Part of the Pattern, by Edna Healey

Silence in the wings of power
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The Independent Culture

In November 1967, after a sterling crisis, the pound was devalued. The Chancellor, Jim Callaghan, was expected to resign and speculation about his successor was rife. Among the candidates were two members of Harold Wilson's Cabinet, Tony Crosland and Denis Healey, and at the height of the political storm their wives attended a lunch together. After, Susan Crosland gave a lift to Edna Healey, who asked how her husband was bearing up under the strain. Mrs Crosland said that Tony didn't have time for introspection but she was being sick in the loo twice a day. "I spent yesterday in bed, I felt so sick," Mrs Healey responded.

This vignette, recorded in Susan Crosland's 1982 biography of her husband, does not feature in Edna Healey's new autobiography. Her tone throughout, while not quite one of Olympian detachment, is guarded and self-deprecating; this is the careful account of someone who has consciously chosen to play second fiddle to a brilliant, ambitious, successful husband.

Denis Healey's political career, while never quite reaching the heights for which it was predicted, encompassed two great offices of state, defence secretary and Chancellor. His story is intertwined with the politics of the postwar period, when the Attlee government transformed British society with reforms such as the NHS. Yet the Tories came back and kept Labour out of power until Wilson's victory in 1964.

Edna Healey lived though this turbulent period but stayed in the background; when Denis became Wilson's defence secretary, she did her best to turn Admiralty House into a home for her family (the move blighted their younger daughter's childhood, she later told Susan Crosland) and rarely accompanied her husband on foreign trips.

When she did, her recollections seldom stray beyond anecdotes that could safely be recounted in a parish magazine. In Moscow in 1959 with Denis, Nye Bevan and Hugh Gaitskell (the Labour leader), Mrs Healey and Mrs Gaitskell were invited to meet the wives of the Soviet leaders. "Mrs Gromyko's English was fluent and both she and Mrs Khrushchev were clearly highly intelligent," Edna recalls. "Mrs Khrushchev was, I believe, a trained engineer."

Edna Healey was born in 1918, making her at least a generation older than the spouses of today's leading politicians. An acclaimed biographer, she articulates in this book a marital philosophy of separate spheres which would not have seemed alien to the Victorians: "In my experience the happiest political marriages are those where the non-political wives or husbands pursue their own careers quietly". Wilson, she says, without rancour, never exchanged more than a dozen words with the wife of one of his most powerful ministers.

Yet this memoir hardly bears out the notion that Mrs Healey was "non-political", certainly not after her arrival at Oxford in 1936 - a considerable achievement for a working-class girl from the Forest of Dean. Her political trajectory was from Labour to the Communist Party and back; she met Denis at the Oxford Labour Club although he too, like many undergraduates profoundly influenced by the Spanish Civil War, was a communist for a time.

Only after Edna graduated and got a teaching job in Healey's home town, Keighley, did they recognise their mutual attraction, but they were almost immediately separated by the Second World War. On Healey's return, Edna was ready to get married but he wasn't; when he changed his mind, during a walk on the Yorkshire moors, he simply turned to her and remarked ungraciously, "I think we had better get it over with".

Healey is a distant figure in this book, as detached from the narrative as he seems to have been for much of the couple's married life. Without doubting their mutual affection, which has endured well into their ninth decades, it is impossible not to wonder how much hurt and loneliness lie submerged beneath Mrs Healey's cheerful prose. Nor can I help suspecting that a lifelong habit of reticence conceals a sharper and more sensitive woman than emerges from this anodyne book.

Joan Smith's 'Moralities' is published by Penguin