Lady Healey: Writer and film-maker who supported her husband through turbulent political times

Edna May Healey and her husband Denis, one-time Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, together built one of the great British political marriages of the second half of the 20th century. During their 65 years of marriage they successfully navigated the political rapids, especially during particularly turbulent economic times when they saw little of each other for months on end.

Edna's formula for dealing with her formidable husband's formidable workload took the form of initial stoicism and later creativity. She accepted his long absences but also surprised him and others with a late but sustained literary flowering. She produced a series of well-received books, many of them on the wives of well-known men. She admitted: "If I hadn't had my writing, I don't know what would have happened to me. I would have withered. Having one's own space is a great thing."

Her husband once looked likely to become leader of the Labour Party but, in an era of fierce infighting, he never made it, his brand of centre-right Labour politics being out of fashion. The pair were never consumed with regret – though she thought he would have made an outstanding Foreign Secretary – and they went on to share decades of idyllic retirement in the Sussex Downs. They would often say to each other: "AWL". This was their code for "Aren't we lucky?"

The couple met at Oxford before the Second World War when Edna, chairing a meeting of a Labour club, introduced a lecture by Denis on modern art. She recalled: "I was tremendously impressed by this know-all and remember saying, 'How do you know so much?'"

Denis said of her: "Everyone at Oxford thought she was beautiful, but I used to call her Tomato Face because she had such rosy cheeks."

Her father, a crane driver, had urged her to study hard and she went to grammar school. But when she won a scholarship to Oxford the local Baptist minister cautioned that she would be out of place among "aristocrats and public schoolboys."

She and Denis became close when she took a teaching job in his home town of Keighley in Yorkshire. But they never got engaged because the war started and because they were cautious about making commitments. They saw each other when Denis came home on leave, and corresponded, though Edna noted drily, "We wrote to each other, but I could have pinned his letters on the staff noticeboard, they were so non-committal."

When he finally proposed, in the summer of 1945, she recalled that his words were, "Well, I suppose we had better get it over with as soon as possible." Their honeymoon night, spent at a small Yorkshire inn, was memorable in its way. Edna remembered: "They put us in an annexe, a nearby barn with a trapdoor. We'd hardly settled when a candle appeared, followed by a little old woman who kept popping up out of the floor asking us if we'd like to hear her poems. We said, 'Not very much, thank you.'"

As he rose through the political ranks Edna encountered what has been called the invisible wife syndrome. She once recalled of Labour leader Harold Wilson: "In all the years that Denis worked with him I do not think that he exchanged more than a dozen words with me, or indeed was aware of my existence."

Outside high-level politics, however, she was active as a radio and television broadcaster and freelance lecturer. Denis acknowledged: "She's a better speaker than I am – I give them the facts; she can move people, make them cry." She in turn was unstinting in praising a husband known in the political world as a scathing bruiser.

"He has a gift of loving and a gift of bellowing," she said. "He has the most powerful brain. He is quite the most extraordinary person I have ever known. That's why I married him – because of this wonderful personality."

As Denis reached high office Edna was generally left to bring up their three children alone. Believing, as she put it, that a problem shared was a problem doubled, she sought to protect him from any family difficulties.

"You're a one-parent family if you're married to an MP," she once said. "I felt my role was to look after the children and save Denis from irritation and fuss so he could get on with his work." When the children grew up and left home she began to produce books: "While Denis plodded along, his head full of Treasury problems, I could be equally absorbed in my next chapter," she recalled.

Her first work, which was both a commercial success and regarded as perhaps her best, was Lady Unknown, a life of Victorian philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts. On reading it Denis exclaimed: "My God, this is good. My God, it's going to sell."

Other works which followed dealt with the stories of women married to famous men such as Karl Marx's wife Jenny, Charles Darwin's wife Emma and explorer David Livingstone's wife Mary. She also wrote a history of Coutts Bank and another of Buckingham Palace. In 2006 she published a memoir, Part of the Pattern: memoirs of a Wife at Westminster.

This was described as "mixing Hardy-like descriptions of poverty amid the wood glades during her Forest of Dean childhood with breezy miniatures of the famous men she has known – from Harold Wilson to General Montgomery– and, of course, her life with Denis."

David McKittrick

Edna May Edmunds, author and lecturer: born 14 June 1918; married 1945 Denis Healey (one son, two daughters); died 21 July 2010.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Client Services Assistant

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Client Services Assistant is ...

Recruitment Genius: Junior / Senior Sales Broker - OTE £100,000

£20000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportuni...

Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Duty Manager is required to join one of the ...

Recruitment Genius: Team Leader

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Team Leader is required to join one of the l...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor