She was born into the aristocracy: her uncle was Winston Churchill, her mentor when she studied philosophy at Oxford was Sir Isaiah Berlin and when she did her season, she danced with Donald Maclean, the spy. She counted Evelyn Waugh, Cyril Connolly, Lucian Freud, Cecil Beaton, Greta Garbo, Ian Fleming, Nancy Mitford and Orson Welles among her friends. Before she married, indeed, her life was all about culture and the arts. Afterwards it became all about politics. "My life," she says, "divided into two parts."
That is how her memoirs, published this week, are structured. She had requested that her diaries remained unpublished until 10 years after her death; why the change of heart? "I didn't want to write it, as I don't like parading myself, but when I met Cate I thought perhaps I can do it now."
She refers to Cate Haste, the wife of Melvyn Bragg, who has edited the book and written introductions to the various phases in Lady Avon's life. Previously, she was the co-author, with Cherie Blair, of The Goldfish Bowl. She is sitting alongside us now. "Clarissa needed a lot of persuading to write this book," Haste says.
But it proved easy once she started, in part because, as Lady Avon points out, her generation corresponded more than people do today. "One would even write to friends one was seeing almost every day," she says. "Everyone was very nice in sending my letters back to me for this book. I didn't keep all mine. I remember throwing some of Isaiah's into the wastepaper basket."
When I note that there is a Mitford feel to her writing, she says, "Oh dear". I mean the irony and the dry humour. "I don't have the argot they did. Nancy became my friend, although I saw more of Debo."
Did she, like the Mitford sisters, feel cheated of a formal university education? "From the age of 16 I did feel very much cheated, mainly because I wasn't well taught. I didn't take the school certificate because I was so bored. None of my female contemporaries got to university at all. Not one." Although she didn't take a degree, she studied at Oxford in the 1930s and was, according to Antonia Fraser, "the dons' delight, because she was beautiful and extremely intellectual". She was quite the bohemian, too, wearing suits in the style of Marlene Dietrich. But the impending war meant there was an air of menace, as well as frivolity. "I knew for certain that there would be a war, because of my uncle. He had been prognosticating throughout the Thirties. I knew because he knew, so to speak. The people who didn't want to know believed in Chamberlain."
She was living in London during the war, decoding ciphers in the Foreign Office. "I was in the bowels of the building, so I never met Anthony [then foreign secretary], who was upstairs. It sounds awful to say it, but the war was exciting. The bombing was going on all round. One was young and didn't think about it. I lived on the top floor of the Dorchester and went on the roof to watch the fireworks. At that age you don't imagine that anything is going to happen to you."
She seems to have had many suitors at the time. "I don't know, I don't know. Cate seems to think so."
"It's true," says Cate Haste. "Men fell in love with you quite a lot. That was my impression from reading the correspondence."
Both Duff Cooper, the wartime information minister, and Evelyn Waugh protested their love for her in their letters. Did she not realise this at the time? "It didn't make a great impression on me, which is rather awful. Sounds rather conceited, but it didn't somehow."
When her engagement to Anthony Eden was announced in 1952 her friends were shocked. "They almost didn't take it seriously. It seemed an extraordinary thing to happen." Extraordinary in what way? "I wasn't of that world."
He was 23 years older; did that age difference bother her? "No, it was more that none of my friends were his friends, we lived in different worlds, socially."
Evelyn Waugh cautioned against the marriage. "He opposed it, assuming it couldn't happen on religious grounds because Anthony was a divorcee. It came as a shock to him to him when I told him. Our friendship never recovered. Bang! That was it. Other Catholic friends were more civilised about it."
Soon after she married, she found herself in the extraordinary position of having to take sides between her uncle Winston, who was dragging out his resignation as prime minister, and her husband, who was the heir apparent. "My sympathies had to be with my husband. Anthony didn't push when it was time for Winston to go. It is never easy to go, as Tony Blair showed."
History doesn't always repeat itself, though. Shortly after becoming prime minister in 1955, Eden called a snap election and won. "Yes, it paid off for my husband. He increased the majority.
"I'm sure he was right to call that election when he did. It is all about timing. He felt the need to have a mandate on his own terms, rather than inheriting one. I would have thought that a good idea, but then I don't know much about Gordon Brown."
Mr Brown thought a snap election was a good idea until the polls changed. "Hmm, yes. I don't think we were persecuted by the polls in quite the same way in those days."
But she - they - were persecuted by the media. "You mean during the Suez Crisis? Yes. Absolutely. Anthony was no good at spin. It didn't occur to him."
I ask how she imagines her husband would fare in today's political climate, given that some consider the Eton-educated David Cameron too posh for purpose.
"I suppose that applied to my husband even more. He seemed pretty posh at the time, but as he had just come out of the war he genuinely liked talking to the man in the street."
