The acclaimed New York Times bestselling author shares vivid memories of her childhood and recalls the experiences that set her on the path to a writing life.
Ever since she received Our Island Story by H. E. Marshall as a Christmas present in 1936, Antonia Fraser's deep love of history has been a constant in her remarkable life. The book made such an impression that it inspired her to write Mary, Queen of Scots thirty years later.
Born into British aristocracy, the author's idyllic early childhood was interrupted by a wartime evacuation to North Oxford. The relocation had profound effects on her life, not the least of which was her education at a Catholic convent and her eventual conversion from the Protestant faith to Catholicism. Her memories of holidays spent at Dunsany Castle and Pakenham Hall, a stint as "Miss Tony" selling hats in a London department store, and her early days working in publishing are all told in her singular, irresistible voice.
My History is a heartfelt memoir that is also a love letter to a British way of life that has all but disappeared. Anglophiles, history lovers, and Downton Abbey fans are sure to be enthralled.
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ANTONIA FRASER is the author of many internationally bestselling historical works, including Love and Louis XIV, Marie Antoinette, which was made into a film by Sofia Coppola, The Wives of Henry VIII, Mary Queen of Scots, and Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot. Her most recent book, Must You Go, is a memoir of her relationship with and marriage to the playwright and actor Harold Pinter. She has received the Wolfson Prize for History, the 2000 Norton Medlicott Medal of Britain's Historical Association, and the Franco-British Society's Enid McLeod Literary Prize. She has been President of English PEN, chairman of the Society of Authors, and chairman of the Crime Writers' Association. She was made a Dame of the British Empire for services to Literature in 2011.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
THE SOUND OF BELLS
Any time, any place, the sound of bells reminds me of Oxford. Venice at evening: I’m transported back to childhood. The water dissolves into the River Cherwell, St. Mark’s fades into Christ Church doorway, the romantic gondolas become everyday bicycles. Much later, when I discovered for myself the poetry of Edward Thomas, his most famous poem became transposed in my mind: all the bells of Oxfordshire, not the birds, sang for him at Adlestrop. And for me ever since.
I was not in fact born in Oxford--although I sometimes feel I was--but this tremendous influence began to exert itself before I was three years old. In May 1935 I remember being lifted from my bed at my parents’ home on Rose Hill, South Oxford, in the middle of the night and taken on an adventure. The next thing I knew I was gazing at a lofty stone tower, all covered in lights, like a heavenly apparition. When I asked in a mystified voice what was going to happen now, I was told rather crossly to admire the tower.
“It’s the King and Queen,” I was informed. Which was the King, which was the Queen? There were all kinds of possibilities in the illuminated darkness of the summer night. For that matter what was the King . . . Nobody enlightened me further. Soon I was taken back to bed, unaware not only that it was the Jubilee of King George V and Queen Mary, but also I had been gazing at the tower of Magdalen College, the foundation stone laid in 1492, and at 144 feet the tallest building in Oxford. Nevertheless I knew that I had been allowed to glimpse something extraordinary; I had gazed through the window into another magic world of ancient towers and stones which surely only appeared under cover of darkness.
My feeling of privilege deepened the next morning when my younger brother Thomas somehow realized that he had been excluded from a grown-up treat, and screamed with rage. This increased my feeling of possessiveness about what I had seen. Wonderland was clearly not for everyone. That memory of wonderland persisted. Asking for an unspecified recording of Oxford bells among my Desert Island Discs in 2008--the first time such a choice had been made, I believe--I was enchanted to discover that the bells in question were those of Magdalen College. As I listened, wonderland once more returned.
I was born on 27 August 1932. The headline of The Times for that day was: GERMAN CRISIS; it went on to comment rather wearily: “with the start of a new week, the stage is set for another of the periodic German crises.” (The Nazis were already the largest party in the Reichstag: six months later Hitler was made Chancellor.) An unspoken commentary on what happened when such crises bubbled over was provided by the In Memoriam column. It was led by the names of those who had died “On Active Service” in the war which had ended fourteen years earlier: rather more than half the entries.
Of more obvious concern to those in London, there was a heatwave. A few days earlier, standing at the window, Virginia Woolf said to herself: “Look at the present moment because it’s not been so hot for 21 years.” As for my mother, throughout the long humid days of waiting, she spent all her time in the water happily if impatiently, often accompanied by her young sister-in-law Violet. This might incidentally explain my lifelong addiction to swimming: since my earliest memory I have always understood what John Cheever expressed so eloquently: “To be embraced and sustained by the light green water was less a pleasure, it seemed, than the resumption of a natural condition.”
