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Antonia Fraser: “I don’t like being unpopular”

The historian on growing up as “a boy”, her “last” biography, and the joy of having close male friends in her 90s.

By Kate Mossman

Antonia Fraser’s two cats are Ferdie and Bella, named after the king and queen who turned Spain into a superpower: they shared a womb, but they can occasionally turn on each other. Isabella is black and white and Ferdinand a tabby. Seated next to their mistress on a deep cream sofa loaded with Kindles and historical biographies, they invite a continuous pattern of stroking. Fraser’s other regular companions in the daytime hours are a housekeeper (who brings tea in a china tea set) and her personal assistant, a jolly woman who comes in with something for Fraser to sign and mentions a podcast she has just heard which solved the eternal mystery of what exactly buttocks are for (running, apparently).

Fraser is currently in a wheelchair following a patch of illness so grave that, in December last year, she was read the last rites. Three months ago, there was a small stroke too. The hardest thing about being 90, she says, is trying to establish how much is permanent and how much is not: “In your fifties, you go to the doctor expecting the worst and it generally isn’t. If you go in your eighties, it is.” But later she reflects, “On the other hand, as one gets older, you come to have close male friends who are not boyfriends, just close friends. It’s very nice. There just isn’t the same charge. It would be much nicer to be young and have Romeo in love with you, but since you can’t…”

The cats wind round her feet. When the Queen died Fraser wrote a poem, printed in the Spectator, about Elizabeth’s corgis, imagining them losing the constant reference point of her majesty’s shoes, “planted so near/planted so long/in charge of my fate”. After that, she wrote “The Corgi’s Revenge” in which they go to live with Fergie (who really did adopt them) and come face to face with Prince Andrew. For a moment it looks like she will reveal what they do to him in her unpublished poem, but she pulls back. She does this a lot – meeting your eye with a spark, pursing her red lips as though to spill the beans and then retreating with a look that says: but we don’t need to go there, do we. She has never reviewed a book, because she doesn’t want to be unkind if she can help it. She watched the coronation of Charles III: “Unlike the Queen’s funeral, which I thought was perfect in every way, I thought the coronation was sort of ‘close but no cigar’. I didn’t think there was enough majesty there. I thought Camilla looked as if she’d taken her dress off the rack in the bathroom. I mean, nothing wrong with that…”

It has been said before that Fraser is like a kind of queen. At the age of 14 she made a family tree that started at Mary Queen of Scots, who would be the subject of her first best-seller, and ended in Antonia Pakenham – herself – then a child at a convent school, newly converted to Catholicism along with the rest of her family and enjoying the instructions of a Mother Ignatius. Until the convent school, Antonia had been “a boy”, she says. She had attended the Dragon School in Oxford (her father was an Oxford don). It was two-thirds boys: “I used to play rugger. It was frightfully competitive and full of acting, and every girl got a part in the plays because there were so few girls.” She then had a terrible time at her first boarding school, the Godolphin in Salisbury, where she was “extremely unpopular”. Why? “Because I a) had filthy toenails, and b) came first in Latin! And I was quite small but I grew when I was there, and I was irritating. I didn’t like being unpopular, and I still don’t.”

Her new biography, published last month, is about another boy-girl: Caroline Lamb, lover of Lord Byron and source of the quote “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. Fraser has called it her last biography, though today she says, “I see no reason to decide at 90.” Lamb, a cross-dresser, ran after her obsession while a strangely passive husband waited at home. Maybe part of her wanted to be Byron, “to spunk about and go midnight riding”, Fraser suggests today.

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“But I don’t want that to take over my book the way it’s taken over certain sections of the press. Nowadays, it would be discussed that she wanted to be transgender: in those days, she didn’t want to be a man; she wanted to have a man’s rights and liberties and strengths. I think most women, if they could have a man’s strengths and have children, it would be rather nice. I’m trying to think if there’s a great man that I’d like to have been, and I can only think of great women.”

[See also: Julia Donaldson Q&A: “I have wonderful memories of busking in Siena”]

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When men write books about great men – Boris Johnson and Churchill come to mind – you suspect they are propelled by an unconscious sense of identification with their subject. For Fraser that process is rather more open and playful: Caroline Lamb would have loved her convent school, she says. Fraser’s mother, Elizabeth Longford, was a writer of historical biographies. After her success with 1964’s Queen Victoria she had lunch with her agent and told her daughter, “He wants me to do Mary Queen of Scots next.” It was a point of reckoning for Fraser, then embarking on her own large family: “An awful moment, a frozen moment. I said, ‘What? You can’t!’ ”