I suggest that people thought it appropriate to be ruled by their social superiors then. "I don't think it was that. They liked him because they knew he liked them. That was the reason."
Clarissa Eden was haunted by an unguarded comment she made during Suez. "In the past few weeks I have really felt as if the Suez Canal was flowing through my drawing-room."
It became one of the most quoted comments on the Crisis, cited as proof that the Edens were divorced from reality. "Both Anthony and I were quite naive about how the press works. Neither of us should have been, but we were."
Nevertheless, an impression built up that Eden was unduly influenced by his wife; that he consulted her politically during Suez. Indeed, in her diary, Lady Jebb, the wife of the British ambassador to Paris, alluded to "Clarissa's war".
I ask if there was any truth in that perception. "Oh no, he wouldn't have done that. I might have given him gossip but that was all."
But she was politically astute, I note. She knew exactly what was going on during the Suez Crisis. "Only because he told me."
So he would share his innermost thoughts? "He would tell me what was happening in Cabinet, but I don't think I ever gave him advice. I wanted to be supportive. I didn't egg him on."
Any advice for Samantha Cameron? "So much depends on the husband in terms of how the wife copes with it all. She appears to have much stronger views than I ever had. She has a career, after all. My only advice to Sarah Brown and Samantha Cameron would be to keep a diary. Mine was frivolous. About people. What they said and how they behaved."
Her husband's reputation was permanently tarnished by Suez. Her anger about that is palpable. "They were a whole bunch of prima donnas."
The Americans behaved shabbily? "Quite. Eisenhower later regretted his stance." She also blames Harold Macmillan, then foreign secretary, first for giving her husband the impression that the Americans would not intervene, then for buckling too soon when the Americans brought economic pressure to bear.
"Macmillan was too hasty. He used the American threat to withhold the IMF loan as an excuse to back down." When Eden resigned in January 1957, officially due to ill health, Macmillan "wept crocodile tears", according to Lady Avon.
Did the Suez experience leave her husband bitter? "If he was bitter he never showed it to me. Not bitter, no. That wasn't in his nature. He was just very sad about it."
Does she imagine Blair now thinks of Iraq as his Suez? "I shouldn't think so, do you? I don't know much about Mr Blair's psychology but I doubt he thinks in any way that he has been defeated."
Nevertheless: "I suppose Mr Blair will be judged on Iraq, as Anthony was judged on Suez."
There is a steeliness below Lady Avon's polite and self-deprecating surface. She talks in a precise and measured way, rarely elaborating. Her prose style is like that, too.
When it is time for her photograph to be taken, her instructions are unambiguous: "Don't ask me to smile. I'm sick of smiling in photographs. I want to look glum."
Thursday 13 January 2011 (The Telegraph )
Exclusive extracts from the memoirs of Clarissa Eden
Towards the end of the meal Anthony turned to me and muttered, “Perhaps we could have dinner sometime?” Intrigued and amused, I accepted.
When we got to know each other better it became apparent that we were, on the face of it, a surprising couple, as people hastened to point out. Most of my friends were writers or critics or painters. Most of his were politicians, but we shared a love of art and books.
He had had knocks at every phase of his personal life and, like many Englishmen, hadn’t known intimacy. He was happy when it came to him later. Although he was older than me we had both led single lives. The announcement of our engagement in the papers was met with consternation and astonishment by friends on both sides. His colleagues, while happy that he would no longer be alone, were wary of his choice. My Aunt Clemmie [Clementine Churchill, wife of Winston] thought me too independent and totally unsuitable, and my own friends were dismayed, or, at best, doubtful. My aunt being away on holiday, we went down to Chartwell to break the news to my Uncle Winston. He congratulated us with his usual magnanimity.
Back from honeymoon, I was thrown into a world of which I had had no inkling [Anthony Eden was Foreign Secretary at the time]. Politics had never played a part in my life, though at lunches at my uncle’s before the [Second World] war I had heard a lot of it, including the prediction that war was inevitable.
My desire was to make everything as easy and pleasant as possible for my husband. I had had no conception of what his life would be like – the hours he worked, the triumphs and setbacks, the constant crises.
Anthony had grown accustomed to being surrounded by staff and private secretaries who were there to do his bidding. I tried to adapt to this new life in a flat surrounded by someone else’s possessions and two resentful old retainers. I was not used to someone coming home every day for lunch and expecting a fish or meat four-course meal each time.
My first visitor at Carlton Gardens was the wife of the then head of the Foreign Office, Lady Strang, who came to tea. Though I did wonder what I had got myself into when her opening remark was ‘I hope you are not going to denationalise steel – it is doing so well.’ I had previously had no views about steel.
After we had returned to England [from a trip to the United States in 1953], suddenly there was an unexpected personal bombshell, which changed everything.
