In 1932 Mollie Montgomerie married her childhood friend, the Arctic explorer August Courtauld, who in 1930 had gone missing for nearly a year in Greenland and returned to England a national hero.
In the war years she raised six children while her husband served in Naval Intelligence. Afflicted by multiple sclerosis, he died in 1959.
At the age of forty-seven she fell in love with the politician and statesman Rab Butler, one of the architects of post-war Britain. They married, and embarked on twenty years of rare happiness during which Mollie was the mainstay of her husband’s career until his death in 1982.
Mollie died on 18th February 2009 at the age of one hundred and one. She was one of the most remarkable and romantic women I have had the privilege of meeting as my following interview will clearly testify.
In your book you call your parents ‘most unworldly people’, a description which does not seem to be meant unkindly. Is this unworldliness something you feel you have inherited to any degree?
I think so. I grew up very late. It was only when I grew much older that I began to realize things I had never understood before, which I think must mean I’m unworldly.
Your first visit to Covent Garden was to see Die Meistersinger which left an ‘ineradicable impression’. Did Wagner’s music continue to move you?
No, it did not. I think that particular opera impressed me because I was with a particular young man and the atmosphere of Covent Garden in those days was very heady with everyone in full evening dress and décolleté, very different from now when people wear jeans. Of course Wagner is a genius, and it’s my fault that I don’t love his music. I realized that, and I miss something by not loving it, but on the other hand I love music to such an extent that I don’t mind not loving Wagner because I get so much pleasure from others. Bernard Levin would be very shocked to hear me say it, but Mozart, Beethoven and Bach are my top people.
You describe the ‘almost superhuman’ qualities which your first husband August showed when he was stranded in Greenland, and indeed one has the impression that you lived your life in awe of him in some measure. Do you think that’s true?
Yes. I never had brothers and, although I knew lots of men before I married August, in those days we were quite formal with young men. We never progressed very far in our relationships; it was all very modest and proper. August was a remarkable man whom I loved dearly, but there was something deep in him that was very hard … you couldn’t influence him. We used to argue constantly but I never ever won an argument, never got the better of him. We even argued about Hitler when Hitler first came to power – August thought Hitler was doing a good job. When our children were going to be christened, we argued as far as the font, but he always got the name he wanted.
But your marriage was a happy one?
Very happy. He was a genius in a way, and it’s so sad that his splendid qualities were never really used. He hated authority, and therefore in the navy he didn’t get on as fast as he should have done. He was extremely disciplined, however. Imagine the self-discipline required to survive five months solitary on the ice cap and be none the worse for it in any way! He was descended from the Huguenots who have very strong puritan blood; it showed itself in August. He was devoted to me so there was no need for me to be in awe, but even Rab, my second husband, said he used to find August quite frightening.
You said that the agony of waiting when August was trapped had scarred you for life. Are you still anxious now when people are overdue?
Worse, much worse since I’ve become older. I’m like a hen, clucking. My family are very good about it; they know how worried I get so they do telephone when they get home. People say, oh you shouldn’t worry, but if you’re made that way you can’t help it.
When you went off to Tobermory to sail the Cariad, did you not resent the idea that you were being tested to see if you would come up to scratch? It seems a bit like being ‘on approval’.
I didn’t know at the time that I was being tested. August just said he’d love to take me sailing, and I didn’t know that the purpose of the visit was to test me. I thought it would be amusing. My mother insisted that we have an older lady as a chaperone – things were very different in those days.
Life has changed a good deal since then. Do you think young people are better off nowadays because they are more free?
I don’t think they’re better off in every way. They are far more aware of what’s going on in the world and therefore they are far better at trying to help. In my day there was not the media information about the ghastly things that might be happening all over the world, and so we were much more irresponsible and selfish in a way. I often think young people nowadays are far nicer than we were. They do of course tend to shack up together in a way that we would never have thought of, and although there’s no harm in that, it seems to me it’s a pity because they don’t perhaps meet the person they would most want to live with forever. I have had two very happy marriages, which is perhaps rare, but I remember saying to my children, when you marry it isn’t a question of can I live with this person; it’s a question of can I live without this person? Love in marriage is the most wonderful experience, so in a way it’s a pity not to wait for that. If you fall into bed with the first man who comes along, then you may miss what you would have found later on. I don’t think it’s a question of morals any more. People used to be very moralistic about children being born out of marriage, but the arrival of the pill virtually put a stop to all that, and we realized it was more a question of manners than of morals. It was the unwanted child that made the whole thing amoral or immoral.
Are you a very religious person?
I wish I were more religious. I try to pray, but I think prayer’s very difficult. I can’t believe we’re put on this earth for no reason, but it’s all a great mystery. I would love to have the marvellous faith Rab had; to him it was all so simple – he believed – and his life was lived entirely according to his religious principles.
When you went to Greenland with August, you recorded your return like this: ‘I had a feeling that we had returned from another world.’ Are you a romantic at heart, do you think?
Frightfully romantic, much too romantic. What impressed me so much about Greenland were the Eskimos who were the kindest people on earth; they all loved each other, and a sort of brotherhood of man existed there. And then there was the beauty of the place, the startling glittering white snow and ice and the purity of the sky and the mountains. I was completely different from anything that I’d ever seen before.
When you spoke about the war you said you had a sense at least of comprehension, a sense of purpose, as opposed to the seemingly irrational violence which characterized the present time. Do you think it was really different or is it that our reporting of violence is so much more comprehensive, so that it seems worse?
I think many of the ghastly things that happened in the war were not reported in the papers, but all the same there was this feeling that we were all in it together. People were much more friendly to each other, much more understanding of each other, much more ready to enter into each other’s feelings than they are now, and we were bound together by our general desire to win the war. The same community spirit no longer exists. Long ago the people in the big house cared for those in the village and tried to help them. It was called noblesse oblige, it was their duty and they did it. Then the state moved in and now everybody thinks they have a right to this and that, and if the state doesn’t give it them, then it’s a rotten government.
You also said that ‘the quality of life seemed more solid, less fragile, than today’. Do you think that this sentiment is based on fact or is it something akin to nostalgia, something which inevitably comes to us all as we look back on times past?
I think as one gets older life becomes so much more precious and we realize how fragile it is because there isn’t so much of it left. I hate even to kill bluebottles now, odious though they are. In the past I wouldn’t have thought anything of it.
In your book you rather tended to blame the socialist government for the privations which occurred after the war, but surely no one could have really done anything at the time, the whole nation was exhausted. It was not a matter of ideology was it?
No, I agree. I think it was wrong of me to take that line. They had not been in office, so they were inexperienced, which was hardly their fault. They also had very bad luck; they had that frightfully cold winter and there was very little fuel, and the fact that the trains couldn’t run and the shops had to shut were the consequences of war. Everybody was exhausted, everything had run out and everything was run down.
There must have been many practical changes in your life when August became more and more ill with multiple sclerosis over the years from 1953 … what other changes occurred in you, or is it too painful to recall?
Well, he wasn’t really my husband any longer; he was another man. Already in January 1955, the neurologist told me that a third of his brain had gone, so the man I’d loved and respected had left me and a stranger had taken his place. It’s a most terrible disease when that happens. One can cope with any physical illness, but when the personality goes, one is left with someone else. That’s why I was so lucky that Rab came into my life. I might have died before August if it hadn’t been for Rab. My children certainly thought I would because the agony of watching him was so terrible.
You write very movingly about your involvement with Rab Butler. You say: ‘Much is written about young love, but love in middle life is like a renaissance and is as strong as anything I have ever known.’ Can you put into words how it differs from young love?
Love is a mystery, so you can’t really put it into words. What I can say is that when you’re young you take things much more for granted; but when you’re older, more mature, that maturity has an effect on your feelings, and they’re that much stronger. Anyway that’s how I found it. I was forty-seven when I fell in love with Rab, I was crazy about him and remained utterly devoted to him always. I remember him saying to me a few days before he died, ‘I think we love each other more than we did before.’ I was rather cross and wondered how he could say that since I’d always loved him as much as I could.
You did quite a lot of politicizing from time to time. Did you ever have a political ambition of your own?
