Marie Antoinette. The Journey. – Antonia Fraser
Marie Antoinette: The Journey is a sympathetic 2001 biography of Queen Marie Antoinette of France, by Lady Antonia Fraser. It is the basis for the 2006 Sofia Coppola film Marie Antoinette. It has also been translated into French, been awarded the Enid McLeod Literary Prize, received widespread critical success and been described as “definitive” by British historian, Amanda Foreman.
Although, not being a historian myself, I would not go as far as that. However careful the book is where the author is forced to interpret, facts being inaccessible at certain points, Antonia Fraser’s interpretations are as much just interpretations as those of Stefan Zweig’s biography have been before. It is undoubtedly a merit of hers, to never having left her personal readings mingle undecipherably with historical account and yet having synthesized a biography that is both: “definitively” touching and “definitively” worthwile historical reading.
Since 1969 Antonia Fraser has written many acclaimed historical works that have been international bestsellers. She is the recipient of many literary awards, including the Wolfson Prize for History, the Saint Louis Literary Award, and the 2000 Norton Medlicott Medal of Britain’s Historical Association. Her works include Mary Queen of Scots, Cromwell, the Lord Protector, Royal Charles: Charles II and the Restoration, and most recently, Love and Louis XIV: The Women in the Life of the Sun King. Four highly praised books focus on women in history: The Weaker Vessel, The Warrior Queens, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, and Marie Antoinette: The Journey. She is the editor of The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England. Antonia Fraser is married to Harold Pinter and lives in London.
Despite attempts to label her a ‘popular historian’ or ‘lady biographer’, Antonia Fraser – whose latest book is a study of the Sun King – continues to win over critics and readers. Interview by Lucasta Miller
In her memoirs, the late Elizabeth Longford offered some vivid glimpses of her eldest daughter, Antonia, in early childhood. While she was the sort of little girl who played with dolls and wanted to be a mother when she grew up, she was also given to displays of fearlessness and determination: aged three, she ran in from the garden to inform her disbelieving elders that she had killed a snake. On investigation, a dead viper was discovered in the sandpit: she had despatched it with her spade.
Both the maternal instinct and the determination lasted into adulthood. As well as having six children in 10 years (with her first husband, Hugh Fraser), she has written or edited more than 30 books. Yet Antonia Fraser is not at all self-idealising in this respect: “I have to say, I’m the reverse of Superwoman – my children would certainly say that I wasn’t made to cook! I don’t know how I did it; if I knew, I’d bottle it. All I remember about that time is the exhaustion. I completely understand anyone who gives up her career for her children, but my temperament needed something else to think about. For three hours a day, nine till 12, I used to slam the door, and I had this notice, ‘Nobody allowed’. They could only come in if they broke a leg, and none of them ever did.”
Fraser describes herself as a “historical biographer”. Her subjects have included Charles II, Henry VIII’s six wives, the gunpowder plotters and Marie Antoinette (her book is the basis for Sofia Coppola’s latest film, soon to be released in this country). Her new work, Love and Louis XIV, is an insightful study of the Sun King, his wives, mistresses and mother (his Oedipus complex was prodigious), tracing the development of his psychology within the court culture of the time.
What her subjects have in common is that they all died long ago. Dealing with individuals at such historical distance, is it possible, or even desirable, to attempt empathy with them? Fraser believes both in the universality of emotional experience and in the importance of recognising cultural differences. The fascination, for her, lies in reconciling the two. The only time she wrote about a living subject – Margaret Thatcher, who appeared in her biographical anthology The Warrior Queens – it felt “odd”.
Fraser often speaks of her husband, the playwright Harold Pinter (whom she met in 1975 and married in 1980, after their respective divorces), as her “first reader”, which is intriguing as their literary sensibilities are so different: she writes big books; his plays are famous for their long pauses and verbal economy.
For Fraser, as for many women authors with families – one thinks of the great Victorian novelist and matriarch Elizabeth Gaskell – writing has represented a creative space. It has offered her emotional sustenance in times of need, such as four years ago when both her parents died and Pinter was diagnosed with cancer. “Mercifully, for a few hours a day”, she says, work allowed her to “shut off”. “It was the only time I was happy. I was very lucky to have it.” Since then, Pinter’s health has improved dramatically, and he is planning to perform in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape later this year.
Writing, it seems, has always been something Fraser has needed to do. She learnt to read early, taught by her mother from home-made illustrated books. By the age of five she could read a Times leader out loud. She soon began writing: poetry and Shakespearean verse dramas (“best forgotten”) and romantic fiction. She was much amused recently, when clearing out a drawer, to rediscover a story with an equestrian theme about a hero and heroine called Lucy and Rollo. “It ended with them saying, ‘Shall our reins mingle for the rest of our lives’!”
