A Memoir: from Churchill to Eden, By Clarissa Eden (edited by Cate Haste)

Power behind the throne
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Who, one wonders, is the modern equivalent of Clarissa Eden? The answer is that there isn't one, and won't ever be again. Modern British life, and particularly political life, is not like that any more for better or worse. Clarissa Eden, Countess of Avon, was born Clarissa Spencer-Churchill, a niece of Winston Churchill and granddaughter of the Duke of Abingdon. She was a much sought-after society beauty during and after the Second World War: intellectual, stylish, independent and witty.

She also had an exceptional gift for friendship, which put her at the centre of an eclectic group of the most interesting personalities of her era. Freddie Ayer was her tutor and friend at Oxford; Isaiah Berlin, whom she also met at Oxford, became a life-long friend; then there were Cecil Beaton, Cyril Connolly and George Weidenfeld. She was painted by Lucian Freud and danced to, and dined with, Glenn Miller. Evelyn Waugh was madly and hopelessly in love with her. Duff Cooper, the legendary ladies' man whose diaries shocked the literary world, wrote to her: "Darling you are the only woman I have ever loved without asking much or indeed anything except a peck on the cheek in return."

Then, at the age of 32, she astonished family and friends by marrying Anthony Eden, 23 years her senior, and it was as if a new Clarissa emerged. She says that her life falls into two phases: pre-Eden and after. The first revolved around herself and her friends; in the second, her centre of gravity was Eden. She became the model political wife, fiercely loyal and protective of a husband who, within a few years, would be thrown into one of the biggest crises of the century.

Now 87, still beautiful and a wonderful dinner companion, she has finally produced a tantalising memoir, with sharp observations and anecdotes, seldom cutting, and never downright rude, with enough insights to make its contribution to the history of the time. But although she kept diaries after the war, Clarissa is no Duff Cooper or Chips Channon. This book, held together through clever bridges by the writer Cate Haste, leaves out more than it puts in probably not deliberately but, however good her memory (and it is very good indeed), it is all a long time ago.

Uncle Winston and Aunt Clemmie appear frequently as a small girl, Clarissa stayed often at Chartwell and, as a young lady during the war, she was in and out of Downing Street or Chequers. There is one marvellous incident during the Blitz when she emerges, sick and exhausted, from her bunker under the War Office into the freezing rain to be spotted by a passing Mrs Churchill, who takes her off to Chequers to recuperate.

When she fell for Eden in 1947, he was temporarily out of office, with a distinguished career as soldier, diplomat and politician already behind him, and even greater things in front. He had been foreign secretary at 35, had been one of only three ministers to serve right through Churchill's War Cabinet, and was now waiting more and more impatiently to step into the old man's shoes. But, for all that, he was not seen as a great catch.

Although she clearly adored her husband, Clarissa is remarkably frank about him, too. Very clever herself, she says that Eden "was not an intellectual, nor was he an inspiring writer or orator". Duff Cooper, with whom she stayed when he was ambassador in Paris after the war, wasn't encouraging when she confided in him. "I had lunch with Clarissa," recorded Cooper on 24 November, 1947. "Her latest admirer is Anthony Eden... What a curious man he is he has no friends and no real interests, other than politics. Clarissa says that he never stops trying to make love to her. He doesn't like me, but also loathes Winston. He thinks of nothing except becoming leader of the Conservative Party." But he obviously had something going for him to attract and hold Clarissa and he did become prime minister, albeit very briefly.

In their later years, the bête noire of both Edens was Harold Macmillan, whom they blamed, not without justification, for pulling the rug from under Eden's feet at the critical moment of the Suez Crisis in 1956. It was Macmillan, then chancellor of the exchequer, who reported to the Cabinet that, while President Eisenhower and his anti-British secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, would not back the Anglo-French landings at Port Said, they would at least not do anything hostile to stop them.

It was a disastrous miscalculation. With the flotilla on the way, a furious Eisenhower ordered Dulles to table an emergency UN resolution calling for a ceasefire. The next day, Macmillan, up to that point one of the hawks, informed the Cabinet that the Americans were undermining the pound, the Bank of England's reserves were empty and the country was on the brink of bankruptcy. Although Macmillan had exaggerated the scale of the crisis for his own political ends, when the Americans threatened oil sanctions, the game was up and the troops were humiliatingly withdrawn. Eden resigned two months later, ostensibly because of health problems, but lived another healthy 20 years playing vigorous tennis, farming and gardening and being looked after by the devoted Clarissa.

Clarissa's account virtually stops with the resignation and ends altogether with Eden's death in 1976, a few months short of his 80th birthday. One is left wishing for more, but we will have to make do with what we've got. We won't see her like again.

Weidenfeld & Nicolson 20 (288pp) 18 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897