Mary Queen of Scots had been hers since childhood. Her mother moved on to the Duke of Wellington instead, and Fraser did the book she wanted, her pages beset with vivid adjectives and hung with questions. I asked the historian Diarmaid MacCulloch about her appeal. “She manages to combine scholarly breadth and historical sympathy with readability and wit,” he said. “If she writes with fellow-feeling for Roman Catholic subjects such as the Gunpowder Plot or Mary Queen of Scots, it’s combined with a balanced sympathy for faults as well as virtues, and a lifetime of learning how human society works.” The biographer Ruth Scurr, who has known Fraser since 2006, says that her “work ethic and delight in historical research are exemplary. She writes as she lives, with compassion, seriousness and a great sense of humour.”

Like the family tree she made as a child, everything in Fraser’s house in west London seems to connect to someone of note. The large-eyed pastels of her six children in the hallway were made by Charmian Campbell, whose husband went on to marry the actress Diana Rigg. For her births, Fraser was under the care of a Doctor Joseph Stone, also Harold Wilson’s physician: he didn’t believe in administering any painkillers at all, though for her last two, where there were complications, she was given chloroform: “I thought, if I’d had the lovely chloroform, I’d have had some more children!” Her downstairs toilet, the journalist’s favourite place, is a museum of photographs helpfully captioned in small labels, typed out and laminated with a bit of Sellotape. Her husband, Harold Pinter, with Salman Rushdie, with the novelist Orhan Pamuk and the director Joseph Losey. In the regency square where Fraser lives, there are blue plaques to the writer Charles Morgan and Siegfried Sassoon and, one day, there will be a double plaque on this house, with its grand box bays and a green rain hood covering the stairlift on the portico. The house sits on a steep little hill. Fraser has been here since 1959: in the exceptionally cold winter of 1962, she remembers people sledging down the road.

It was here that she lived with her children and her first husband, the Tory MP Hugh Fraser. For two years after she left him for Pinter, in 1975, she lived at Launceston Place half an hour’s walk away, “before Hugh, who was a great gentleman, agreed to let me have this house”. Pinter, who had parted ways with his wife, the actor Vivien Merchant, slept, at one point, in a small outhouse at the bottom of the garden, painted white, with sky lights. I ask how he felt inheriting her family and she says, “I remember one thing about having teenage children in the kitchen: Harold stamped out and went and wrote Betrayal!”

In fact Pinter’s play, first performed in 1978, was inspired by an earlier affair with Joan Bakewell. Fraser’s books have always been praised for their narrative vibrancy and she tells her own life in the same way: she promised her children she would never talk about the painful side of the split with Hugh, and she never really has done, though of the press attention she says, “It was hateful and horrible. I didn’t deal with it. I just took comfort from the fact that Harold and I really loved each other.” Does she get angry? “Try asking my children!” she says. “One of them said to me, ‘The trouble with you, Mum, is you don’t look angry. You say the most frightful things but you don’t look angry.’ ”

Every day, she “does a Captain Tom” around the garden using her housekeeper’s arm and a walking stick rather than a frame, and brings in cuttings of the plants she originally rooted out there. The thing about gardening is that it’s creative, she says, whereas “cooking is here today and gone tomorrow”. She never learned: “I just can’t do it. People sometimes tell me not to be upset when it goes wrong. I’m not upset!”

Writing books was not a dream she always held, she says with small frown. Though her life might, at a glance, be divided into the children phase and the book phase – albeit turbo-charged, with half a dozen of one and 30 of the other – the reality was more murky. There are early children’s publications from her days working as an all-purpose assistant in the office of Weidenfeld & Nicholson, including a vivid version of the King Arthur story, produced when she was 22 (“What a tumult of rage and jealousy the unconscious Arthur left behind in the heart of Gawaine!”)

“The satisfaction I felt was at night,” she explains. “I had a boyfriend who liked staying up late, and I’d come home and write the book, and that was terrific.” There is a photo history of dolls produced when she was 31, which in its acknowledgements thanks collectors with names such as Admiral Sir Herbert Meade-Fetherstonhaugh and Mrs Fox-Hunter. When Fraser wrote Mary Queen of Scots she had three children under five. “I date all my life’s events by my children and my books. Generally the latter,” she says.

She had not known she wanted a big family. “I didn’t know I wanted my first child. She turned up!” But coming from one, did she at least know how they functioned? “I think you separate yourself off,” she says. Her writing room is still at the top of the house.

