Obituary: Frances Donaldson

Frances Annesley Lonsdale, writer: born 13 January 1907; married secondly 1935 John Donaldson (created 1967 Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge; one son, two daughters); died London 27 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.

(Photograph omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £35000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

HR Advisor - North London / North West London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - North London...

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £32000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

HR Advisor - North London / North West London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - North London...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?