From Lady Antonia's Golden Brow Springs Another Figure of History
02/24/1975 at 01:00 AM EDT
A well-written life," Thomas Carlyle said, "is almost as rare as a well-spent one." He might just as easily have turned it around and, whichever way, it would perfectly fit Lady Antonia Fraser, one of the most dazzling and aristocratic ornaments of London society, whose biography, Mary Queen of Scots, was a roaring best-seller a few years ago. Its success astonished those who knew Antonia as the darling of glittering dinner parties and a woman much talked about for a number of reasons, none of them being remarkable literary talent. (The gossip these days is about Lady Antonia and Robert Stephens, estranged husband of actress Maggie Smith.)
To prove it had been no fluke, she sat down in the small pink and white study off her Kensington bedroom and wrote a biography of Oliver Cromwell, the obscure country gentleman who went to Parliament when he was 28, turned into a leader and soldier of genius and upended English history. It too became a best-seller.
This week yet another life by Antonia Fraser, a beautifully illustrated King James VI of Scotland, I of England, is being published in the U.S. She combines careful research with great readability and, as a result, is both popular and academically respectable.
No one should be surprised to discover that Antonia, 42, is still another twig of a remarkable literary tree. She is the daughter of the Earl of Longford, a sometime Labour cabinet minister and respected author (Peace by Ordeal). Her mother, Elizabeth Longford, is the masterly biographer of Queen Victoria and Wellington. Rachel Billington, her sister, is the author of several novels (the latest, Beautiful). A brother, Thomas Pakenham—the earl's family name—occupies the family seat in Ireland and writes such works of history as The Year of Liberty.
Lady Longford taught Antonia to read at the age of 3, with extraordinary results. Today she devours printed matter at the incredible rate of 3,000 words a minute—Jack Kennedy was once famous for a mere 1,200. She can polish off a heavy work of scholarship in an afternoon. "We've often talked about it," Antonia says, "and wondered if my mother made some mistake, I read so fast. It's made me more enemies." People on the train who would never dream of talking to an elegant stranger watch her briskly turning pages and lean forward to say, "Excuse me, you can't be reading that book."
"I think U.S. fiction is better than ours," she says, seated in her large, light-filled house. There are books and flowers everywhere. The lampshades are askew. She likes Saul Bellow and Alison Lurie. She speaks with the faintest lisp, delicious as a whisper. "But English biography is better, I think. The climate for it is somehow right, perhaps like the Irish climate is said to be good for complexions." During the war she was sent to a boys' school, the famous Dragon School in Oxford, where she bathed in cold water, played rugby and received a no-nonsense education. It was an experience which left her without the least sense of female inadequacy; part of her famous charm is this genuine ease, a kind of fond assurance that lies dozing in the blood.
She describes herself as hopelessly spoiled. She has six children, three boys and three girls, and a husband, Hugh Fraser, a Conservative MP with an important political career. Spoiled she may be, passing along a hallway of her house and gesturing vaguely toward a door, "There is a rumor that's the kitchen," but she also works extremely hard. Three years of research went into Mary Queen of Scots, even more into Cromwell: The Lord Protector. Like most good writers, Antonia Fraser works steadily—literary achievement is the triumph of the ant. In her case it means rising at 8, seeing her children and husband off, and then she is at it from 9 until 12:30 every day. In the afternoon there's a large family tea with her children, precisely at 4. She works both in London and at the Scottish country house near Inverness where the family spends weekends and holidays. She is a Virgo. "Order appeals to me," she says. "Either to have it or impose it."
Her favorite biography is Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Bronte, with Painter's Proust perhaps second. Her style is modeled on Gibbon's and is very Latin-based. "Those ablative absolutes," she moans. She was 20 and smoking cigars at Oxford when she read the Bronte and was stunned by it; she remembers thinking, gosh, this is what a biography should be. She reread it while writing Mary Queen of Scots.
As if all this were not enough, she is chairman of the Society of Authors and campaigning fiercely for public lending rights which would pay writers for the number of times their books are taken out of libraries. Such a system in one form or another already exists in other places—Scandinavia, Australia, West Germany. There is opposition. "Alas," she laments, "the librarians are dead against it." The librarians of England have reason to fear. Against them, at the head of her fellow writers, witty, engaging and armed with the personal friendship of many politicians, is that most powerful of foes: a beautiful and clever woman, determined to have her way.
It is Friday. In the favorite restaurant where she has lunched at the best table, they are holding out her cape. "I must run," she apologizes. "If I don't catch the train my husband will shoot me. Which he is equipped to do." She is off for Scotland with six new books packed in her bags.
"You'll read all those?"
"Oh, no," she says, smiling. "But in case the train breaks down..."