Never. I was so thrilled to be with Rab, to hear him speak, to do things for him in the constituency and to be part of his set up that I wouldn’t ever have wanted to be a politician myself. We did differ politically on certain issues, for example, over the death penalty. I was a convinced abolitionist from the time when my first husband was high sheriff and I had to sit through two murder trials. Rab came to share my view but he was not an abolitionist to start with. I also wanted him to do something about homosexuality, but he said, ‘I don’t see why I should, I don’t like it.’ [Laughs.]
I suppose that all political parties are faction-ridden. They are almost by definition full of strong-willed people. Did you find it difficult to cope with that?
In our day, the Labour Party loved Rab. When he was going to speak in the House the labour benches filled up. There wasn’t this awful polarization that there is now in politics. There were expectations – for example, Hugh Gaitskell used to have a go at Rab, and I remember feeling very bitter towards Hugh on one occasion, although afterwards I discovered the reason why he had spoken so intemperately about Rab. He had just come from a memorial service for a great friend of his in St Margaret’s, Westminster, and when he arrived in the House Rab had just been making a speech about his budget. Hugh was so full of emotion that he let his own feelings fly in an attack on Rab. Both the Manchester Guardian and The Times the next day said that Gaitskell had spoken in a way that a former chancellor of the exchequer should never have done.
Did Rab get on with Aneurin Bevan?
He loved him. He though he was wonderful, the greatest orator in the House. Churchill’s speeches may have been impressive, but they were all prepared down to the last comma, whereas Aneurin Bevan, it just came pouring out.
When you speak of the period before your second marriage you said that at the time (1945-51), when the conservatives were in opposition, Mr Butler, as he was then, forging a new conservatism.
Everybody is agreed that Rab brought the Conservative Party into the twentieth century with those charters that he wrote. He had enormous influence, and I’m sure that when the history books come to be written Rab will be seen as the great architect of the Conservative Party. He had a terrific intellect, and what was so sweet was that when you met him, you’d never know it. He was such fun, though the sad part is that a lot of people didn’t know about this side of Rab. He made me laugh all day long. He was sweet with the children, he loved animals, he was unique. Philip Zeigler rather mocked me in his charming review of my book, when he wrote that it was obvious when reading between the lines that I thought Rab was perfect. Philip Zeigler wasn’t in love with him, so how could he know? [Laughs.]
Do you think that the Conservative Party nowadays, in the post-Thatcher era, is animated by very different concerns from the conservatism of your day?
That’s an awfully difficult one to answer because the people in the Conservative Party now are very different from the people of my day. People then said what they thought was right, not what they thought would get them votes. I don’t think the calibre of politicians is the same nowadays. Where is a Churchill, where is a Macmillan (though I hated the man), a Gaitskell, a Bevan, a Macleod? They were giants. I may be wrong but I think Mr Major may yet turn into a great man. The way he has come from his background without a single chip, without a grumble, a whinge of any kind, is miraculous. That he should belong to the Conservative Party after what he suffered as a child and as a youth, I think is amazing.
In 1957 when Eden resigned you took it for granted that Rab would be prime minister, and were fearful that what you called your ‘happy relationship’ would be disturbed. When he was passed over, was a feeling of relief uppermost, or had it been overtaken by a sense of disappointment for Rab?
The latter. I was terribly upset for him. After all everybody thought he would be the next prime minister, except Mr Macmillan who had organized it so that he himself would succeed. Rab was so marvellous; he overcame his initial disappointment and got on with the next job. He was wonderful that way; he never bore a grudge and was always such a generous spirit.
Rab’s leadership qualities were never in doubt, and you say in your book: ‘One is left sadly wondering at the decision to ignore these qualities.’ What private conclusion did you come to?
I came to the conclusion that the Conservative Party as a whole preferred some conventional person that they understood. I’m not speaking personally of Alec Home, but they preferred someone like that. Rab was a frightfully complex, complicated man, and a lot of people didn’t understand him, because he often made slightly oblique remarks which they couldn’t follow. Rab’s brain was always ahead of everybody he was talking to, and because he was so bright himself, he thought everyone would understand what he meant; but a lot of the time they didn’t, and they thought – wrongly – that he was indecisive. I believe history took a wrong turning; we missed a wonderful prime minister.
You write with barely concealed contempt for Macmillan and clearly did not trust him. Your dislike seems to have been almost intuitive – you speak of ‘the coolness of his eyes’, and ‘the insincerity of his old-world courtesy’. Were these things you felt from the first, or were they applied retrospectively so to speak?
