Ramsay MacDonald knew he was a handsome, even charismatically attractive man. That January of 1904, he was thirty-seven, manly, tall, with piercing eyes, a mop of curly dark hair, dramatically streaked white and grey, and a fashionably wide, dark moustache that extended half an inch beyond either side of his mouth.
MacDonald was the leader of the Labour Party. He’d been its parliamentary candidate for Leicester, three hundred miles south, in England, repeatedly unsuccessful but unbowed. Now, he was traveling across the politically more fertile ground of the Scottish coal country, speaking at meetings, making friends among union men still suspicious of socialism, convincing people his party stood a chance. MacDonald had been doing this for more than a decade. It wouldn’t be long now, he felt, before he’d find his way into parliament.
Between the steel trusses of the great railway bridge over the Firth of Forth, the North Sea looked forbidding from his unheated second-class railway carriage. An hour later, at 4:30 the winter gloom had already been enveloped by night when MacDonald alighted on the Cowdenbeath platform just beyond the railway bridge twenty feet above the High Street, slicing the town in half. Set on a plane between rolling hills, Cowdenbeath was surrounded by coal pits so extensive that after only fifty years or so they were beginning to produce a noticeable subsidence at one end of the High Street. Nowhere in the Scottish coalfields was more fertile ground for Ramsay MacDonald’s evangelical socialism.
The miner’s union had booked him into a convenient local hotel, a temperance hotel. That was no objection so far as MacDonald was concerned. Like the other buildings on the street, the Arcade Hotel was an unimpressive two-storey stone building. He noticed the small attached Arcade Theatre next to the hotel and chuckled. He heard his Scottish forbears whisper: A hotel, even a temperance hotel, hard by a theatre? It had to be a brothel.
The gas-lit glow from the two windows to the left of the entry door was inviting in the early darkness of that late mid-winter afternoon. MacDonald entered and smiled at the man standing behind a small raised counter that didn't look much like a registration desk. The man looked up and smiled expectantly.
“I’m Ramsay MacDonald. I believe I’ve been booked in by—” “It’s Mr MacDonald of the Labour Party, James.”
It was a young woman’s voice from the vicinity of the fireplace, a half dozen feet away in what passed for the hotel’s lounge.
The woman came to the desk, wiping her hands on an apron and extending both to their guest. It was a warmer greeting than a Scotsman expected or proffered. She looked MacDonald over, seeming to nod to herself as though she liked what she saw.
“I’m Euphemia Lee. This is my husband, James Lee.”
The pair looked more like Edinburgh intelligentsia than coalfield hoteliers. He was thin, slight, studious in his spectacles, with thick dark hair in need of cutting, combed down to the right.
James Lee wore a tie, albeit askew from his detachable collar, above a tweed waistcoat, buttoned against the cold. His wife was almost as tall as her husband, decidedly pretty with chestnut hair cut short above the shoulders, quite out of fashion. James Lee had also extended his hand.
“So pleased to meet you.”
MacDonald had to decide whose hand to grasp.
He took the man’s and said, “Pleased to meet you too, sir.”
As MacDonald signed the woman came forward and grasped the Gladstone bag at his foot. “I’ll show you to your room, Mr MacDonald.”
She was mounting the stair before he could protest. Well, too small a hotel for a porter, I warrant, but it’s no woman’s place to carry a guest’s bag. Stranger still, Euphemia Lee didn't just unlock the door to his room, she entered, placed the bag on a bureau and opened it. Then she turned to MacDonald, stood and stared hard at him. There was no mistaking the look.
MacDonald flushed, went to the door to usher her out. She left with a smile too wide merely to signal hospitality.
Have I indeed come to a brothel? The thought made him smile only briefly. It was followed by a rush of images, emotions, flashes of warmth coursing through his body, and finally by thoughts he’d been raised to call “unworthy.” This had happened before, often enough for MacDonald to think he understood it.
Successful political men exuded a personal magnetism that harnessed people, women especially, to their causes. The temptations had ruined more than one promising career: Charles Parnell’s, Randolph Churchill’s.
He tried to visualise the frankness he’d seen in Euphemia Lee’s look. But he couldn't. You’re probably imagining it anyway. Still, she’s a breagh lass. The Gaelic came back to him. Then he opened his bag and took out the speech he’d prepared for the meeting of the local branch of the Labour Party and the Fife and Kinross Miners Association.
The three were returning from the evening meeting at which MacDonald had spoken, warmly and powerfully, of the need for unity, solidarity, the role of the unions, but also of the Christian roots of socialism as against the secular champions of the cause. James Lee was feeling more optimistic than he had for a long time.
“So, the Prime Minister has really promised you unopposed seats at the next elections? How many?”
“Well, as many as he thinks he’ll lose to the Conservatives if we split the Liberal vote. I think we can hope for upwards of twenty-five seats.”
“A real political party then.”
