Frank and I were going off in slightly different directions but in the same wing of the house, Evelyn suddenly gave me a push and said, "Go on, follow him, go after him", which I did.

Nothing happened, I may say, except that we had a very nice conversation sitting on the edge of his bed, but I would never have been brave enough to go up into his quarters if Evelyn hadn't given me that push. So Evelyn's attitude was totally contradictory.

How much do you think the fact of war influenced your husband in his decision to convert?

A great deal. It was Evelyn who actually said to him, "You're going out with your regiment; who knows what will happen? You've got to make up your mind now. You've dallied long enough on the edge."

Some wars later, you also converted to Catholicism, though I had the impression that your approach was for more pragmatic, There was no Road to Damascus vision, it was much more that you felt an awkward division in the family vis-a-vis churchgoing, and that y014 own father had died so that you would not have to contend with his disapproval, and so on. I didn't sense any of the agony which one expects to accompany such decisions?

No, there was no agony. As vou rightly say it took several years, six in fact. I had spent time gradually reading more about Catholicism. One book in particular by a French Catholic interested me, because it was the first Catholic book I had ever read which took a left wing point of view, something I hadn't thought possible. I was really entranced by this wonderful revelation. There were one or two setbacks, however, such as when Frank became Sir William Beveridge's personal assistant over the Beveridge Welfare State report. Frank had been invalided out of the army, and this became his war work and he put everything into it.

Evelyn Waugh, after your convey,. sign, wrote to Nancy Mitford, "Lady Pakenham is my great new friend", and this made you fed that you had been received, and not only into the Church. Did you ever feel that you had capitulated in a sense, that it would have been better if Waugh had been able to accept you on your own terms Catholic or not?

One couldn't say "no" to a question put in that way, but I don't really think I minded. I can remember asking myself why he now liked me so much, what had changed. Although I was not as close to him as Nancy, because temperamentally I wasn't his cup of tea, he was always writing to me, and we met a lot. Before that there had been all those insults about the hockey field, but now I was in the family of the Church, and he seemed to have a kind of supernatural feeling that my having been baptised with holy water had literally changed me, not only in myself, but to him; that it had been a real physical change.

One of your worries about Catholicism before you converted was that it would prejudice the children in their careers and in life generally. Did you ever have occasion to feel that afterwards?

Never. It was one of the most fallacious predictions or feelings that I've ever had. In fact I often think now how wonderfully lucky we were that we were able to bring up all our children successfully. I often think of other parents and wish they'd had the same good fortune.

There is also some evidence that the establishment is anti-Catholic although this is always very difficult to prove. What is your view?

I've heard so many conflicting views on that subject. I don't think I know the establishment well enough to judge, but I do know when I was young, long before I had any connection with the Church, people used to say that the Foreign Office was biased in favour of Catholic candidates, which was exactly the opposite of whdt I later feared.

Two people in the Oxford Labour Party objected when Frank became a Catholic, because they had the same feeling that I did, that he would be under the influence of an outside power, namely Rome, but I myself never came across anything of that sort. In a way I'm sorry, because I think religion doesn't mean as much to people as it used to when I was young, and therefore although you have fewer of the bad effects you also have fewer of the good.

You have written a great deal on the monarchy and are obviously a royalist. Catholicism has no place in the royal family for example, if Prince Charles were to convert, he would not be able to accede to the throne. How do you feel about that?

The Act of Settlement and the Royal Marriages Act should be repealed as quickly as possible. They might have done a little good in the reign of George III but they are totally outdated now and positively harmful.

The world of princes and princesses is naturally a very small and and to shut out a whole section of European and other nationalities or other populations form any kind of real friendship or intermarriage with the royal family is the most colossal mistake nowadays.

Your own children's marriages have not always run smoothly, but You have taken comfort from their ham) second marriages. In the eyes of the Catholic Church marriage is for life. Did you feel very) anguished, not just at a personal level, but on a religious level on account of your children's divorces?

No, not at the time. All I can say is that it at the beginning of my married life, when my children were being born, some prophet had told me that we would be a Catholic family and yet we would have these divorces and second marriages, I would have felt amazement, disbelief and great unhappiness.

But for most people life doesn't strike with one great hammer blow; it gradually happens, and you get used to it, you accept.

You know the people involved, you admire them and love them whatever has gone wrong, and so your buoyed up; you know it isn't; the end.

The Queen must have felt the same about her children. I don't think it's the business of parents to blame; it is the business of parents when their children are young to teach them as rigourously as possible, and to make rules and see that they're kept, but once the children are grown up parents should not reprimand or criticise, they should gave support where it is needed.

I'm going to ask you a rather sensitive question because of the religious aspect, and because I am also a Catholic. The marriage of one of your children was annulled, even after the birth of sixchildren. Did you have any intellectual difficulty with the idea of that annulment? A lot of people are very critical of annulment and think it is a fudge, or a way of clearing one's Catholic conscience. How do you view it?

I used to think that annulment should be much more common, and that it should be made much easier, and I held that view for many years. It would leave the faith as it was while allowing that there never had been a marriage in the Catholic sense.

But I've rather changed my mind and I now think, in my heart of hearts, that divorce is really the true state of affairs; that there has been a marriage, that there no longer is, and therefore it's ended. I don't really believe in annulment, and I believe that divorce is the way of the future. But I know that isn't the teaching of the Catholic Church and I wouldn't dream of teaching it to anybody else.

Quite a number of people in the public eye are granted annulments ... Caroline of Monaco, Frank Sinatra, and so on. Do you think this points to there being influence at play? I'm not sure on these very difficulty questions, but I now think we should use the word divorce, not annulment. It seems to me that the truth about most broken marriages is that they weren't always broken; the argument for annulment is that they were broken form the start, only one realise it. That does not seem to me to be the accurate description.

Are you saving that if you divorce, the Church should be able to marry you a second time in the faith?

Yes. That is what I am saving.

Your own marriage has a awonderful symmetry Frank converted politically into your camp, and you converted into his religious camp. Did this bestow a kind of equality in the marriage which made it endure?

We laugh about it; it's rally too symmetrical for anything but a joke, but it did happen just that way. We were like two magnets for each other, and if one moved in one direction, the other followed.

The teaching about marriage, two being as one, is very true in many ways. I often know what Frank's going to say, and he often knows with me but of course that's perfectly rational and explicable in two people who have lived together for over 60 years.

This interview appeared, in edited form, in The Oldie magazine.




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