In March, I interviewed Antonia Fraser for our Englishness special issue. Here are a few extra bits — on Sofia Coppola, Harold Pinter and her next book — that there wasn’t room for in the magazine.
Must You Go starts with an exhilarating love affair but it ends with a poignant description of Harold’s death. What is your happiest memory of that relationship?
It is supposed to be the opposite of a misery memoir: it’s a happiness memoir. It was written to commemorate happiness. Of course, the ending, as you say, is extremely poignant. My happiest memory, I think . . . Once, we went to the West Indies and I was swimming in the sea and I saw Harold bicycling along the edge of the shore and I thought: “I’m going to swim into the beach and he’s going to come down and we’re going to have a drink, and we are totally happy.”
Were you aware that this was a moment that you wanted to remember?
That’s the great thing about writing a diary. I was able to write it down the next day. We were together 33 years and even in the last seven, when he was ill with a number of different things, there were moments of great happiness. His fortitude brought a kind of happiness. I thought: “How dare I be unhappy when he was being so brave?”
You try to read your source material in their original languages. Which is your favourite?
I have learned French all my life — I was at a convent where there were French nuns. To do [my biographies of] Marie Antoinette and Louis XIV, I had a lot of French lessons as well, in order to deal with French librarians, which is not easy. I appreciate the French language. I think it is extremely beautiful and I like the elegance of it. I also like Latin and learned a lot of it when I was a child. I used to like the economy of Latin. When I was a schoolchild, we had to translate Tacitus. Of course, I am a Catholic. I always go to a Latin mass, so that keeps up my Latin.
Do you have a favourite English novel?
I suppose my favourite English novel is Middlemarch.
You read books on a Kindle. Why?
I don’t regard the Kindle as excluding books; I have both. When I was travelling, for instance, I read Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem and I couldn’t possibly have taken the book. The other thing is that my sight is no longer terrifically good, so I can read 19th-century novels because I can enlarge the font to anything I like.
Do people make incorrect assumptions about you because you have a title?
I get a bit wearied by it, having to explain to people — details like my father, who was a younger son [of an earl] called Frank Pakenham and we lived in Oxford, and he was a don. You know, it wasn’t the grand aristocratic home of the imagination. But I sort of get tired of doing it. I think people must, in the end, accept one for what one has done.
What are you working on at the moment?
A book about the Great Reform Bill. I don’t want to say much more than that because I’m bad at talking about work in progress. But the early 19th century Whigs are the people who interest me at the moment.
Do you still write on your Smith Corona typewriter?
No. It’s got so pale and the cartridges that I used are extinct. I love it — it sits there, in fact I’m looking at it — it reminds me of happy days but I actually write on a computer.
Did you enjoy Sofia Coppola’s film version of your biography of Marie Antoinette?
Oh yes, I went [to see it] three times. I had a very good relationship with her from the beginning because I said: “I’ve written a book, anyone can read it, you’re going to make a film of it.” They’re two quite different things. We got on very well. The story is exactly the story in my book; it’s just her take on it: “This is what a young lost person would be like in the 18th century.” You don’t have [opera composer Christoph Willibald Ritter von] Gluck and that kind of dancing but you have rock and roll.
Must You Go? is now available in paperback (Phoenix; £8.99)