It is a challenge to find a photograph of the biographer Edna Healey where she isn’t grinning, arm in arm with her husband of sixty-five years, the eminent Labour politician, Denis Healey. They met at Oxford – where Denis gave her the affectionate nickname ‘tomato face’ – but Edna was known to be more than a match for his sometimes brutal sense of humour. Healey often acknowledged this, stating moreover that he believed his wife had a flair for public-speaking which was superior to his own. Finding in each other what they called a hinterland, the well-suited pair were regarded as a 1960s power-couple.
Edna Healey trained as a teacher and as a result of her work, especially on Charles Dickens, she became fascinated with women who, like herself, found themselves skirting the margins of a male-dominated history. Her first book, a best-seller entitled ‘Lady Unknown’ (1978), recounts the life of Dickens’ close friend, the Victorian philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts. Poignantly, it was through Edna’s own private friendships with fellow wives inside the Palace of Westminster that the biography came to be published. Her books, which all focus on the hidden lives of women, range from biographies such as ‘Wives of Fame’ (1986), which narrates the lives of Mary Livingstone, Jenny Marx and Emma Darwin, to her more personal experience, revealed in the memoir ‘Part of the Pattern: Memoirs of a Wife at Westminster’ (2006). Edna Healey’s work also looked beyond Britain for example in the film documentary, ‘One More River, the Life of Mary Slessor in Nigeria’ (1984) which tells the story of a Scottish-born Christian woman working as a missionary in Africa.