No, from the first. He was such a jealous man. As Macleod said in his article in the Spectator, Macmillan was determined, from the first day of his premiership to the last, that he was not going to be succeeded by Butler. Why? Because Butler was a better man, and he was not going to have a better man succeed him. You may have heard some of Macmillan’s broadcasts in which he said that he gave Rab every chance, but he couldn’t take it. That was absolute rubbish, and also a disgusting way to talk, but people were unfortunately taken in. The man who’s written his life, Alistair Horne, was absolutely brainwashed by Macmillan’s version of history.
Given the tension that there must have been between Macmillan and Rab, how on earth did they manage to work together? How was it actually possible to sit round the same table and make important political decisions without letting those personal feelings interfere?
The truth is that Rab did not have this feeling about Macmillan that I had. Rab was generous; I was not. I saw the coldness in Macmillan, and I hated him, but Rab genuinely did not realize that Macmillan was always trying to do him down. He admired his intellect, and they got on well because they were clever men.
But didn’t he realize he was passed over because Macmillan planned it?
I think in 1963 he finally did. But by then Macmillan was an old, ill man and I think perhaps Rab’s ambition was blunted by then. I can only tell you that I minded far more than Rab did in 1963. I minded for him passionately, because he was only 61,, he was at the height of his powers, and he would have been superb.
In 1963 when it looked again as if Rab might be prime minister, Enoch Powell tried to influence matters by saying that he would not accept office if Home became PM, and indeed in the event Powell declined office. People also tried to dissuade Rab from serving, which would have resulted in Home being unable to form a government. Eventually, as you seemed to know in your heart he would, Rab agreed to serve. Why?
He explained it all himself afterwards. He said that it wasn’t as if he and Alec had very different ideas about everything; Alec was a friend and Rab didn’t believe that he could have lived with himself afterwards if he had let his own ambition split the party, which it would have done if he had stood out against him. He and Alec had been friends from the year dot, and Rab felt it would have been an act of disloyalty which would have ended in dividing the party. Bill Deedes, gave a wonderful description of Rab’s decision not to stand, something like ‘some lonely call of duty, very rare in politics’. Rab was indeed a very rare character.
But when he agreed to serve under Home, did they get on very well?
No. I hate to say this, because I love Alec Home and I loved his wife, Elizabeth, but I think they felt in their innermost hearts that Rab really should have been prime minister. Often if you do something to someone that you feel is not right, you never forgive that someone. And I think Alec and Elizabeth felt that.
There were those, Powell’s biographer for example, Andrew Roth, who thought it ludicrous that Powell should have gone out on such a limb for Rab when Rab was prepared to saw off that limb. Was Rab ever conscious of letting Powell down in that sense?
I don’t think he was. Rab was essentially pragmatic and though he had lost the premiership, he had been made foreign secretary, and his inclination was to get on with that job. I think it was wonderful of Enoch to do what he did. Of course he’s such a romantic – you perhaps remember that awful broadcast he made when he says of Rab: ‘We gave him the pistol and he wouldn’t fire the shot.’ He knew Rab was the right man, and he was so angry that he was unable to influence him. But Enoch’s such a darling: I’m sure he’s forgiven him now.
General opinion afterwards, and even today, was that Macmillan rigged the results of his investigation into whom the Party wanted as his successor. Indeed, Enoch Powell wrote an article entitled ‘How Macmillan Lied to the Queen.’ Do you think that period was an all time low in political morality, or do you think such events commonplace in what might be called the cut and thrust of political life?
If you read history you’ll find that sort of thing happened in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was of course deeply dishonest, but I’m afraid that there’s nothing new in politics. A totally honest politician like Rab is a rarity.
You recall that Rab never succumbed to bitterness. Did you?
No, I don’t think so. Bitterness is counterproductive. It was more a feeling of sadness that England had lost a great prime minister who like Hamlet would have performed wonderfully had he been put on. Other people don’t agree with me, but then they didn’t know Rab as well as I knew him.
Your account of life with Rab reads like a love story, moving but dignified. One can understand perfectly why you admired him so much. Did you ever come to understand why he so admires you?
