Sitting in an upright chair in her large, high-ceilinged drawing room in west London, Clarissa Eden, Countess of Avon, seems slight and wan, as if painted in watercolour rather than oil.
It’s a trick of the light, perhaps – no electric lamps are on and, as the morning is overcast, the light that streams in through the sash windows is soft and grainy. In conversation she seems vigorous and knowing. And she is only 87. As the widow of Sir Anthony Eden, who was prime minister during the Suez Crisis, you imagine she must be older.
She moves a baton to find space for a coffee pot. “This? It’s made of sandalwood. Nehru gave it to me. I had been admiring it and he said ‘I want you to have it’.” Such was the extraordinary circle she moved in.
She was born into the aristocracy: her uncle was Winston Churchill, her mentor when she studied philosophy at Oxford was Sir Isaiah Berlin and when she did her season, she danced with Donald Maclean, the spy. She counted Evelyn Waugh, Cyril Connolly, Lucian Freud, Cecil Beaton, Greta Garbo, Ian Fleming, Nancy Mitford and Orson Welles among her friends. Before she married, indeed, her life was all about culture and the arts. Afterwards it became all about politics. “My life,” she says, “divided into two parts.”
That is how her memoirs, published this week, are structured. She had requested that her diaries remained unpublished until 10 years after her death; why the change of heart? “I didn’t want to write it, as I don’t like parading myself, but when I met Cate I thought perhaps I can do it now.”
She refers to Cate Haste, the wife of Melvyn Bragg, who has edited the book and written introductions to the various phases in Lady Avon’s life. Previously, she was the co-author, with Cherie Blair, of The Goldfish Bowl. She is sitting alongside us now. “Clarissa needed a lot of persuading to write this book,” Haste says.
But it proved easy once she started, in part because, as Lady Avon points out, her generation corresponded more than people do today. “One would even write to friends one was seeing almost every day,” she says. “Everyone was very nice in sending my letters back to me for this book. I didn’t keep all mine. I remember throwing some of Isaiah’s into the wastepaper basket.”
When I note that there is a Mitford feel to her writing, she says, “Oh dear”. I mean the irony and the dry humour. “I don’t have the argot they did. Nancy became my friend, although I saw more of Debo.”
Did she, like the Mitford sisters, feel cheated of a formal university education? “From the age of 16 I did feel very much cheated, mainly because I wasn’t well taught. I didn’t take the school certificate because I was so bored. None of my female contemporaries got to university at all. Not one.” Although she didn’t take a degree, she studied at Oxford in the 1930s and was, according to Antonia Fraser, “the dons’ delight, because she was beautiful and extremely intellectual”. She was quite the bohemian, too, wearing suits in the style of Marlene Dietrich. But the impending war meant there was an air of menace, as well as frivolity. “I knew for certain that there would be a war, because of my uncle. He had been prognosticating throughout the Thirties. I knew because he knew, so to speak. The people who didn’t want to know believed in Chamberlain.”
She was living in London during the war, decoding ciphers in the Foreign Office. “I was in the bowels of the building, so I never met Anthony [then foreign secretary], who was upstairs. It sounds awful to say it, but the war was exciting. The bombing was going on all round. One was young and didn’t think about it. I lived on the top floor of the Dorchester and went on the roof to watch the fireworks. At that age you don’t imagine that anything is going to happen to you.”
She seems to have had many suitors at the time. “I don’t know, I don’t know. Cate seems to think so.”
“It’s true,” says Cate Haste. “Men fell in love with you quite a lot. That was my impression from reading the correspondence.”
Both Duff Cooper, the wartime information minister, and Evelyn Waugh protested their love for her in their letters. Did she not realise this at the time? “It didn’t make a great impression on me, which is rather awful. Sounds rather conceited, but it didn’t somehow.”
When her engagement to Anthony Eden was announced in 1952 her friends were shocked. “They almost didn’t take it seriously. It seemed an extraordinary thing to happen.” Extraordinary in what way? “I wasn’t of that world.”
He was 23 years older; did that age difference bother her? “No, it was more that none of my friends were his friends, we lived in different worlds, socially.”
Evelyn Waugh cautioned against the marriage. “He opposed it, assuming it couldn’t happen on religious grounds because Anthony was a divorcee. It came as a shock to him to him when I told him. Our friendship never recovered. Bang! That was it. Other Catholic friends were more civilised about it.”
