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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
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

Guru Careers: Graduate Resourcer / Recruitment Account Executive

£18k + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a bright, enthusiastic and internet...

Reach Volunteering: Chair and trustees sought for YMCA Bolton

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Bolton YMCA is now a...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Day In a Page

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?
Season's finale brings the end of an era for top coaches and players across the continent

The end of an era across the continent

It's time to say farewell to Klopp, Clement, Casillas and Xavi this weekend as they move on to pastures new, reports Pete Jenson
Bin Laden documents released: Papers reveal his obsession with attacking the US and how his failure to keep up with modern jihad led to Isis

'Focus on killing American people'

Released Bin Laden documents reveal obsession with attacking United States
Life hacks: The innovations of volunteers and medical workers are helping Medécins Sans Frontières save people around the world

Medécins Sans Frontières's life hacks

The innovations of volunteers and medical workers around the world are helping the charity save people
Ireland's same-sex marriage vote: As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?

Same-sex marriage

As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?
The underworld is going freelance: Why The Godfather's Mafia model is no longer viable

The Mafia is going freelance

Why the underworld model depicted in The Godfather is no longer viable