MacDonald didn't reply. He was tired, but pleased with the evening. Euphemia Lee was walking between them and now he found himself wondering if the way she brushed against him was accidental, and whether her hand had really grazed his. He wasn't hoping, just wondering. Surely he’d just mistaken that first glance in his room, fantasised her interest.
James Lee spoke again, “You’ll be staying tomorrow night, Mr MacDonald?” The other man nodded.
“There’s a Gilbert and Sullivan company at the theatre tomorrow evening. Mikado I think.“
“I regret, music is not one of my passions, Mr Lee. And I’ve an early train to Glasgow the next morning.”
“Sorry to hear it, sir. I never miss a concert myself.” They reached the hotel and stepped into the lobby.
“I’ll bid you good evening.” Ramsay MacDonald nodded to them both.
It was near nine the next evening as MacDonald prepared to retire. It had been a good day; a visit to Fife and Kinross Miner’s Union hall, the mining school, then supper with the priest at the Catholic Parish hall. Labour couldn't neglect the devout who’d come across the Irish Sea for the work.
He’d already dimmed the only lamp in the room, but MacDonald could still hear laugher and even snatches of song from the theatre next door. As he brought his nightshirt over his head, there was a knock at the door. His first thought was that he had no dressing gown to put on.
“Who is it?”
The voice was Euphemia Lee’s. “Please open. It’s cold out here.”
He turned the key and before he could open the door, she darted in.
Ramsay MacDonald had never seen a woman completely naked before, not even his wife. Yet there one was, reflecting the light of the gas lamp like a figure in a painting by Alma Tadema. Before he could say a word the woman had embraced him and then began pulling him towards the bed. The single word, “But...” was stifled by the kiss while the rest of his body responded with a swiftness he had never experienced.
Several things happened to Ramsay MacDonald’s body in the next hour he could never have imagined. Things were done to it, things that were beyond his ken. What’s more he found himself responding to her in ways he might have previously described as unspeakable but the woman treated as delightful. And all accompanied by Arthur Sullivan’s catchy tunes wafting in from the theatre next door.
When at last they could hear the curtain-call ovations through the thin walls separating the hotel from the theatre next door, Euphemia Lee stole from the bed and slipped out of the room.
“Well, James, our little experiment in eugenics seems to have worked.”
Euphemia tried to make the observation sound light, quelling the tremulousness from her voice. The Lees were readying for bed, some six weeks after Mr MacDonald’s visit. Euphemia was giving her hair the obligatory 100 strokes; James was folding his trousers over a chair.
Once she had stopped trying to ignore the meaning of the morning sickness, she began to struggle with how to break this news to her husband. This seemed the best way, a dispassionate reminder of their compact, their conspiracy. Her back to him, James could not see the dread in her eyes.
James Lee turned to her as she continued to brush. He had not absorbed his wife’s drift. He’d not heard the words ‘experiment’ and ‘eugenics’. Or he’d misheard.
“Sorry, dear, come again?”
She faced him. She would have to repeat herself, this time more plainly. “James, I’m pregnant. Our scheme has played out as we’d hoped.”
Her husband heard the words, and then he absorbed them. She’d said it clearly enough. He hadn’t misheard. There was no point saying “What?” But it was all he could say. Reaching out to a bureau with both hands, he steadied himself. Then the heat began to rise from his body.
Suddenly he was perspiring freely in the unheated bedroom. He lurched over to the bed, sat heavily and brought his hands to his temples.
Then, the word she’d spoke came back to him, that bloodless term ‘eugenics,’ one they’d heard first spoken at a Fabian lecture in Edinburgh a few years before. Yes, he and Euphemia had approved. It was scientific, rational, in accord with the foundations of their socialism. There had been his “difficulty,” impotence, from the first night of their marriage. She had been more than understanding, wonderful in her acceptance, support and patience. Over and over, she had told him she’d wait, she loved him regardless. It mattered, of course, but mainly because they wanted children, not because they needed the carnal bond. Eugenics had suggested a solution. Now, in his mortification, he could not pretend they hadn’t had the conversation, months ago, hadn’t made the decision, the agreement, so abstract, so bloodless, at the time, about events so hypothetical, so distant in the future they made no difference. They had agreed that they could wait, wait a lifetime if they had to, to consummate their happy marriage. But meanwhile, Euphemia’s childbearing years were passing. Like many a Scottish couple they’d married late.
She was already in her early thirties. The intelligence of eugenics had helped them decide. Euphemia was to be given license to solve their problem provided she could do so discreetly and with someone of the right stock. Resolved, they had been glad to put the matter aside. It was not spoken of again.
Now, the recollection of his acquiesce drained all his anger into a silent dishonour. He slumped down from the edge of their bed to the floor, dropping his head to his knees. Euphemia approached, bewildered by the combination of her gladness and her husband’s deep chagrin. He felt her hand on his shoulder and decided that sobbing would not do. He’d face matters as they were and make the best of things, take pleasure in the boy, raise him to be his own son. The child would certainly be a boy.
Jennie Lee was born seven months later.