Fraser met Pinter when they were both at the height of their creative powers, at the opening night of a production of his play The Birthday Party, and not long after she had followed Mary Queen of Scots with a humanising account of Oliver Cromwell: “Everyone wanted Bonnie Prince Charlie or Marie Antoinette. I said, ‘No, I’m going to show I’m more than a pretty brain.’ It was a bold thing to do, because the Cromwellian scholars were pretty locked in with each other. You know he loved opera?”

[See also: Sporting notes: At the crease with Harold Pinter]

For years she was “a sort of Stage Woman”, she says. “I did Any Questions a great deal, for no reason. I used to go to extraordinary places with Malcolm Muggeridge.” She was a guest on the lexicon quiz show My Word! with Frank Muir for years for her “pretty voice”, of which she now says “I think it’s quite feeble in real life and getting feebler.” On the one hand, being a token female was “clearly ridiculous, on the other hand, it’s helpful to mix things up”. Her 1984 book The Weaker Vessel, inspired by the scholarship of Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic, prefigured a popular publishing genre – great, forgotten women – by 40 years. It was known in the Longford family as “A Week With Ethel”, after a mishearing by the journalist and biographer Claire Tomalin, whom Fraser describes as “very brilliant, and sort of perfect at everything”.

“I can look back and think, ‘I should have done more’,” she says. “In terms of history, I could have devoted myself to it. But that’s an impossible line of thought.” She recalls, in a half-told way, a trip to see an Oxford don at some point in her career. “I have an image of myself consulting him,” she says. “I remember going down to see him and coming back, thinking, ‘I lead a very interesting life’, and I realised I hadn’t consulted him about anything at all…”

Pinter read each of her new manuscripts and was particularly good at spotting repeated words (“an actor’s memory – and a fantastic sense of order”). But she would not edit or advise him in turn when he acted new plays out, here, on the thick green carpet in the living room: “I didn’t see myself as there to critique. Harold was a convincing genius, in that way in which he’d suddenly get an idea, get out of bed and go and write.”

“If I had my life again, I would try to be married to creative people,” she says, over crisp white wine at noon. Given that she was, for 33 years, it sounds simply like she is saying she wished she was married to Harold Pinter for longer.

Ferdinand jumps on to the carpet. Fraser was out last night, at the Pleasure of Reading Prize, seated between Jim Naughtie and Sebastian Barry; it was a particularly pleasant experience because she hadn’t been out for about a month. There are bridge partners, and 18 grandchildren, and she is an old-fashioned corresponder: she sent “Do Not Replies”, as she calls them – notes that graciously make clear that no response is necessary – to Leon Brittan’s wife, after his posthumous, and false, sex scandal; to the wife of her friend Julian Sands, after he went missing in the San Gabriel mountains in California; and to Meghan Markle, whom at one point she thought interesting historically, like Marie Antoinette.

When Fraser is alone, she enjoys participating in an online mass – she can no longer go in person – broadcast from the Pugin altar of the Farm Street church in Mayfair, a spectacular Jesuit place which, when I stumbled on it, I noticed offers a support group for people who have had abortions. “The Catholic Church needs to rethink its attitude to contraception,” Fraser says. Then she asks that we don’t talk about the Catholic Church: “I’ve lived through a period of trouble, and they were very nice to me.” Then she reconsiders her words, one by one, and decides not to alter them. “The Catholic Church needs to rethink its attitude to contraception.”

Her father converted to Catholicism when she was 14 but his reasons were not explained to her “in my terms. I knew that he went into the army and had a sort of nervous breakdown; I really was dependent on what other people said about him.” His religious shift coincided with his move from Conservative to Labour politics. “In the Thirties, to be Labour was to be an idealist, particularly if you were a cossetted younger son of an Irish earl: be Labour and do something.” He ran for parliament three times – “all his friends got in, and he didn’t” – then settled into a long life as a Labour lord, where he became known for his work on penal reform, campaigning for the release of the Moors murderer Myra Hindley.

Fraser’s mother, unusually for her generation, was her creative and professional inspiration: they also shared the same midwife. “She was the boss. I mean, she carved, she drove, neither of which did my father do. He didn’t swim. He was brought up in an Irish castle with 25 maids. I don’t think of my mother as a writer, I think of her as a politician.” Fraser has put her charmed life down to having a mother who believed in education, and two parents who adored each other – “though the funny thing is, of their eight children, most of us got divorced!”

It is time to go: she has dinner guests tonight, and will read for the remainder of the afternoon. Antonia Fraser doesn’t know whether she is an introvert or an extrovert: “you’d better ask someone else”. She once said that in another century, she would have made a good abbess. Today, she says, “If I were born again, I’d like to be a mezzo-soprano.”

[See also: Michael Parkinson – The last interview]

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This article appears in the 16 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s War on the Future