My father loves Antonia Fraser’s books – I think he’s read all her histories and some of her detective fiction too. I’ve only read Mary, Queen of Scots (1969) and that was so long ago it predates keeping a reading journal and I can’t remember what I thought of it. Presumably not enough to have wanted to read the rest of my father’s collection.
But still, I was interested to read this memoir. I like literary biographies because it’s fascinating to see how writers develop…
Lady Antonia Fraser DBE was born in 1932 into a family privileged by class and education, where she led a charmed life as the eldest of eight children. However, hers was not a life of ostentatious or shallow privilege. Her father, Frank Pakenham, (a.k.a. Frank Longford) was an Oxford don who came from an old aristocratic Anglo-Irish family but was a ‘second son’, and he became Lord of Longford only because his older brother and heir to the title, had no children. The circumstances, however, were unusual, to say the least…
Pakenham and his bluestocking wife Elizabeth (also a notable author whose two-volume biography of Wellington is on my father’s shelves too) defied their class upbringing to stand for Labour constituencies, and when he failed to win his Oxford seat in the post-war Labour landslide, it was suggested that he take up his seat in the Lords before his brother had actually died. Despite his reservations about it, Pakenham was in 1945 created Baron Pakenham of Cowley by the Attlee Labour government and as a ‘Lord-in-Waiting’ became one of a small number of Labour peers in the House of Lords, formally becoming Lord Longford when his brother died in 1961. (This strategem is possibly the most spectacular overt example of ‘jobs for the boys’ I have ever come across). However, although Pakenham was eccentric in the best British tradition and capricious in some respects, as a champion of social outcasts and an indefatigable campaigner for penal reform, he seems to have been A Good Thing. However, in a reminder that one should read between the lines when memoir is written by a loving daughter, it took the article at Wikipedia for me to realise that the reason he held so many ministries before the Labour government eventually lost office was because:
As a devout Christian determined to translate faith into action, he was known for his bombastic style and his eccentricity. Although a shrewd and influential politician, he was also widely unpopular among Labour leaders, particularly for his lack of ministerial ability, and jumped from cabinet post to cabinet post, never serving more than two years at any one ministry. (See Wikipedia).
Well, you wouldn’t expect a loyal daughter to write that, would you?
And you can’t help thinking, what a pity that a way couldn’t be found for his politically active wife Elizabeth to have a similar opportunity when she failed in successive attempts to win her seat…
It was Frank’s role as an Oxford don, however, that enabled the young Antonia to attend the remarkable Dragon School, founded in the 19th century to provide a high quality education for the children of Oxford academics. With a curriculum that focussed on Latin and the classics, the school was academically rigorous and fiercely competitive, which suited Antonia’s temperament. Although girls were vastly outnumbered by boys at the school, they were apparently treated exactly the same, (including playing rugby).
At home, her parents were kind, but busy with politics. Like many of their class they abandoned their children to whatever staff they had at the time and were neglectful of their children to some extent. The children were expected to just get on with things, and during the war, to accept rationing and other deprivations without complaint. (Later, Antonia had to arrange her own debut, but it is difficult to feel any great pity about a socialist mother’s lack of support for this anachronistic ritual and it was Elizabeth, after all, who (in another example of fortuitous networking) found Antonia her life-changing job at the publishers Weidenfeld and Nicolson).
Antonia read voraciously and met interesting people whose names are part of British cultural history, such as the Poet Laureate John Betjeman. In describing a way of life long gone, Antonia Fraser assumes a familiarity with the people she writes about, sometimes offering a brief explanation but sometimes not. Surprisingly, there’s no index so it’s not easy to provide specific examples, but one that I noted was an allusion to the Renaissance art specialist Bernard Berenson’s more controversial history with the art dealer Joseph Deveen on p.236. Never having heard of either of them, I was mystified until later discovering at Wikipedia that their professional relationship involved possibly dubious attributions which increased a painting’s value. My guess is that younger readers, or readers with less experience of British culture and history, would find this aspect of the memoir somewhat frustrating.
The style is chatty and light-hearted, more interesting about the early years than her late adolescence when partying and finding her feet in the world of work. This is because the author traces the influence of the books she read, and has a droll self-deprecating analysis of her own childhood fantasies about becoming various historical figures. There are charming photos of her in costume as Lady Macbeth, and of her eventual wedding headdress which was based on an illustration of Mary, Queen of Scots in a book that influenced her passion for history. I was interested to see this book, H.V. Marshall’s Our Island Story: A History of England for Boys and Girls (1905) because one of my favourite books as a child was Kings and Things by the same author. I hadn’t realised how old Kings and Things was (1937), nor that H.V. (Henrietta Elizabeth) Marshall was a woman. (If curious, you can read Our Island Story online here).
My History also discusses the conversion of Antonia’s mother to Catholicism, and her own eventual conversion too. Religion was a bit of an issue in what she says was her parents’ loving relationship, because her father did not become a Catholic until after their marriage and Elizabeth had been raised as a Unitarian. Because this memoir covers only Antonia’s youth, it doesn’t deal with how she as a devout Catholic felt about her divorce from Sir Hugh Fraser and her subsequent relationship with the Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter, which had to wait until both spouses were dead before they could marry in the Catholic Church. One gets the impression that it would have detracted from a sunny story to include any dark clouds or existential crises…
Author: Antonia Fraser
Title: My History, a memoir of growing up
Publisher: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2015
Source: loan from a friend, thanks Lurline!
Fishpond: My History: A Memoir of Growing Up