intellectual vanities… about close to everything

Archive for the ‘Blogroll’ Category

forget about boobs ‘n cock… sexappeal is all about the face

with 2 comments

Facial Attraction: Choice Of Sexual Partner Shaped The Human Face…

…or so, at least researchers at the Natural History Museum claim to have discovered. Men with large jaws, flaring cheeks and large eyebrows are sexy, at least in the eyes of our ancestors, . Facial attractiveness played a major role in shaping human evolution, as studies on our fossil ancestors have shown our choice of sexual partner has shaped the human face.

The face holds the secret to determining the sex of our ancestors and what makes us attractive to the opposite sex for reproduction.

According to palaeontologists at the Natural History Museum, men have evolved short faces between the brow and upper lip, which exaggerates the size of their jaw, the flare of their cheeks and their eyebrows. The shorter and broader male face has also evolved alongside and the canine teeth have shrunk, so men look less threatening to competitors, yet attractive to mates.

At puberty, the region between the mouth and eyebrows, known as upper facial height, develops differently in men and women. Unlike other facial features, however, this difference cannot be explained simply in terms of men being bigger than women. In spite of their larger size men have an upper face similar in height to a female face, but much broader. These differences can be found throughout human history. As a result, a simple ratio of measures could be used to calculate facial attractiveness in a biological and mathematical way.

Dr Eleanor Weston, palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum said, ‘The evolution of facial appearance is central to understanding what makes men and women attractive to each other. We have found the distance between the lip and brow was probably immensely important to what made us attractive in the past, as it does now.’

PLoS One 2(8): e710. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000710Biometric Evidence that Sexual Selection Has Shaped the Hominin Face
Eleanor M. Weston1,2*¤, Adrian E. Friday2, Pietro Liò3

1 Department of Biology, University College London, London, United Kingdom, 2 University Museum of Zoology, Downing Street, Cambridge, United Kingdom, 3 Computer Laboratory, University of Cambridge, William Gates Building, Cambridge, United Kingdom

We consider sex differences in human facial morphology in the context of developmental change. We show that at puberty, the height of the upper face, between the lip and the brow, develops differently in males and females, and that these differences are not explicable in terms of sex differences in body size. We find the same dimorphism in the faces of human ancestors. We propose that the relative shortening in men and lengthening in women of the anterior upper face at puberty is the mechanistic consequence of extreme maxillary rotation during ontogeny. A link between this developmental model and sexual dimorphism is made for the first time, and provides a new set of morphological criteria to sex human crania. This finding has important implications for the role of sexual selection in the evolution of anthropoid faces and for theories of human facial attractiveness.

Written by huehueteotl

August 16, 2007 at 12:04 pm

Science Steps In To Discover Wonders Of False Egyptian Big Toe

leave a comment »

An artificial big toe attached to the foot of an ancient Egyptian mummy could prove to be the world’s earliest functional prosthetic body part, say scientists.

The wood and leather artificial toe, from the Cairo Museum. (Credit: Image courtesy of University of Manchester)

Research at The University of Manchester is hoping to prove that the wood and leather artefact in the Cairo Museum not only looked the part but also helped its owner walk ‘like an Egyptian’.

If true, the toe will predate what is currently considered to be the earliest known practical prosthesis – an artificial leg from 300BC – by several hundred years.

Jacky Finch, who is carrying out the study at Manchester’s KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology, is recruiting volunteers whose right big toe has been lost in order to test an exact replica of the artificial toe.

A model of a second false Egyptian big toe on display in the British Museum, albeit without its mummy, will also be tested at the Human Performance Laboratory at nearby University of Salford.

“The toes date from between 1000 and 600BC, so if we can prove that one or both were functional then we will have pushed back prosthetic medicine by as much as 700 years,” said Jacky.

“The Cairo toe is the most likely of the two to be functional as it is articulated and shows signs of wear. It is still attached to the foot of the mummy of a female between 50 and 60 years of age. The amputation site is also well healed.”

The British Museum artefact – named the Greville Chester Great Toe after the collector who acquired it for the museum in 1881 – is made from cartonnage, a sort of papier maché made using linen, glue and plaster.

It too shows signs of wear, indicating that it may have been worn by its owner in life and not simply attached to the foot during mummification for religious or ritualistic reasons. However, unlike the Cairo specimen, the Greville Chester toe does not bend and so is likely to have been more cosmetic.

