My History by Antonia Fraser – Book Review

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Antonia FraserPrivilege is relative, isn’t it.  As long as there is someone wealthier, smarter or better-off than you, then it’s hard to consider yourself privileged.  Even when you most certainly are.

English biographer Antonia Fraser DBE is something of a paragon.  Her biographies are best sellers (Mary Queen of Scots) that get made into movies by the hollywood elite (Marie Antoinette).  The several I have read are engaging, impeccably researched and – on occasion and appropriately – laugh out loud funny (Warrior Queens).

In her ‘Memoir of Growing Up’ Fraser, now in her eighties, is at pains to describe what an ordinary girl she was, and how middle-class her upbringing.  This despite being the granddaughter of an Earl and, on her mother’s side, a wealthy Harley Street medico.  She grew up in North Oxford (not as well-to-do, Fraser assures us, as South Oxford) where her father was a don and, later, a Labour minister in England’s post-WWII government.

Fraser’s ‘ordinary’ childhood involved lengthy visits with titled relatives who lived in Irish castles, family friends like John Betjeman (Poet Laureate 1972-1984) and writer Philip Toynbee; and a socialist mother who regularly stood for parliament when she could spare the time from the seven children who followed Antonia.

A bright girl who learned to read by the age of four, Fraser vividly describes her governess and then her several schools, all public in the English sense of the word, but seems blithely (or deliberately) unaware of the recurring theme of schoolyard social exclusion directed her way.  At a summer holiday camp when she was about eight, little Antonia became a social pariah.  At the time she had no idea why.

As a matter of fact, I still don’t, although it could be argued that the whole experience did me a power of good, teaching me early in life that unpopularity – and thus logically popularity as well – is a mysterious quality which sometimes appears from nowhere, with nothing done to deserve it.

Aged twelve and at her first boarding school she ‘had no friends.’  At her second boarding school her existing love of history was encouraged and she was much happier but her school-girl peers tried hard to prevent her from being receiving a particular award that should have been hers by academic right.   One of the nuns explained that the other girls ‘say you are a law unto yourself.’

[The nun then] became brisk. ‘Reverend Mother and I have decided that it is unseemly for the head of the school in work – she emphasized the words – ‘not to be a Child of Mary.  So you will in due course become one.’ That smile again as she added: ‘But do remember how it came about.  A lesson there perhaps for such a clever girl as you?’

Perhaps Fraser is too modest to assert that she may have been too bright to fit in.  Yet the recurrent theme of this beautifully narrated work is one of joy in life, in family and in her Catholic faith (to which she converted as a teenager).  Fraser’s parents, also Catholic converts, are described with loving attention as is her closest sibling Thomas. Only eleven months younger, she refers to him as her Irish twin and it is clear he was an important figure in her childhood.

As a teenager, having finished school but too young to start at university (Oxford, naturally) she traveled a little and worked a little but mainly focused on her coming out. The ritual of Court presentations, amidst a season of balls, luncheons and parties, hung on into the 1950s although

…the season of 1950, in so far as I managed to infiltrate it, was a shabbier and thus cheaper version of the Thirties seasons.  I was certainly not the only one who made her own ball dress…

Fraser’s mother was less than helpful – as a committed Socialist she hardly fitted the stereotype of a debutante’s mother – and it was during this period of her late teens that Fraser and her mother ‘were least in accord: to sum up, she only thought about Politics and Small Children and I only thought about History and Romance.’

I did not realize at first that, as a future student at a university, with an assured place, I was a rarity among the debutantes.  I was to discover this when I began to acquire some dancing partners who would politely ask me about my autumn plans: ‘Are you going to the shoot at Stately Home X on November twenty-fifth…?’ ‘No,’ I would answer brightly: ‘I’ll be shooting down undergraduates.  I’m going to Oxford.’ After a few uncomprehending stares, I abandoned that line of chat and let it be understood that I was going to take a secretarial course, like the others.  All the same I began to dimly understand the inestimable advantage I had in 1950 in having an ambitious mother – ambitious for her daughter academically, that is, and not like Mrs Bennet seeking an advantageous matrimonial bargain.

While the peek into the social history of the post-war English middle class is interesting, the key recurring theme in this memoir  is Fraser’s love for history, which she read widely and in-depth.  I doubt there were too many teenagers who loved Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as much as she did.  Her first and truest historical love, though, was reserved for Mary Queen of Scots.  Even Fraser’s wedding headdress would be modeled on the Queen’s.  The memoir skips lightly over a handful of boyfriends and her first husband, a Tory MP and Scottish aristocrat, is not painted in any depth or colour either.  But Fraser’s love for history, and for biography in particular, emerges again and again.

The Resident Judge of Port Phillip reviewed this book recently (and I read it on her recommendation – thanks!) and noted that it included some discussion about the challenges of writing biography.  It was this aspect that originally drew me in and that I found the most interesting.  Upon emerging from Oxford Fraser fortuitously fell into a job with a publisher (her mother had sat next to him at a luncheon) and it was there her prodigious writing career began.  Every bit her mother’s daughter, Fraser managed to continue writing even while producing six children in the space of ten years.

Where serious research for a historical biography was concerned, I learnt the hard way … It was now for the first time that the pleasure of what for tax purposes I came to term (perfectly accurately) Optical Research was revealed to me.  It also could be called Going to Places and Looking at Them.  But what an essential process it is in the making of a historical biography!

Fraser’s memoir is just as engaging and witty as her biographies.  It is a bright and cheerful read although, like The Resident Judge, I found her childhood world to be deeply alien.   I’m keen now to search out more of her work.

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8 responses »

  1. What optical research do you have planned for Elizabeth Macarthur? I can’t see you droving sheep down Paramatta Rd, but how about a few days in a sailing ship, or maybe a holiday on an outback sheep station, you could take the horses.

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    • A sheep station is appealing but I’d have to use their horses. Mine would die of shock (too namby pamby). My trip to the UK was productive: Billinsgate, Plymouth, Bridgerule, etc. I think I subsequently blogged about it. And I’ve travelled up the Parramatta River by boat then walked to Elizabeth Farm and Old Government House – that was really useful to get a sense of the topography. Unlike Fraser, though, I’ve not yet managed to wrangle a tax deduction for it.

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  2. I do love a good memoir. And I love your opening comment. I suspect I’m a slow learner because although I’ve been aware that my life has been comfortable (and known that my family was categorically middle class not wealthy) it’s only been in the last few hears that I’ve become so completely aware of my privilege in world terms, let alone Australian terms because I now realise I’m privileged here too for all my “middle-class-ness”. It’s sobering.

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    • It’s sensible to be sobered by our privilege, I think, and to keep it front of mind. Fraser is driven by modesty, I suspect, rather than anything more sinister. And of course class is very much an English preoccupation. But I wonder if we are too much encouraged to feel guilty about our privilege. I loathe the phrase ‘first world problem’, for example, although I get it when it is used to raise a smile about inconsequential matters or silliness. But first world problems are, by defintition, the only sort I can have. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about third world problems… Oh dear, I’m ranting!

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      • Yes, I agree with you. “First world problem” can be over-used. As you say, they are still problems in our own context. It can be useful though to think about when you realise that the problem you are describing is not a world-shattering or critical one but an annoyance, if that makes sense.

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  3. Pingback: Best Reads 2016 | Adventures in Biography

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