No. Why should I? All I know is he fell in love with me and he said it was so lovely to be spoilt.
Did you spoil him?
I suppose I did. I loved him so much, perhaps I did. But we were very close, we found each other late in life, and it was the most wonderful thing to happen.
How was he as a father? Did his children love him as much as you did?
He was an extremely good father but while they were growing up he didn’t see an awful lot of them because he was so involved with his work. They loved him and admired him but they were not close to him in the way that my children, dare I say it, were close to him. My children adored him, as did his own, but I found when I married that there wasn’t the same closeness in that family that I had experienced in my own family. It may have been that they had a different way of showing it.
When Rab decided to take up the appointment as master of Trinity College, Cambridge, you recalled that your heart sank. Did you ever have cause to regret his decision?
I did, because I think he might have lived longer if he had not become master of Trinity. Being master is a very sedentary job and Rab put on an awful lot of weight while he was there. He was a tall man, six foot two, and when he went to Cambridge he weighed fourteen stone; when he left he weighed seventeen stone, which was too much for his heart. Then he developed a condition which would have been perfectly operable if his heart had been all right, but in his case they couldn’t risk it. I have a feeling that if Alec Home had offered him an earldom, he could have remained in the House of Lords as an eminence grise, and he might well have lived longer. There’s no doubt that he loved Trinity College – we both did – and we had the happiest thirteen years there.
Are you relieved that you did not have to cope with taking women into college at Cambridge?
I think they have made very little difference. I sometimes go back there and they now have a charming woman chaplain whom the undergraduates adore. I’m not a feminist, but I’m certainly not against women doing these things. They make very good doctors; why shouldn’t they be priests?
When you look back on your life do you feel that by being a woman you were disadvantaged?
I was disadvantaged because my parents had no money, not because I was a woman. The idea of feminism is ludicrous; women have quite enough power if they know how to use it. There’s no need for all this fuss and militancy in my view.
Do you think women make good prime ministers?
I feel ambivalent about Mrs Thatcher. She did some wonderful things when she first came in; but she stayed too long, and that was her tragedy. Rab always found her rather lacking in humour, and I doubt if he would have approved of all the things she did during her term of office. I didn’t like her style. I thought her too de haut en bas, too dismissive of people, too right-wing in her views. One had the feeling that her views were so cut and dried that she wasn’t going to act on what anyone else said. She was around when Rab was in politics, and I used to meet her. In those days she had no conversation at all, no small talk, and I think probably to this day she remains the same. She seemed to me not to have the idea that you could learn anything from gossip. I had the feeling with her that life was hard and earnest, and the fact that you could sit down at a dinner party and relax and tell stories and learn about people was utterly foreign to her.
Have your views on religion changed since Rab died?
As I get older and I’m so much more alone, I think much more about it. When you’re in your eighties you can’t help it. I feel terribly lonely now. Even if I go out twice a week to dinner, it still leaves me five nights on my own. I love music, but then you have to be quite stable to listen to music, because whatever your feeling, music makes it more so. But I am lucky in that I have wonderful children whom I see often. They are my six best friends.
Do you believe you will see Rab again?
Sometimes I have the feeling I never shall, and it’s desperate, because I love him so much still. It’s something we can’t know, we can only hope, and I have to try and cling to the times when I have the positive feelings.
Did you ever get angry with Rab?
Yes. But you must if you love someone. A relationship where you don’t get angry with each other is not really alive. I once shocked someone by telling him I’d taken Rab by the throat, and I said, ‘Well, you have to love a man very much before you can take him by the throat,’ and he replied, ‘I’m afraid I’ve never been loved very much then.’ [Laughs.]
Did you ever have doubts about Rab’s love for you?
Although Rab loved women, he was totally faithful; I’ve never met a man more so. It wouldn’t have occurred to him to look at anyone else, just me. I was not jealous about anything except my husband’s love – people can have beauty, brains, whatever they like, but all I wanted was my husband’s love. If Rab had looked at another woman, I would have torn her eyes out. I said to him once that I didn’t like the way he was looking at a particular woman. ‘Oh darling,’ he said, ‘don’t worry me like that. All my eggs are in one basket, and I’m not interested in other baskets.’ Wasn’t that sweet?