Book review: My History by Antonia Fraser

Dame Antonia Fraser in 1969. Picture: Contributed

Dame Antonia Fraser in 1969. Picture: Contributed

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DAME Antonia Fraser’s memoir about her early life and discovery of the past is hugely enjoyable, says Allan Massie

My History

by Antonia Fraser

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 301pp, £20

Dame Antonia Fraser’s memoir of her early life is sheer delight. It is the story of her childhood, adolescence and early adult life, and it is also the story of her fascination with history, which led to the writing of her first bestseller, the biography of Mary Queen of Scots, published in 1969.

The success of that book , still arguably the best, and certainly most approachable, life of Mary Stuart, surprised everyone, including the author herself. She had written little, was known as a beauty and socialite, and was married to the Tory MP, Hugh Fraser, brother of Lord Lovat, before she left him for the playwright Harold Pinter, with whom she had a wonderfully happy marriage, movingly described in her previous memoir, Must You Go?

Mary Queen of Scots was a labour of love, an amateur’s work thoroughly researched and written with scrupulous professionalism. It would be followed by other biographies and works of history, mostly beyond the scope of this memoir, though reference is made to several of them.

She was born into privilege, but not, by aristocratic standards, wealth. Her father, Frank Pakenham, later Earl of Longford, was a Labour politician and a saintly but eccentric, and occasionally absurd, man whom she loved dearly, associating herself with his work on penal reform. Her mother, Elizabeth Harmon, belonged to one of the great Birmingham manufacturing families; she was a cousin of Neville Chamberlain. An Oxford graduate, briefly Hugh Gaitskell’s girlfriend, several times a Labour candidate, she too became a notably good biographer, her masterpiece a life of Queen Victoria.

The Pakenhams belonged to the Anglo-Irish protestant ascendancy (though both Dame Antonia’s parents converted to Roman Catholicism, and she herself became a Catholic in her teens). Holidays after the war were spent in Ireland, and she has always thought of herself as Irish, or part Irish. She told her six children that they were half-English (Harmons), half-Irish (Pakenhams) and half-Scots (Frasers). This was mathematically impossible but felt right.

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Much of her childhood was spent in Oxford – her father was a don at Christ Church before being a Labour minister; and so she grew up in the midst of the north Oxford intellectual aristocracy. Family friends includied Isaiah Berlin, Hugh Trevor-Roper, AJP Taylor, Lord David Cecil and Maurice Bowra, once said to have proposed to her mother. She was one of the rather few girls to attend the Dragon Preparatory School where she played rugby (always “rugger” to her) with and against the boys. There are some lovely pen-portraits of the enthusiastic and often eccentric masters who taught her there.

Reading was a passion from early childhood. She devoured books at speed – not, as she remarks, the best preparation for proof-reading, as she discovered when she went after university (Oxford of course) to work for her future publisher.

Walter Scott was an early enthusiasm, though at first she, not surprisingly, preferred the novels set in England, especially Ivanhoe and Kenilworth. Of the latter she remarks, acutely, that “the murder of Amy Robsart at Cumnor Place, is one of the great crime scenes because it is so understated.” When Amy has tumbled to her death, one character is asked what he sees, and replies, “I see only a heap of white clothes, like a snow-drift.” “This,” she writes, “was the image which stayed with me”.

As a biographer and historian she would lay stress on the importance (for her and also for the reader) of what she called “optical research” – going to see where her characters lived and events took place. Coupled with “the respectful handling of the original documents”, this is for her one of the chief way of reaching what GM Trevelyan called “the poetry of history”.

The memoir is partly the story of her intellectual development – sometimes precocious, sometimes slow – but it is also an account of family life and the transition from adolescence to adulthood. It is often self-critical and never self-satisfied, principally because she realises that she has had in most respects a much more comfortable and privileged – the word is sadly inescapable – life than most other people have enjoyed or endured.

It is full of vivid pen-portraits of her vast and varied acquaintance. They are mostly kind and generous, but occasionally a dart is deftly inserted. Meeting the formidable Lady Violet Bonham-Carter, she remarks that she was the daughter of the Prime Minister Asquith, “a fact of which one was not kept in ignorance”.

Best of all are the portraits of her parents. One feels that her father must often have been embarrassing, but it is evidence of her love for him that she never admits to having been embarrassed. At the end of the war Frank Pakenham, as he was then, was a junior minister given some responsibility for Germany. Appalled by the miserable condition of the people, he was “execrated” by the Beaverbrook Press for saying he would pray for them “day and night”. “Didn’t Dada pray for everyone day and night, including Vicky the corgi, if he remembered?” his daughter thought.

There is a fine balance of observation, memory and reflection here, and the book is continuously entertaining. I hope Dame Antonia will write a third memoir, covering her middle years.

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