“The Human Performance Laboratory will use state-of-the-art technology to test whether the replicas of the artificial toes benefit the wearer and could therefore be deemed functional,” said Jacky.

“If either one is functional it may be interesting to manufacture it with modern materials and trial it for use on people with missing toes.”

Note: The oldest known functional prosthesis is the Roman Capua Leg, which was made of bronze and dates from about 300BC. The leg was held at the Royal College of Surgeons in London but was destroyed by Luftwaffe bombs during the Second World War.

Written by huehueteotl

July 30, 2007 at 8:50 am

Posted in Blogroll, World History

Ancient Americans Liked It Hot: Mexican Cuisine Traced To 1,500 Years Ago

leave a comment »

One of the world’s tastiest and most popular cuisines, Mexican food also may be one of the oldest.

These chili peppers from the Guila Naquitz cave in Oaxaca Mexico date to between A.D. 490 and 780, and represent two cultivars or cultivated types. A Smithsonian scientist analyzed the chili pepper remains and determined that Pre-Columbian inhabitants of the region hundreds of years ago enjoyed a spicy fare similar to Mexican cuisine today. (Credit: Linda Perry, Smithsonian Institution)

Plant remains from two caves in southern Mexico analyzed by a Smithsonian ethnobotanist/archaeologist and a colleague indicate that as early as 1,500 years ago, Pre-Columbian inhabitants of the region enjoyed a spicy fare similar to Mexican cuisine today. The two caves yielded 10 different cultivars (cultivated varieties) of chili peppers.

“This analysis demonstrates that chilies in Mexican food have been numerous and complex for a long period of time,” said lead author Linda Perry, of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. “It reveals a great antiquity for the Mexican cuisine that we’re familiar with today.”

Perry and Kent V. Flannery, of the University of Michigan, studied desiccated plant remains from excavations in Guilá Naquitz and Silvia’s Cave, two dry rock shelters near Mitla in the Valley of Oaxaca, southern Mexico. Guilá Naquitz is famous for its well-preserved plant remains, dating back to the beginnings of squash cultivation in Mexico some 10,000 years ago. Arid conditions through the centuries prevented decay of the crop remains, which include corn, squash, beans, avocados and chili peppers.

This new study focuses on the two upper layers of ash and debris known as Zone “A” and “Super-A,” spanning the period circa A.D. 500–1500. Perry was able to distinguish different cultivars among the abundantly preserved chili peppers, a type of analysis that had not been completed on ancient Mexican chilies.

Perry found that peppers from Guilá Naquitz included at least seven different cultivars. Peppers from the smaller sample in Silvia’s cave represented three cultivars.

It is unknown whether the cultivars found in the cave correspond to modern varieties, or if they were types that died out after the arrival of Europeans in Mexico. Perry said one looks like a Tabasco pepper and another like a cayenne pepper, but it is difficult to know how closely related they are to modern varieties without a genetic analysis.

“What was interesting to me was that we were able to determine that they were using the peppers both dried and fresh,” Perry said. (Chilies broken while fresh had a recognizable breakage pattern.) “It shows us that ancient Mexican food was very much like today. They would have used fresh peppers in salsas or in immediate preparation, and they would have used the dried peppers to toss into stews or to grind up into sauces like moles.”

During the period circa A.D. 500–1500, the caves served as temporary camps and storage areas for farmers from Mitla–a major town on the river of the same name–whose cultivated fields evidently extended to the slopes of the piedmont below Guilá Naquitz and Silvia’s Cave. The Zapotec-speaking people planted crops in several environmental zones–river bottoms, piedmont and mountains– probably as a way of buffering risk; it also added variety to the diet.

“In the cave deposits, we can see excellent documentation for the sophistication of the agriculture and the cuisine at this point in time,” Perry said. “You don’t grow seven different kinds of chilies unless you’re cooking some pretty interesting food.”

