Obituary: Frances Donaldson
Wednesday 30 March 1994
FRANCES DONALDSON was the last person to have seen herself as judgemental or the arbiter of other people's lives. She was tolerant, warm-hearted, understanding; and though she held her own views most firmly, she was in no sense dogmatic. Yet it was her biography of King Edward VIII that probably had more effect on the future of the monarchy than any other single book. Published in 1974, 38 years after the Abdication, the story suddenly showed the world what the Royal Family had had to endure in their fraught relationship with Edward VIII.
For the first time people realised the true difference between the two brothers: while George VI said what he meant, Edward VIII would say what he wanted people to believe he meant. For instance, in her chapter headed 'Something Must Be Done', she exposed the less than immeasurable sympathy of Edward VIII for the derelict Welsh miners. 'You may be sure that all I can do for you,' she quoted him as saying, 'I will.' This solemn declaration of intent was made after he had already told his brother Bertie that he intended to abdicate.
Among Frances Donaldson's secret weapons were the letters and diaries of her friends Major 'Fruity' and Lady Alexandra Metcalfe ('Fruity' had been on Edward's staff). When I heard that these sources were available to the author, I realised that they were time-bombs under the ex-King's popular image.
'You've got a best-seller there,' I said to Frankie. She was not particularly impressed. She had enormous integrity and a kind of innocence; in all her writings it was always a simple question of getting at the truth. But after the book came out, and won the prestigious Wolfson History Award the next year, Princess Margaret said to a friend: 'It was such a relief for all of us to have the true story told at last.' From then on the advantages in the Royal Family of sterling worth over dazzle were better recognised. This was rubbed in by the television drama series Edward and Mrs Simpson (1978), on which Frankie was adviser.
Born the daughter of the playwright Frederick Lonsdale, Frances Donaldson had every opportunity to study the difference between appearance and reality (in this may be included her first marriage, forced upon her and lasting only four years). In 1957, she wrote the life of her father, Freddy, later followed in 1970 by Actor Managers. But in the early days she had used her pen in more practical causes. Four years after her marriage to Jack Donaldson, the Second World War broke out, sweeping Jack, a brilliant academic turned farmer and social worker, into the Royal Engineers. Like one of the redoubtable 17th-century women who defended their absent husband's castle during the Civil Wars, Frankie successfully ran their farm, helping it along with the pen. She published Approach To Farming (1941), which went into six editions, Four Years' Harvest (1945), and Milk Without Tears (1955). The story of her Lonsdale years was told in Child of the Twenties (1959). Deeply attached to Freddy, she rejected his mores.
In the Sixties and Seventies, while Jack was involved in left-wing politics and prison reform, becoming Minister for the Arts, Frankie developed and supported their common interests again with her pen. In 1984 and 1988 she produced The British Council: the first fifty years and The Royal Opera House in the Twentieth Century. Her interest in the dramas of politics had already been shown by her Marconi Scandal (1962), by the notoriously difficult task of a dual biography in King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (1977), and by The Road to Abdication (1978).
The fact that farming, politics and the labyrinthine minds of literary characters were all grist to her mill might suggest a view of her as an all-rounder. But the Jill-of-all- trades seldom excels in one trade, whereas Frankie's literary excellence was shown in her biographies of 'strange' men or eccentric geniuses. Her originality appeared in Evelyn Waugh: portrait of a country neighbour (1967), the happy union of two opposites - he the right-wing Roman Catholic, she the left-wing humanist. Yet they got on famously. Her last studies of erratic genius were a biography of PG Wodehouse, 1982, and her edition of his letters, Yours, Plum (1990). Already under the threat of illness, but encouraged by her supremely devoted husband and children, she summed up her career enchantingly in A Twentieth-Century Life (1992).
Frankie Donaldson was the ideal companion at every stage: outspoken and witty. But she might not have made a modern politician had she pursued that line into the present age, for she was neither bland nor evasive.
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