Antonia Fraser has been a force in literary and political London for more than half a century – from her first biography, of Mary Queen of Scots in 1969, through studies of Charles II, Oliver Cromwell and Marie Antoinette, the autobiography of her life with Harold Pinter, her passionate histories of lost English Catholicism and early women’s rights, and her crime novels in the spaces in between. My History is her “memoir of growing up”, an early life which she portrays as itself a piece of history. A celebrant of characters from the distant past, she summons here a universe of hardly less lost worlds, in politics, religion and what until recently was known as society.
She begins with a deceptively simple epigraph from the autobiography of the Whig historian, G. M. Trevelyan:
“the poetry of history lies in the miraculous fact that once on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing after another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone like ghosts at cockcrow”.
For Fraser this is a potent text. In looking back at her early life, she finds the past’s poetry in her parents, also in those of her family who are buried in history more deeply. In her opening pages she reports how the first Duke of Wellington held in his arms her great-grandmother, Margaret, Countess of Jersey. She tells the story with a touch of ironic boast, the smiling sense of a family anecdote often told, but also as a vivid connection, a search to show that what Trevelyan says is true.
The portraits of her father and mother are central. Frank Pakenham is best and still remembered in Britain as Lord Longford, a label as much as a name, eccentric, high-browed, low-eyebrowed, a Labour campaigner for prisoners’ rights who in the 1970s led an investigation into pornography. To his daughter he was not only an eccentric but a melancholic, simultaneously vigorous and depressed and something of a trial. “Flies, Dada”, was the often necessary reaction of the young author to her father speaking unbuttoned in a good cause. Falling asleep at the start of Harold Pinter’s plays was a problem that came later.
She gives light-hearted accounts, like an ancient historian believing none of them, of how and why a mauling by the Blackshirts of Sir Oswald Mosley turned her father from a liberal Tory to a man of the Left. “Astonishing, even laughably eccentric”, was the common verdict. Once established within the Labour Party, Frank Pakenham then became a rare example of a soon-to-be-famous socialist who lost in the 1945 election. That defeat had a life-long impact, as did his status as an aristocratic family’s second son.
The Pakenhams came from Ireland, part of the Protestant Ascendancy, their fortune founded by a soldier of Cromwell’s notorious army, as Fraser discovered only during biographical researches in 1970. An enthusiastic convert to Catholicism as well as to Labour, the failed candidate for Oxford played his political parts in the House of Lords, first as a life peer, Lord Pakenham of Cowley, secondly as the Earl of Longford after the death of his childless brother, free both to take government office and to range widely in the causes close to his heart.
Fraser’s mother, Elizabeth Longford, was born Elizabeth Harman in a family that included the future Tory Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain. She had her own Labour parliamentary ambitions (better founded than her husband’s), converted to Catholicism and later wrote biographies of Queen Victoria and the Duke of Wellington. A famous beauty of her day, she too, in Fraser’s recollection, was prone to depression. In the early pages of My History she cites some of her mother’s harder times and how they were remembered: the bailiffs seek her pram to settle debts; a sister dies. A brother contracts polio: from his propinquity to the Oxford poor in Cowley or the bran-tub of the Countess of Jersey’s lucky-dip?
Lady Antonia Fraser, as she has been known since her father’s earldom in 1961, was born in 1932 in Westminster in what is now, as she writes, called Riyadh House. As she describes in her introduction to The Pleasure of Reading, a collection of writers’ favourites on behalf of the formidable Give A Book charity, one of the first great men to see her was Evelyn Waugh, when she was only a few weeks old, who wrote to Lady Diana Cooper: “So I saw F. Pakenham’s baby and gave it a book, but it can’t read yet”. Fraser is outraged at this reminder of the brief time before books entered her life, the lesser novels of Walter Scott to the fore.
To her public life in Ireland, where her family held house and title, and England, where she was educated and still lives, she later added the politics of Scotland, home of her first husband, Hugh Fraser, a Conservative MP and challenger for the Tory leadership against Margaret Thatcher in 1975. Hers has been a world of easy movement between countries, causes and parties within a confident social class with a serious engagement in public Christianity. On every page of My History there is sense of pasts that have been lost, not just characters and events but sensibilities that she revives.