Throughout these trips Anthony had been troubled by intermittent pains. His doctor seemed overawed by the importance of the Foreign Secretary’s life, supplied him with pain-killing injections and never got him examined – and then it was too late. It turned out to be his gall-bladder. Horace Evans, the Queen’s physician, thankfully appeared and an emergency operation took place. What should have been a simple operation – which Anthony, being basically very strong, would have taken in his stride – became a major crisis, requiring yet another operation to try to repair the damage of the first. At one point Anthony was very near death.
Evans then said the greatest expert on botched gall-bladder operations, an American – Dr Richard Cattell – happened to be visiting London. He saw Anthony and pronounced the only hope of saving his life was yet another operation – a major repair job. My uncle [Winston Churchill] said it should be done in England – after all he had had his appendix out on the kitchen table. The expert said there was a better chance of survival if he could do it in Boston with his own team. So in early June a dying Anthony was transported to the New England Baptist Hospital for his third operation, which lasted eight hours.
Three months later Anthony was back at the Foreign Office, working from 8am until 1am the following morning, seven days a week. The intensity of this crisis after only a short period of marriage bound us together in a situation of emotional dependence. You cannot nurse a dying man surrounded by publicity in Boston, Massachusetts, without a very tight bond being forged. If a patient is willing himself to live, it makes the role of nurse-wife that much easier. His obsessive job might otherwise have made our life together politically humdrum for much longer.
Anthony Eden served as Foreign Secretary until April 1955, when Winston Churchill, after much prevarication, finally stood down as Prime Minister. As the new PM, Eden called a snap election and increased the Conservative majority from 17 to 60. Then, in July 1956, President Nasser of Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal Company. The canal was the lifeline of oil supplies to Europe on which much of Britain’s economy and prosperity depended. It also carried symbolic power as a link to Empire. The Suez Crisis would last for the next four months, and end in humiliation when the US forced Britain to abandon a military intervention aimed at regaining control of the canal. Eden was forced to resign as Prime Minister after 20 months in office.
During the Suez Crisis, 1956
Friends were sending me messages of support. Isaiah (Berlin) sent Anthony his admiration and sympathy in circumstances which put “his courage, honesty and strength of will… to a most appalling test…” and “whatever the outcome he has risked his own reputation for what he thinks to be a vital national interest. I think his policy is in essentials absolutely right.” John Sparrow, Warden of All Souls, Oxford, wrote on 9 November of his intense admiration of Anthony’s handling of the situation: “Not even Winston in the darkest hours of the war has had such a burden to bear as he has borne for the last ten days… His incredible patience and wonderful firmness are beginning to reap their reward.” Cyril Connolly declared he was “100 per cent behind the PM” and wished he could find more ways of saying so. Others overwhelmingly echoed this approval.
From Clarissa’s diary on November 4, 1956, during Suez
That afternoon, hearing intermittent roaring and remembering that Aneurin Bevan was having a protest rally in Trafalgar Square, I decided to go and have a look. I let myself out through the garden door on to Horse Guards (a route I always used anyway and kept my car there) and walked up to the square. Bevan was in full flow at the centre, but before I could take in the atmosphere, let alone what he was saying, those on the fringes had recognised me and started to come up with encouraging remarks – “keep going” etc. So I thought it prudent to retreat again.
By now we had been living in a perpetual state of tension for over three months. The atmosphere was so charged that it became a normal state to be in. Yet when Anthony came up each evening he always seemed calm in voice and manner. He would talk about the troubles in Cabinet.
I didn’t feel I knew enough to interfere in any way. I listened sympathetically, and was interested in the details and behaviour of his colleagues. I always assumed Anthony was right because he had so much more experience in foreign affairs.
The controversial “holiday”
The doctors at this point [November 1956] insisted Anthony should get away. Ann Fleming offered her husband [James Bond creator] Ian’s house in Jamaica for a few weeks’ rest, which we accepted. This was thought a mistake, but a spell in Berkshire or somewhere would not have been any good, as Anthony would simply have gone on working.
So off we went to Jamaica. Goldeneye [Fleming’s Jamaican home], which could not have been a greater contrast, was perched on its own coral bay. Noel Coward, a neighbour, sent down Frank Cooper’s marmalade and Huntley & Palmers biscuits, which was not what we had been looking forward to, exactly. Jamaica is a beautiful island, but sinister. There were strange tom-toms beating in the night – but when I asked Violet, the cook, what was going on she said, “Sal-va-tion Army.” I was not wholly convinced. Ann told me that when they returned to Goldeneye they found that the security men had carved “God bless Sir Anthony” on all the trees.
From Clarissa’s diary of December 14, on the Edens’ return from Jamaica
Got several panicky telegrams while we were out there about debates and so on but the government majorities were good. Returned to find everyone looking at us with thoughtful eyes – evidently the criticism has been rather strong. Letters to me are as good as ever. The first day Anthony tells the Cabinet that he went away because he was told that it was the only possible way of getting well. He didn’t know if he had got well – did they wish him to continue? Bobbety, Rab, Amory, Patrick, Kilmuir, Eccles, Sandys, Alan, Walter all said yes. Harold and Macleod said only Anthony could decide.