Published the week of July 9 in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

Precolumbian use of chili peppers in the Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico

( Capsicum | Guilá Naquitz | Zapotec | Mitla )

Linda Perry *{dagger} and Kent V. Flannery {ddagger}

*Archaeobiology Program, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, P.O. Box 37012, Washington, DC 20013-7012; and {ddagger}Museum of Anthropology, 1109 Geddes Avenue, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1079

Communicated by Joyce Marcus, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, May 29, 2007 (received for review April 1, 2007)

Excavations at Guilá Naquitz and Silvia’s Cave, two dry rockshelters near Mitla, Oaxaca, Mexico, yielded the remains of 122 chili peppers dating to the period A.D. 600-1521. The chilies can be assigned to at least 10 cultivars, all belonging to the species Capsicum annuum or Capsicum frutescens. The specimens are well enough preserved to permit an evaluation of the criteria used to separate wild and domestic chilies and to distinguish among cultivated races. In addition, they provide the opportunity to assess the reliability of starch grains for documenting the presence of chilies in archaeological sites where no macrobotanical remains are preserved.

Written by huehueteotl

July 12, 2007 at 11:32 am

Posted in Blogroll, World History

Building buried in Chinese emperor’s tomb

leave a comment »

 BEIJING, July 2 (UPI) — Chinese archaeologists say a 98-foot high building was buried in the tomb of the country’s first Emperor Qinshihuang some 2,000 years ago. The Xinhua news agency said Monday the archaeologists, using remote sensing, confirmed the building’s presence after five years of research. The building was buried in the 167-foot high, pyramid-like tomb of the emperor near Xian in the northwestern province of Shaanxi. Researcher Duan Qingbo of the Shaanxi Institute of Archaeology said the building may have been built for the release of the soul of the departed Qinshihuang, who is credited with unifying China in 221 B.C. prior to becoming emperor. It was near the same site that archaeologists in the 1970s unearthed about 1,500 terracotta warriors and horses, believed to have been buried with the emperor to protect him after his death.

Written by huehueteotl

July 2, 2007 at 2:28 pm

a bad tooth and the quest for Hatshepsut

with 2 comments

Archaeologists hailed one of the most important finds in Egyptian history on Wednesday after a broken tooth identified the 3,500-year-old mummy of Queen Hatshepsut, the most powerful female pharaoh. Billed as the most significant find since the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, Egyptian antiquities chief Zahi Hawass made the announcement to a packed press conference in Cairo.

He said one of two mummies found in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor about a century ago had been identified as Hatshepsut, the greatest woman monarch of the ancient world.

“The discovery of the Hatshepsut mummy is one of the most important finds in the history of Egypt,” the antiquities chief said.

“I’m sure that this mummy will help us to shed light on this mystery and on the mysterious nature of her death.”

Hatshepsut ruled for 21 years from 1479 to 1458 BC, declaring herself pharaoh after the death of her husband and half-brother Tuthmosis II.

The fabled queen, known for sporting a false beard and dressing like a man, was identified thanks to a broken tooth following examinations of four mummies from the New Kingdom using the latest forensic technology.

Hawass said the mummy identified as Hatshepsut was of a “fat woman in her 50s who probably died of cancer.”

In 1903, archaeologist Howard Carter — who later made history with his discovery of Tutankhamun– found two sarcophogi in tomb 60 in the Theban necropolis, the Valley of the Kings in Luxor.

One apparently contained the mummy of Hatshepsut’s wet nurse, Sitre-In, and the other of an unknown female.

Later in 1920, he found the magnificent funerary temple of Deir el-Bahari which Hatshepsut had built for herself at Luxor.


Mysteriously, two sarcophogi found in the temple were empty.

That is where the search for Hatshepsut had ended until the US-based Discovery Channel asked Hawass to take another look.

The mummies from tomb 60 were brought to Cairo for the first time and Hawass used CT scans to produce detailed 3D images which linked physical traits of the unidentified mummy to those of Hatshepsut’s relatives.

But the definitive proof, according to Hawass, was found in an ancient box bearing the female pharaoh’s royal seal which was discovered in 1881 at her famous Deir el-Bahari temple, scene of a bloody massacre of tourists in 1997.

Inside the box were organs from a mummy and a tooth. Examined for its possible connection to a missing molar in the unidentified mummy from tomb 60, analysts found a match.

“Not only was the fat lady from KV-60 missing a tooth but the hole left behind and the type of tooth that was missing were an exact match for the loose one in the box,” Hawass said.

He said the find could help to explain the mystery of Hatshepsut’s disappearance from the ancient record after her death and the empty sarcophogi in her burial temple.

“Her reign during the 18th dynasty of ancient Egypt was a prosperous one, yet mysteriously she was erased from Egyptian history,” he said.