Fraser’s aristocratic background – her father, Frank Pakenham, became the Earl of Longford after the death of his brother in 1961 – is well known. But it is perhaps more significant to her development as a writer that she was born, in 1932, into the intellectual elite of the day. During her childhood, her father was a politics don at Christ Church, Oxford, and her parents’ friends included the finest minds of their generation: Isaiah Berlin, Maurice Bowra, David Cecil. In 1941 her father became personal assistant to Beveridge, working on the famous report that led to the creation of the welfare state, and he subsequently held ministerial posts in the Attlee government.
Her father had joined the Labour party in 1936, converted from conservatism by his wife, Elizabeth. Her mother’s ambition to have a large family (she had eight children) did not stop her from standing as a Labour candidate in more than one general election. It wasn’t until her fifties that she transformed herself into a writer, her most significant work being a life of Queen Victoria. If her example was enabling to her daughter, Fraser has had a similar effect on her own children: two of her daughters, Rebecca and Flora, are biographers.
Fraser feels the intellectually charged atmosphere of her upbringing may have made her take university life less seriously, and more confident about being a historian outside the academy. She read history at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and describes herself then as “pleasure-loving”. Afterwards she got a job in publishing, working for George Weidenfeld, who gave her some of her first opportunities to write, including children’s history books on King Arthur and Robin Hood. Half a century on, she is still published by Weidenfeld. Marriage at 24 to the Conservative MP Hugh Fraser, followed by successive pregnancies and her brood of children, did not prevent her publishing journalistic work (a joint venture with her mother and sisters in 1960 was a book of Nigella-ish advice on how to give a children’s party). Yet it was not until 1969 that she brought out the book that made her name.
Written while her youngest child, Orlando, was in his cradle, Mary Queen of Scots was an instant bestseller and prize-winner, the success of which “stunned” its author. Fraser’s affection for the book is tempered by the feeling that its prose is “purpler” than she would now allow. Yet the book’s vigour and narrative drive have kept readers buying it.
While some have tried to pigeonhole Fraser as a “popular historian” or a “lady biographer”, her scholarship has always confounded her critics. The distinguished academic historian Hugh Thomas has described her as “rigorous with her sources and accomplished with her prose”. She is, for example, committed to reading sources in their original languages. A few years ago, she spent 12 months researching a history of the Battle of the Boyne. Personal stresses led her to lay it aside (or “bin the Boyne”, as she puts it), but she had already started learning Irish for the project (she was going to practise speaking it with her novelist friend Edna O’Brien).
That was the only time Fraser has given up on a book. After Mary Queen of Scots came a biography of Oliver Cromwell. The historian AL Rowse praised it as a “fine achievement of scholarship and writing” that succeeded in humanising its subject. Fraser feels, however, that she hadn’t yet become confident enough to leave anything out. She believes that her move sideways into crime fiction – she published the first of her Jemima Shore novels in 1977 – had a positive effect on her non-fiction work, in terms of narrative control and concision. She has been inspired by Walter Scott’s great historical novel Kenilworth, the historian Macaulay and the biographer Lytton Strachey. History, for her, isn’t simply collecting evidence, but shaping it into a narrative. She will plot out an entire book in detail before writing the first draft, which she does without notes in order not to impede the narrative flow. Only then will she go back and painstakingly check the facts.
She found The Weaker Vessel, perhaps her most original and ambitious book, very challenging from a structural point of view. Published in 1983, it was a ground-breaking study of women in the 17th century which drew on a wide range of sources to reconstruct the experience and sensibilities of the period. She had begun to be interested in women’s role in the civil war – defending castles, preaching radical sermons – when working on Cromwell. Yet when she looked up “women” in indexes, she drew a blank. Such silence sparked her curiosity, and she began investigating the period’s women from midwives to bluestockings, prostitutes to great ladies. The resulting book wove together personal and public sources – including diaries and letters, poetry and pamphlets, sermons and other contemporary commentaries on gender, from the legal to the gynaecological – and presented its argument as objective history rather than feminist tract.
“It was a very difficult book to do because people didn’t do books like that then. I don’t think I could have written it without Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic, which showed me that history could be written another way. There was no given narrative. No heads getting chopped off. On the first day of writing, I remember sitting down and thinking, ‘What have I got myself into?’ When Harold said, ‘How did it go?’, I just thought, ‘Help! I’ve got 100 years, 51 per cent of the population, no structure.’ I had a sort of constructive breakdown and then told myself I had to get over it. If there was no structure, I would have to make it myself.”
What will future historians make of Fraser? Given her experiences at the heart of the political, social and intellectual establishments, her memoirs would undoubtedly be fascinating. She has, she says, her “smoking gun”, the diaries she has been keeping since 1968, which she describes as “a record and also a kind of solace”. Yet she feels torn. “I wouldn’t like to tell the truth about every aspect of my life,”she says. “And yet, as a historian, I couldn’t bear not to tell the truth.”
Kenilworth by Sir Walter Scott
Lays of Ancient Rome; History of England by Thomas Macaulay
Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey
Religion and the Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas
Defeat of the Spanish Armada by Garrett Mattingley
The Guardian – Saturday September 2, 2006