Despite it being a well known fact that Antonia Fraser had earthly parents, I had always imagined that she had somehow skipped infancy and emerged instead from a celestial cloud, surrounded by hordes of trumpet-wielding cherubim, a fully-formed Venus in pink and gold and white. Turreted castles, a constant shower of sovereigns, a title, a jewelry box whose contents might have made Liz Taylor wince: this was the milieu suggested by her tremendous beauty and mysterious half-smile. My History, a captivating memoir of her childhood and early youth, proves otherwise.
In fact Antonia’s father, Frank Pakenham, was a second son who married the very clever daughter of a Harley Street doctor. Neither of them was at all interested in the accoutrements of fairy tales, since both were deeply committed to the Labour party; it was only after bringing up her family that Antonia’s mother, Elizabeth Longford, began to write the histories for which she was to become renowned. When he was not serving as an MP, Pakenham taught at Christ Church, Oxford. Antonia’s early childhood was spent very happily in the leafy, semi-suburban streets of north Oxford. It did not rain sovereigns. Nor was she born with a title: Antonia was 30 before her father became Lord Longford.
The eldest of eight, she learned perforce to amuse herself. From when she was very small, history was chief among her interests, to such an extent that she never thought of it without the possessive pronoun (hence the significance of this book’s title). Toys were enlisted to recreate key scenes: ‘Gilberta, my favourite doll with her halo of flaxen hair, was always up for it: Priscilla, a large, innocent-looking baby doll was more difficult to fit into a historical sequence.’ H.E. Marshall’s Our Island Story (first published in 1905) was what would now be called her foundational text. Its illustration of a fetchingly pensive Mary Queen of Scots drew her to the story of the woman who would become the subject of her first historical biography.
As for Paddy Leigh Fermor before her, the story of Robin Hood was an early obsession. Dreams of long auburn plaits were realised in the form of a wig in which she played Lady Macbeth while at the Dragon School. Among this book’s many enjoyable surprises is something else Antonia did while a pupil there: play what she calls rugger, with some enthusiasm. She converted to Catholicism while in her teens. Antonia showed excellent taste in matters of the heart: there was a crush on Prince Rupert of the Rhine, history’s greatest pin-up, followed by another on Gary Cooper. She met all sorts of fascinating people, among them Isaiah Berlin, John Bayley — who was ‘cheerful and lugubrious at the same time’ — and the formidable Lady Violet Bonham Carter:
Lady Violet had a long, horsey face which she had a habit of sticking close to yours, while she confided fascinating things in a low and thrilling voice which seemed to derive from some marvellous society before the first war; unfortunately I was generally too frightened to listen. She was the daughter of the Prime Minister, Asquith, a fact of which one was not kept in ignorance.
In due course Antonia read history at Oxford, worked briefly in the hat department of Fenwick’s on Bond Street, got a job at Weidenfeld & Nicolson and danced with T. S. Eliot. There were romances. The book ends with her beginning as a historian, her life of Mary Queen of Scots.
My History is a delight from start to finish. Antonia Fraser is warm, amusing, intelligent, generous and original. She says that her idea of perfect happiness is to be alone in a room with a house full of people. I can’t think of a better way to start the year than to be alone in a room with this book.
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