Antonia Fraser: The stronger vessel

Antonia Fraser talks about life, literature and heroines who lose their heads
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In the back garden of Antonia Fraser's Holland Park home stand two wooden chairs, one carved with the name "Antonia", the other "Harold". They symbolise one of Britain's most famous literary marriages, that of Fraser and the playwright Harold Pinter, together now for more than a quarter of a century. Another enduring feature of Fraser's life is evident: cats. Domingo, the current feline favourite, darts around, and, entering the drawing-room from the garden, you can't help noticing a plaque affixed to the wall. This commemorates Rowley, a much loved moggie, given the nickname of one of Fraser's historical heroes, Charles II, whose biography she wrote in the 1970s.

Pinter works in a studio at the bottom of this rose-filled garden, while Fraser types her books on an old electric typewriter in what used to be her children's nursery at the top of the house. There she has written nearly all her books, including her Jemima Shore mystery stories, and some of the most popular historical biographies ever published.

A couple of months short of her 69th birthday, Lady Antonia Fraser – the title is a courtesy one through her father Frank, the seventh Earl of Longford – is smartly dressed in navy blue. She recreated herself as a blonde while at Oxford, but it is her mouth, wide, sensuous and almost perpetually smiling, that is her most distinctive physical feature.

With the publication of the latest of Fraser's historical books, a biography of Marie Antoinette, the wheel has, in a sense, come full circle. For it was the story of another tragic queen who lost her head, Mary Queen of Scots, that catapulted Fraser to international bestsellerdom in 1969.

While admitting that Marie Antoinette was "a tremendous childhood heroine of mine", Fraser also explains how she resisted the temptation to write about her for so long. "After Mary, Queen of Scots, masses of readers wrote saying why not do Marie Antoinette next, and I thought, oh no, not another glamorous queen. Now, of course, they're all writing in saying, 'You said you'd never do this'."

The oldest of eight children, Antonia Pakenham was educated at St Mary's Convent, Ascot (the memory of the members of Catholic recusant families she met there later played a part in her reconstruction of The Gunpowder Plot) and Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. "She was really dazzling," remembers Shirley Williams, an older contemporary, "and a definite social catch." After Oxford, she considered going into the Foreign Office, but instead worked for three years for the publisher George Weidenfeld, who recalled how her "passionate zest for life" combined with a "rigid self-discipline". She published two books, on King Arthur and Robin Hood, and, in 1956, married the Conservative MP Sir Hugh Fraser.

She worked hard at being an MP's wife, but wasn't she frustrated at being unable to fulfil her childhood writing ambitions? "I didn't have time to feel frustrated. I had six children in 10 years." In Cromwell Our Chief of Men, the book that followed Mary, Queen of Scots, she wrote that there should be a campaign medal for the families of those who write very long books, but now she reflects that perhaps it wasn't so bad for them given that two of her daughters, Flora and Rebecca, chose to write long (and successful) biographies of their own.

The past half-century has produced a strong tradition in Britain of "lady biographers" (Fraser, justifiably, dislikes the term): Cecil Woodham Smith (who was chauffeur-driven to libraries to do her research); Fraser's mother, the incomparable Elizabeth Longford; Fraser herself; and more recently, the most serious pretender to Fraser's crown, Amanda Foreman. All of them have written scholarly yet popular books which have enjoyed commercial success. Not surprisingly this has aroused jealousy among some academic historians, and Fraser has not been immune to criticism from this quarter. In 1992 the appearance of The Six Wives of Henry VIII was greeted by a rancorous review from one Oxford historian. "It was my 60th birthday and Harold had successfully hidden the review. But we went to stay with my parents, and my father immediately showed it to me. It hurt like a cut from sharp paper. The pain goes away quickly."

Fraser's longevity as a writer is partly the product of her ability to alternate mainstream subjects with books that are more off the beaten track. In 1984 she published The Weaker Vessel, a study of women's lives in 17th century England. It remains perhaps her most impressive achievement. Women's history was then still in its infancy and Fraser imaginatively utilised a variety of sources to illuminate the hidden lives of those who "rest in unvisited tombs". For her efforts she won a Wolfson Award.

One of the intriguing aspects of Fraser's relationship with Pinter is the union of one writer whose trademark is the pause and economic use of language with another who – in her historical works at least – has rarely written anything of less than 400 pages. Yet Fraser counts him as her critic with the keenest editorial eye. Pinter appears, dressed in his customary black, and admits that "as a layman I can give no help with the history, but it is fascinating to read the books as they are written, chapter by chapter, and watch the narrative unfold".

In Marie Antoinette, Fraser's superb gifts of narrative, characterisation and eye for salient detail are deployed to greater effect than ever before. This is her most disciplined biography without the purple prose which Fraser herself feels occasionally marred Mary, Queen of Scots. The book, subtitled The Journey, follows the path which took the 14-year-old Austrian Archduchess from the Habsburg court to the Paris guillotine, 23 years later, at the height of Revolutionary bloodlust. There is sympathetic revisionism at work here: Marie Antoinette is no longer simply a symbol of the extravagant excesses of the expiring ancien régime (Petit Trianon was rather a reaction to the stifling etiquette of Versailles), but a woman whose courage and stature grow as she confronts the horrific fate in store for her. In one of the most terrible acts of theatre in French history, the humiliated queen, seated in a cart with cropped hair and bound hands, is paraded through the streets on the way to the scaffold, a picture of dignified calm and "unassailable composure".

'Marie Antoinette: The Journey' by Antonia Fraser is published by Weidenfeld, £25.