The history woman - Antonia Fraser
If you are passing through a British airport this summer the chances are you will see Antonia Fraser's latest book, a biography of Marie Antoinette, prominently displayed in the bookshops. It is part of an extensive price-cutting promotion that includes Anne Robinson's memoirs and a particularly salacious biography of Madonna. The presence of Fraser's scholarly and critically lauded book in this company is another indicator of just how far-reaching is the current explosion of interest in history in Britain.
David Starkey got better viewing figures than Ali G for his latest television series, The Six Wives of Henry VIII; Simon Schama has picked up £3m in a deal with the BBC, and Antony Beevor's books continue to fly off the shelves. But it is not just fashion that has propelled Antonia Fraser into the mass market. Her first bestseller came in 1969 with her biography of Mary Queen of Scots and she has been a regular on the bestseller lists ever since.
"I've seen several booms and busts in the subject and for many years I didn't write 'fashionable' history just because I wrote biography," she explains. "But I was never tempted to change tack. I believe in the wheel of fortune, which was a 15th-century concept that Catherine of Aragon also believed in. Put crudely in modern terms, what goes up must come down and vice versa."
It is now nearly 50 years since Fraser, who is 70 next Tuesday, published her first history book, a retelling of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. Amanda Foreman, whose 1998 life Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire established her in the front rank of a group of talented younger historians, says that the current crop of history superstars owe Fraser a debt of gratitude. "She deserves a place in the history of history because she kept the flame of narrative history alive when everyone else was trying to blow it out. At one point she seemed dated, but now narrative is firmly back in fashion and she has outlasted her critics."
Peter Furtado, editor of History Today, adds that, "over the years, Fraser has also done a terrific job of promoting history. Nowadays you might not think that history needs promoting, but until four or five years ago that wasn't the case at all and for a long time she was very good at being a figurehead."
Bob Gottlieb, former editor of the New Yorker, was Fraser's editor in America. He stresses the international reach of her reputation. "Starting with Mary Queen of Scots she has been very big news in America," he says. "She is critically well considered and well situated in the literary world. She knows everybody and is as well known in America as she is in England, which is something you can't say about too many writers."
The scale of her success has meant that Fraser's work has not gone unchallenged. As someone who has always operated outside the academy, she has suffered a certain amount of sniping from within it. Typical is a review of her 1986 book, The Gunpowder Plot, that grudgingly acknowledged a "compulsive quality" in her books and "an ultimate integrity, that make them fitfully compelling", but went on to complain, "while she spasmodically illuminates the subjects of her early modern biographies, she has yet to illuminate the age."
Foreman counters by saying that "Fraser brings a completely sure hand to everything she writes. A lot of historians have flair and panache but in the end it turns out that it wasn't 1810 it was 1812, and it wasn't the 5th tank brigade but the 11th. You never have that with Antonia Fraser. When she says Marie Antoinette wore green you know that she wore green." The biographer Michael Holroyd says Fraser typifies "the amateur tradition in the best sense. She was attacked by the distinguished Cambridge academic, and uncle of Ben, Sir Geoffrey Elton. He resented biography because it concentrated too much on the individual and he didn't like the idea of a non-professional trespassing on his patch. But when he tried to attack her, her scholarship was always good enough to withstand it. And in reality a lot of non-fiction written by outsiders actually revives genres, giving them life and vividness."
The vividness of her own life - lived out mostly at the junction where the political, social and intellectual establishments meet - has been a source of much fascination. From an aristocratic English background she was plucked, as a glamorous young writer, to be a regular on television book programmes; as a political and social activist she has promoted a series of progressive campaigns; as a socialite she was cast as a femme fatale with her 1970s affair with Harold Pinter, whom she married in 1980, precipitating a tabloid frenzy.
As one observer put it, "she has managed to live an 18th-century life in the 20th century, and she's done it without becoming an anachronism." Foreman describes her as "gracious and statuesque, but she is one of those women where there is a lot going on behind those eyes. She really has lived a life. I'm fascinated by people who are absolutely multi-layered. And she is definitely one of those."
Antonia Pakenham - pronounced Packenham not Paikenham - was born in London in 1932, the first of eight children of Frank Pakenham, later Lord Longford, and Elizabeth Harman, who as Elizabeth Longford went on to write several acclaimed historical biographies herself. Two of Antonia's siblings, Rachel Billington and Thomas Pakenham, are also distinguished authors, Anthony and Lady Violet Powell were her aunt and uncle and three of Antonia's own daughters are published writers. Bob Gottlieb, at one time editor to Elizabeth Longford, Antonia Fraser and her daughter Flora, says, "I was sort of their court editor, and it is astonishing how many of that family write. More so how good they all are.