Soon after she married, she found herself in the extraordinary position of having to take sides between her uncle Winston, who was dragging out his resignation as prime minister, and her husband, who was the heir apparent. “My sympathies had to be with my husband. Anthony didn’t push when it was time for Winston to go. It is never easy to go, as Tony Blair showed.”
History doesn’t always repeat itself, though. Shortly after becoming prime minister in 1955, Eden called a snap election and won. “Yes, it paid off for my husband. He increased the majority.
“I’m sure he was right to call that election when he did. It is all about timing. He felt the need to have a mandate on his own terms, rather than inheriting one. I would have thought that a good idea, but then I don’t know much about Gordon Brown.”
Mr Brown thought a snap election was a good idea until the polls changed. “Hmm, yes. I don’t think we were persecuted by the polls in quite the same way in those days.”
But she – they – were persecuted by the media. “You mean during the Suez Crisis? Yes. Absolutely. Anthony was no good at spin. It didn’t occur to him.”
I ask how she imagines her husband would fare in today’s political climate, given that some consider the Eton-educated David Cameron too posh for purpose.
“I suppose that applied to my husband even more. He seemed pretty posh at the time, but as he had just come out of the war he genuinely liked talking to the man in the street.”
I suggest that people thought it appropriate to be ruled by their social superiors then. “I don’t think it was that. They liked him because they knew he liked them. That was the reason.”
Clarissa Eden was haunted by an unguarded comment she made during Suez. “In the past few weeks I have really felt as if the Suez Canal was flowing through my drawing-room.”
It became one of the most quoted comments on the Crisis, cited as proof that the Edens were divorced from reality. “Both Anthony and I were quite naive about how the press works. Neither of us should have been, but we were.”
Nevertheless, an impression built up that Eden was unduly influenced by his wife; that he consulted her politically during Suez. Indeed, in her diary, Lady Jebb, the wife of the British ambassador to Paris, alluded to “Clarissa’s war”.
I ask if there was any truth in that perception. “Oh no, he wouldn’t have done that. I might have given him gossip but that was all.”
But she was politically astute, I note. She knew exactly what was going on during the Suez Crisis. “Only because he told me.”
So he would share his innermost thoughts? “He would tell me what was happening in Cabinet, but I don’t think I ever gave him advice. I wanted to be supportive. I didn’t egg him on.”
Any advice for Samantha Cameron? “So much depends on the husband in terms of how the wife copes with it all. She appears to have much stronger views than I ever had. She has a career, after all. My only advice to Sarah Brown and Samantha Cameron would be to keep a diary. Mine was frivolous. About people. What they said and how they behaved.”
Her husband’s reputation was permanently tarnished by Suez. Her anger about that is palpable. “They were a whole bunch of prima donnas.”
The Americans behaved shabbily? “Quite. Eisenhower later regretted his stance.” She also blames Harold Macmillan, then foreign secretary, first for giving her husband the impression that the Americans would not intervene, then for buckling too soon when the Americans brought economic pressure to bear.
“Macmillan was too hasty. He used the American threat to withhold the IMF loan as an excuse to back down.” When Eden resigned in January 1957, officially due to ill health, Macmillan “wept crocodile tears”, according to Lady Avon.
Did the Suez experience leave her husband bitter? “If he was bitter he never showed it to me. Not bitter, no. That wasn’t in his nature. He was just very sad about it.”
Does she imagine Blair now thinks of Iraq as his Suez? “I shouldn’t think so, do you? I don’t know much about Mr Blair’s psychology but I doubt he thinks in any way that he has been defeated.”
Nevertheless: “I suppose Mr Blair will be judged on Iraq, as Anthony was judged on Suez.”
There is a steeliness below Lady Avon’s polite and self-deprecating surface. She talks in a precise and measured way, rarely elaborating. Her prose style is like that, too.
When it is time for her photograph to be taken, her instructions are unambiguous: “Don’t ask me to smile. I’m sick of smiling in photographs. I want to look glum.”
She was Winston Churchill’s niece, Anthony Eden’s wife, and her friends included Isaiah Berlin, Evelyn Waugh and Greta Garbo. As she publishes her memoirs at the age of 87, the extraordinary Clarissa Eden talks to Nigel Farndale