American Egyptologist Elizabeth Thomas first suggested years ago that the second mummy in tomb 60 belonged to Hatshepsut, because her hand was resting on her chest in a position reserved for monarchs.

Discovery said a team of archaeologists would now carry out DNA testing on the mummy to confirm her identity.

Hatshepsut, the only legitimate daughter of Pharaoh Tuthmosis I who ruled from 1504-1484 BC, reigned before female pharaohs Nefertiti and Cleopatra and is thought to have exercised greater power.

After the early death of her husband Tuthmosis II, she reigned as regent for his son by a concubine, Tuthmosis III, who was too young to rule.

Hatshepsut declared herself pharaoh, donning royal headdress and a false beard, and claimed divinity through the intervention of the god Amun-Ra.

Her rule is seen as a time of stability and prosperity for Egypt, associated more with commerce than conquest, especially the opening of trade routes to Nubia and Somalia in the south. Her most famous landmark is Deir el-Bahari.


Records of her reign suddenly end after her death. Her jealous successor Tuthmosis III — long kept in the shadows — demolished her monuments and her mummy was thought to have been lost forever.

“This was a pure settling of dynastic scores and not a misogynist political reaction against the promotion of a woman to the supreme position,” said French expert Jean Yoyotte.

© 2007 AFP

Written by huehueteotl

June 27, 2007 at 9:51 pm

The Man Who was Tired of Life

leave a comment »



The Man Who was Tired of Life

XII. Dynasty (1991-1786 BC)


[…] you in order to say […] their [tongues] cannot question, for it will be crookedness […] payments their tongues cannot question.


I opened my mouth to my soul, that I might answer what it had said: / This is too much for me today, that my soul does not argue with me; it is too great for [exaggeration], it is as if one ignored me. Let my soul not depart, that it may attend to it for me […] in my body like a net of cord, / but it will not succeed in escaping the day of trouble. See, my soul misleads me, but I do not listen to it; draws me toward death ere <i> have come to it and casts <me> on the fire to burn me […] / it approaches me on the day of trouble and it stands on yonder side as does a … Such is he who goes forth that he may bring himself for him. O my soul, too stupid to ease misery in life and yet holding me back from death ere I come to it, sweeten / the West for me. Is it (to much) trouble? Yet life is a transitory state, and even trees fall. Trample on wrong, for my misery endures. May Thoth who pacifies the gods judge me; may Khons defend me, / even he who writes truly; may Re hear my plaint, even he who commands the solar bark; may Isdes defend me in the Holy Chamber, [because] the needy one is weighed down with [the burden] which he has lifted up from me; it is pleasant that / the gods should ward off the secret (thoughts) of my body.


What my soul said to me: Are you not a man? Indeed you are alive, but what do you profit? Yet you yearn for life like a man of wealth.


I said: I have not gone, (even though) that is on the ground. Indeed, you leap away, but you will / not be cared for. Every prisoner says: “I will take you,” but you are dead, though your name lives. Yonder is a resting place attractive to the heart; the West is a dwelling place, rowing […] face. If my guiltless soul listens to me / and its heart is in accord with me, it will be fortunate, for I will cause it to attain the West, like one who is in his pyramid, to whose burial a survivor attended. I will […over] your corpse, so that you make another soul envious / in weariness. I will…., then you will not be cold, so that you make envious another soul which is hot. I will drink water at the eddy, I will raise up shade so that you make envious another soul which is hungry. If/ you hold me back from death in this manner, you will find nowhere you can rest in the West. Be so kind, my soul, my brother, as to become my heir who shall make offering and stand at the tomb on the day of burial, that he may prepare a bier / for the necropolis.


My soul opened its mouth to me that it might answer what I had said: If you think of burial, it is a sad matter; it is a bringer of weeping through making a man miserable; it is taking a man from his house, he being cast on the high ground, never again will you go up that you may see / the sun. those who built in granite and constructed halls in goodly pyramids with fine work, when the builders became gods their stelae were destroyed, like the weary ones who died on the riverbank through lack of a survivor, / the flood having taken its toll and the sun likewise to whom talk the fishes of the banks of the water. Listen to me; behold it is good for men to hear. Follow the happy day and forget care.