Peter Thorneycroft said Anthony should go, and say he was going to unite the country and the world.
Selwyn had said no then changed his mind when the majority said yes.
It never seemed to me that health was affecting any of Anthony’s judgements and this was the opinion of those working for him. I do not remember him being dependent on daily stimulants and I was there with him every day and night. Horace Evans may have prescribed them, but Anthony was not a person who wished to jeopardise his judgement – he even refused to take Sparine, the tranquilliser prescribed, though I made use of them. Later, before and after our return from Jamaica, he was taking the prescribed dose of Drinamyl.
Anthony Eden’s resignation On New Year’s Day
Anthony was feeling terribly tired and having pains again. Then, and only then, were the doctors back once more. To our astonishment we now found Horace Evans adamant. He said Anthony would eventually kill himself, but before that he would collapse, possibly in about six weeks, certainly by Easter. We were dumbfounded and rather shocked.
Clarissa’s diary, January 7 1957
A weekend of tossing and turning. Anthony’s pains came back on top of everything else, or perhaps because of everything else.
Clarissa’s diary, January 9
Anthony goes to the Palace to give up his seals of office. The Queen says that she has been fortunate in having Anthony. She thanks him for always being so helpful and making it so nice for her. Anthony refuses an earldom.
After Harold [Macmillan] became Prime Minister we stayed briefly at Chequers. I went up to London, dodging the press at all the main gates at Chequers, and spent an awful day packing up. It was the longest weekend I’ve ever spent. Dorothy Macmillan came to see me on Saturday. None of the servants wanted to stay. Mrs Skitt gave me a cooking lesson on Sunday morning and cried into the eggs.
After the resignation
We decided on a trip to New Zealand and eventually on to the Pacific Islands. The RMS Rangitata was sailing for Auckland, so we arranged to sail on her.
As we went down the Thames all the ships were dressed overall and sending messages of good luck. The boys on the Worcester training ship lined the rails to give three cheers and a submarine raced along beside us. Anthony was very unhappy.
On our arrival at Auckland there was a fantastic reception. We had been lent a house at Otekai on the Bay of Islands. Our bay had downs and combes, with groves of pohutukawa trees running right down to the beaches, with deserted sand and rocks covered with oysters – the garden full of hibiscus, bananas, peaches and figs and a magnolia grandiflora as large as an English elm. It was a revelation and a breathtaking combination of everything we liked most in scenery and climate. For several mad days we determined to stay there for ever.
Then Anthony’s sudden high fevers returned. After some weeks it became clear an emergency operation was inevitable and our dream of the South Pacific, Samoa and Tahiti was over. So back to Boston and the New England Baptist Hospital for Anthony, and the Ritz Carlton Hotel for me.
Anthony was sixty-one when he retired from politics. He survived for nearly another twenty years and remained energetic, playing tennis, travelling, writing, farming. I was pleased to leave politics, and that we could have a marriage without all the tensions, plottings and shenanigans of political life.
Anthony, with his family roots in County Durham, always said the people in the North were quicker witted and nicer but he could not stand the climate, so it had to be the South. As it turned out, this was a wise decision because we did go to London from time to time and he eventually took up his earldom [what Clement Attlee had called the “rate for the job”] so that he could speak on foreign affairs in the Lords.
On the excuse that Anthony should avoid colds and flu, we took to going to the West Indies each winter. Thus we visited Mustique, which had just been bought by my friend Colin Tennant. From there we saw on an adjacent island a white spot poised above a deserted long white beach flanked by a coconut grove. We rushed over and bought the small gingerbread house on the island of Bequia – then with no hotel, no roads, no electricity, no water, no telephone and no airstrip. It was paradise. We were the only non-Caribbeans, except a young American who was said to have figured this was the safest place to be if there was an atomic war. Friends could only visit us unannounced from their yachts – including my Uncle Winston on Onassis’s boat. We had halcyon winters there and were able to master huge works of literature not possible elsewhere.
In spite of two further operations, twenty years passed easily and pleasantly. By 1976 his strength was failing. As I wrote to Mrs Thatcher, “His health was gradually robbing him of his zest for life.” During the last two years of his life we spent the winter months at Averell and Pamela Harriman’s house in Florida. It was there that the end began, Jim Callaghan arranging for him to be flown back to England so that he could die at home. He was a few months short of his eightieth birthday.
He was buried not in County Durham, where his forebears have lain for centuries, but in the churchyard at Alvediston, his last home.
I asked Reynolds Stone to design his tomb in Portland stone and inscribed it with all the offices he held during more than thirty years of service to his country.