The event took place in a house in Sussex Gardens loaned by Margaret, Countess of Birkenhead, widow of my father’s patron, F. E. Smith. Thus it was both a home birth, as was customary with women of my mother’s class in those days, and an away-from-home birth, upped from a cottage to a grand London residence. Today I sometimes gaze at what is now Riyadh House, and contemplate the small patch of railed-in garden outside in the middle of the road round which taxis swirl on their way to Paddington. My first outing to this patch, on the fifth day, was duly noted in my mother’s magisterial Progress Book (with its daunting preface by the publisher: “If the suggested records are carefully made, they will prove of invaluable assistance to the doctor in later years”). Impossible to contemplate leaving a baby in a hugely ostentatious Thirties pram alone there now, but with the sublime confidence of the time, my mother simply noted: “a strong wind, glimpses of sun, roar of traffic.”
She also noted that I was born at 2:45 a.m. BST, which placed me with the sun in the sign of Virgo and the sign of Cancer rising. The latter delightful information, which made me brilliantly hard-working yet oh, so sensitive and caring (no one ever seems to have a dull horoscope), I only discovered many years later when I was working with George Weidenfeld and Sonia Orwell: both of them boasted of being brilliant hard-working Virgos. It certainly meant nothing to my mother. On the other hand I was delivered by a female doctor, which obviously meant a great deal to her, with views on women which would have made her into a suffragette if the battle had not been won already by her valiant predecessors. In fact her twenty-first birthday fell in August 1927, so that she was able to vote in 1929, the first British General Election in which all women over twenty-one were able to do so.
When I was born, my parents, Frank and Elizabeth Pakenham, had been married less than ten months. My mother confided to me later that I was a honeymoon baby, conceived at Lismore Castle, in Southern Ireland, where the newly wed pair were staying with Lord Charles Cavendish and his wife Adele Astaire. When I was young, I managed to derive from this an exotic feeling of destiny--a castellated start to my life! It was in fact far more to the point that my parents’ marriage was one which would last for nearly seventy years, where the deep affection never failed and nor did the lively conversation which developed from the affection, to back it up.
It must have been sometime in the 1980s that my mother reported to me with shining eyes: “You know, Dada and I had such a wonderful time last night.” I began to speculate: Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle (my mother was a devout monarchist in her later years) before she interrupted me: “No, no, just us: we had a fascinating argument about the proper role of the Papacy with regard to a Protestant country. Frank thought . . . But I totally disagreed . . .” Not everyone’s idea of romantic chat, perhaps, nevertheless it was clearly just as exciting for them to be arguing with each other some fifty years into their marriage as it had been at the outset. One notes, too, that in any argument they were equal partners in disagreement.
This outstandingly happy union did not in fact have a particularly auspicious beginning. Within the narrow confines of the British class system of the time, much narrower than it is today, with fewer ramifications, my parents came from completely different backgrounds. My mother, born Elizabeth Harman in 1906, was the daughter of a Harley Street doctor, Nathaniel Bishop Harman: she was in fact born and brought up at 108 Harley Street, where he had his consulting rooms as an ophthalmic surgeon. Her mother was Katherine Chamberlain, one of the seven daughters of Joseph Chamberlain’s brother Arthur; this incidentally meant that my mother was a cousin of Neville Chamberlain, the future Prime Minister, although their politics would be very different.
It was an extremely affluent setting in terms of comfort and style. A tall eighteenth-century house, 108 Harley Street contained both a residence and consulting rooms. My mother revealed to me that there had been five servants and, when I expressed ingenuous surprise, said carelessly: “Well, we needed a man to carry up the coal to the nursery on the top floor.” But of course the lavishness of domestic help, taken for granted by the middle class at that time--the Harman arrangements were nothing unusual--was a phenomenon which vanished altogether with the Second World War.
As a young woman Katie Chamberlain had herself trained as a doctor: a comparatively early example of a female in the profession. She qualified at the Royal Free Hospital; although it was said that Katie had only ever earned one fee of £3 for extracting a wisdom tooth, before marrying Nat Harman in 1905. My grandmother was then thirty-three and immediately gave up her profession to bear five children, while running the household at Harley Street. You could say that my mother was offered two possible role models if she contemplated her own mother’s career. On the one hand Katherine Harman was a woman who had actually trained for a profession--out of choice, since the Chamberlain family was by most standards wealthy. This state of affairs was still unusual. On the other hand, my grandmother was a woman who had instantly abandoned her profession on marriage and thrown in her lot with her husband and family. In later years, as I began to contemplate the trajectory of my mother’s life with detachment, I could discern both influences.