A peasant ploughed his plot and loaded his harvest / aboard a ship, towing it when his time of festival drew near. He saw the coming of the darkness of the norther, for he was vigilant in the boat when the sun set. He escaped with his wife and children, but came to grief on a lake infested by / night with crocodiles. At last he sat down and broke silence, saying: I weep not for yonder mother, who has no more going forth from the West for another (term) upon earth; I sorrow rather for her children broken in the egg, who have looked in the face of the crocodile god / ere they have lived.


A peasant asked for a meal, and his wife said to him: There is <…> for supper. he went out to… for a moment and returned to his house (raging) as if he were an ape. His wife reasoned with him, but he would not listen to her, he…. and the bystanders were helpless.


I opened my mouth to my soul that I might answer what it had said:


Behold, my name is detested,

Behold, more than the smell of vultures

On a summer’s day when the sky is hot.


Behold, my name is detested,

Behold, <more than the smell of> a catch of fish

/ On a day of catching when the sky is hot.


Behold, my name is detested,

Behold, more than the smell of ducks,

More than a covert of reeds full of waterfowl.


Behold, my name is detested,

Behold, more than the smell of fishermen,

More than the creeks / of the marshes where they have fished.


Behold, my name is detested,

Behold, more than the smell of crocodiles,

More than sitting by sandbanks full of crocodiles.


Behold, my name is detested,

Behold, more than a woman

About whom lies are told to a man.


Behold, / my name is detested,

Behold, more than a sturdy child

Of whom it is said: “he belongs to his rival.”


Behold, my name is detested,

Behold, <more than> a town belonging to the monarch

Which mutters sedition when his back is turned.


To whom can I speak today?

Brothers are evil

And the friends of today unlovable.


To whom can I speak / today?

Hearts are rapacious

And everyone takes his neighbour’s goods.


<To whom can I speak today?>

Gentleness has perished

And the violent man has come down on everyone.


To whom can I speak today?

Men are contented with evil

And goodness is neglected everywhere.


To whom can I speak / Today?

He who should enrage a man by his ill deeds,

he makes everyone laugh <by> his wicked wrongdoing.


To whom can I speak today?

Men plunder

And every man robs his neighbour.


To whom can I speak today?

The wrongdoer is an intimate friend

And the brother with whom one used to act is become / an enemy.


To whom can I speak today?

None remember the past,

And no one now helps him who used to do (good).


To whom can I speak today?

Brothers are evil,

And men have recourse to strangers for affection.


To whom can I speak today?

Faces are averted,

And every man looks askance at / his brethren.


To whom can I speak today?

Hearts are rapacious

And there is no man’s heart in which one can trust.


To whom can I speak today?

There are no just persons

And the land is left over to the doers of wrong.


To whom can I speak today?

There is a lack of an intimate friend

And men have recourse to someone unknown / in order to complain to him.


To whom can I speak today?

There is no contented man,

And that person who once walked with him no longer exists.


To whom can I speak today?

I am heavy-laden with trouble

Through lack of an intimate friend.


To whom can I speak today?

The wrong which roams the earth,

There is no end to it.


Death is in my sight today

<As when> a sick man becomes well,

Like going out-of-doors after detention.


Death is in my sight today

Like the smell of myrrh,

Like sitting under an awning on a windy day.


Death is in my sight today

Like the perfume of lotuses,

Like sitting on the shore of the Land of Drunkenness.


Death is in my sight today

Like a trodden way,

As when a man returns home from an expedition.


Death is in my sight today

Like the clearing of the sky,

Like a man who…/… for something which he does not know.


Death is in my sight today.

As when a man desires to see home

When he has spent many years in captivity.


Verily, he who is yonder will be a living god,

Averting the ill of him who does it.


Verily, he who is yonder will be one who stands in the Bark of the Sun,

Causing choice things to be given / therefrom for the temples.


Verily, he who is yonder will be a sage

Who will not be prevented from appealing to Re when he speaks.


What my soul said to me: Cast complaint upon the peg, my comrade and brother; make offering on the brazier / and cleave to life, according as I have said. Desire me here, thrust the West aside, but desire that you may attain the West when your body goes to earth, that I may alight after you are weary; then will we make an abode together.


It is finished / from its beginning to its end, just as it was found in writing.



Written by huehueteotl

June 21, 2007 at 9:39 pm

Marie Antoinette. The Journey. – Antonia Fraser

with 4 comments

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

Written by huehueteotl

June 12, 2007 at 8:04 pm