This is my review of The Pain and the Privilege: The Women in Lloyd George’s Life by Ffion Hague.
A serialisation of this book on Radio 4 caught my attention. A storyline intriguing enough to succeed as a novel was made all the more interesting through being based on real events – another case of truth being stranger than fiction. How could Lloyd George maintain the active political and moral support of his wife and his mistress when they were both fully aware of the situation even if choosing to delude themselves up to a point? Ffion Hague interprets in a compelling style the complex motivations and emotions involved. The way in which these two women played complementary roles to meet Lloyd George’s needs made me wonder how consciously he chose these two particular people for long-term relationships in an apparent sea of casual promiscuity.
The interplay of the key characters was set in the context of major developments such as the decline of the Liberal Party, the weakening of the power of the Anglican Establishment over Wales, the horror of the First World War and the profound social changes following from it. It was fascinating to realise or to speculate on just how much the wheel keeps turning – insider share dealing, “cash for honours”, the distorting power of the press – when it chose to reveal scandals- reminded me strongly of recent events. The nature of power, and the charismatic influence which some can exert over others was also explored -there were parallels between the excesses of Lloyd George and Clinton, who tarnished noble political ideals, hard work and real steps to make people’s lives better with sordid events in their private lives.
I never had any illusions about Lloyd George’s morality, so did not downgrade the book out of disgust over his self-centred lechery. Although Ffion Hague may have been a little too charitable about his motives e.g. glossing over what some would regard as egotistical conflicts with Asquith which served to destroy the Liberals faster (although the rise of the Labour Party would probably have done it anyway) and downplaying his evident nepotism and cronyism (again, everyone else was probably at it as well), she succeeds in painting all the characters in a sympathetic light. They seemed like real people, with strengths and flaws.
There was irony in spades e.g. in Lloyd George’s jealousy of his mistress Frances Stephenson’s own affair with Tweed, in the way she tried to deceive him as he deceived his own wife, in the fact that her child (who may have been Lloyd George’s or Tweed’s ) may not have given her the pleasure she craved, since the deception in which she ensnared herself made it impossible for her to be entirely straight with the girl, to the detriment of their relationship.
This was a fascinating and thought-provoking book leaving one to ponder at length on the nature of human relationships – not to mention a renewed interest in learning more about the rich history of the early C20. Countless snippets of information interested me such as Lloyd George’s denunciation of the Boer War, because as a put-upon Welshman he could empathise with the independent-minded Boers. As a young man, what would he have said about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?
My only minor criticism is a slight lack of editing. I spotted a mistake in a date, a few non-sequiturs, and sometimes became confused by the author’s tendency to dodge back and forth in time. The frequent references to the notes sent by his admiring womenfolk every time they heard Lloyd George speak in the Commons became too repetitious.
But these are small points, and I would rate this as a major achievement and one of the better biographies I have read.