At the time of my parents’ courtship, it was more important that the Harmans were proudly middle-class. This was a time when refinements such as “upper middle-class” and “lower middle-class” were not in use or, if they were, they were not in use by my mother. On the contrary, she brought me up to believe that not only were we purely and simply middle-class, but that this was the most striking, splendid, admirable thing to be. This impression is confirmed by my father’s account in his autobiography Born to Believe: Elizabeth prided herself on being a member of the middle class, who were “the salt of the earth.” There were other classes of course; but the upper class were the “non-spinners” of the Bible as in “they toil not neither do they spin”--the lilies of the field; the poor on the other hand were there to be helped. I’m not sure in her heart of hearts my mother ever really deviated from this position.
Certainly she left me with an early impression of the extravagance, fecklessness, unpunctuality and impracticality of the upper class--as epitomized by our father, in contrast to her own neat, strong virtues. My mother for example carved a joint with skill and drove a car with determination; my father did neither of these things. She also wrote in a clear, immaculate handwriting without crossings out . . . my father conveyed his thoughts in a series of parallel unbending strokes of the pen in which occasional words like TOP SECRET stood out but which were otherwise totally illegible. Nothing captured the difference between them so vividly for a child as the contrast in these two modes of parental expression.
The Harman grandparents who had produced this intelligent and attractive eldest child--Elizabeth was both these things in the opinion of her contemporaries, who elected her an Isis Idol in the undergraduate newspaper when she was at Oxford--were formidable people. Or so I found them in the course of our frequent visits to their house, Larksfield, on the top of Crockham Hill near Edenbridge in Kent.
Grandfather was tall and terrifying as his blue eyes flashed above his white moustache. He had begun life as a Baptist, and even worked as a Baptist missionary at the Regent’s Park College before turning to medicine. Reluctantly he became a Unitarian to marry Miss Chamberlain, her family being prominent Unitarians; when I listened to him in his role of lay preacher at the local Unitarian chapel, I believe something of the old Baptist must have still been lurking. His style was lofty, almost manic, inspiring: as a preacher he carried the absolute conviction and excitement that comes from knowing you are in the right, with Someone Very Powerful not to say Almighty behind you (or rather above you) in case of any trouble. Many years later, trying to recreate the speeches of Oliver Cromwell in my imagination in order to attempt his biography, I drew on my memories of Grandfather preaching--that certainty that you were on the right side.
Nathaniel Harman was born in 1869 and did not marry till he was thirty-six. I have always supposed that this feeling of God-given patriarchal authority was something he carried over with him from the Victorian era: since it was nothing that I would encounter with my own father, with time I was grateful for the experience, and not only as a clue to the oratorical style of Oliver Cromwell. All the same I could understand why even my bold, fearless mother was frightened of him.
Grannie in contrast was small, but she was also frightening if in a more intimate way. Perhaps it was the fact that the pair were addressed as Mother and Father--such coldly descriptive words--which worried me, whose own parents were more sentimentally known as Mummy and Dada (the latter being Irish and what my father had called his own father). But if Grannie was small, she was also robust, with sturdy legs in brown stockings; a black straw was perched on top of her dark hair, as it seemed to me at all seasons. Here undoubtedly was a strong character, as we quickly recognized. When Thomas forgot to write her a thank-you letter for his Christmas present, she sent him nothing the next year except a note explaining the reason for its absence. It ended: “You are in my thoughts nonetheless”: this was more disquieting than comforting.
Grannie also brooked no opposition when it came to domestic rituals like washing up. On one occasion I adopted, apparently, a slapdash approach to cleaning the breakfast china. This was the famous blue-and-white willow ware which commemorated a Chinese legend in which a rich mandarin’s daughter elopes with his secretary; when he pursues the couple on to a bridge, they are turned into lovebirds, fluttering forever beyond his reach. In vain I tried to explain that I had been busy working out the story (which was true). I was sentenced to do the whole thing again “until it is clean.” “Perhaps it will never be clean,” I replied cheekily. “Just like the Augean stables.” I had just learnt about the Labours of Hercules and saw an opportunity to show off. Grannie did not answer. Her manner indicated that this particular labour would in fact be completed and pretty soon if she had anything to do with it.
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