Lady Antonia Fraser greets me from behind a mountain of books as I enter the drawing room in her Holland Park home. She is sitting, resplendent in pink, and greets me as if an old friend. The first two books that she draws my attention to are not written by her, but by her friends: Ambrogio A Caiani’s To Kidnap a Pope: Napoleon and Pius VII (a “riveting subject”) and Ruth Scurr’s Napoleon: A Life in Gardens and Shadows (a “completely original writer”). “You might think there have been enough biographies of Napoleon but actually both of them are completely brilliant and completely fascinating,” she tells me.
Fraser herself is not afraid of tackling big subjects: Mary Queen of Scots, Cromwell, King Charles II, the wives of Henry VIII, Marie Antoinette and, of course, more recently The King and The Catholics about Catholic emancipation – many of these cover ground well-trodden. “I think what biographers have got to be is tremendously interested in the subject. Because if I’m interested, you’re going to be interested.” When writing, she likes to pretend “no one has ever written another book on the subject even though I know perfectly well not only that other people have written on the subject but that I have benefited from them”.
Her latest subject is more niche: in May of this year, Weidenfeld & Nicolson published The Case of the Married Woman: Caroline Norton: A 19th Century Heroine Who Wanted Justice for Women. Its heroine, Caroline Norton, was accused by her husband (George Norton MP) of having an affair with the prime minister, Lord Melbourne. When Caroline was denied access to her three young children, she refused to despair. Faced with the personal cruelties perpetrated by her husband and a society whose rules were set against her, she chose to fight. Many provisions taken for granted today, such as divorced mothers having access to their children, are owed to Caroline Norton. It is written with Fraser’s customary flair and zeal, and it is clear to the reader that, as Fraser says: “I’ve got to fall in love, you know, and be slightly obsessed.”
Fraser’s affection for her heroine Caroline Norton is contagious. “After The King and the Catholics, I wanted to write a book centred on a law case because I am fascinated by the law. I dimly remembered reading something about the case of Caroline Norton. At the time, my granddaughter was reading for the Bar and wanted to earn an honest penny so I asked her if she could find me the transcript of this trial. And with the brilliance that has made her a barrister, she found it. Of course, I was so taken with it. It’s incredible, the whole trial. I read it and I thought, ‘I’ve got to do this’ and so I did. The whole idea º that her husband sued her for adultery with the prime minister. As if a prime minister could ever commit adultery!” she says, with a twinkle in her eye.
Boris Johnson is in fact an acquaintance of Fraser’s. Her sister, Lady Rachel Billington (also a writer) is the prime minister’s godmother because “from birth she was the best friend of Charlotte, his mother”. “It seems to me that whatever you think of it, one good effect of the prime minister’s marriage in a Catholic church might be that people who have divorced in their past might be able to go to Communion. I know lots of people who really are good Catholics but there has been divorce, which might happen to anyone. The Pope is lightening up and, after all, what is the Christian religion really about? The New Testament.”
Fraser’s warmth and welcoming approach are unsurprising: she is from a huge family, the eldest of eight children born to Frank Pakenham, the 7th Earl of Longford, and his wife Elizabeth Harman, also an historian. On Sundays, Fraser goes to the Jesuits in Farm Street “because my father was converted by Father D’Arcy” (who, incidentally, was also responsible for receiving writer Evelyn Waugh into the Church). She has six children from her first marriage to Sir Hugh Fraser and many, many grandchildren and now great-grandchildren who feature frequently in her anecdotes.
Does Catholicism survive among her progeny? “I can’t speak for them but my great-grandchildren have all had Catholic baptisms. One of my granddaughters got married in an Anglican church but with a Catholic priest. I’m all for these kinds of arrangements,” she tells me.
Catholicism has featured heavily in her work, but Fraser denies its influence, saying “it [Catholicism] is only important if it’s important to the subject”, before explaining: “Obviously there’s no such thing as a biographer without feelings and beliefs of their own.” Catholicism was of course “very important with Mary Queen of Scots” and with Cromwell, Our Chief of Men, “it was important with regards to what the Irish were like and what Cromwell was doing to them”. She doesn’t seek particularly Catholic subjects and there is no Catholicism in Caroline Norton. However, it is clear that the very premise of Norton’s tale and the themes of marriage, divorce and motherhood are fascinating to Fraser; these themes are of course inextricably entwined with the Catholic Church and Catholic life.
Life over the past year has been very different, but Fraser, despite living alone, is undefeated. “In the first lockdown I was terribly lucky because I’d just finished the research for Caroline Norton and I thought, ‘Now I really need time to write it’ and lo and behold – time! The weather was so beautiful. I spent half the time in the garden and the other half upstairs writing my book.” She writes “every day when I’m writing” and already has her next book lined up, but is sworn to secrecy as to its subject.
It’s amazing to think someone who has researched and written quite so many books still has the energy to write more. “My biographies have got shorter,” Fraser says, “but I think that’s to do with having more confidence. When I wrote Cromwell, my second book, in order to show I’d read every single thing about Cromwell, I kept pointing that out in the text. I wouldn’t take anything out, but if I’d written it now, I would have condensed it slightly.”
She is a voracious reader and has in the past described herself as a “reading addict”. “I have to have a Kindle with me wherever I go. I read a lot of other history but for comfort I always go back to Trollope and the Pallisers. At the moment I am beginning to reread the Olivia Manning Balkan Trilogy.” The Pallisers bring us back to Boris Johnson, of whom Fraser says: “I can see him as a Trollopian character, thinking of his ambition. Did I think he was going to be prime minister? I never thought about it at all! He thought it.”
With a prime minister who may be Catholic, is Catholicism changing in the United Kingdom? “I can’t predict anything,” she says, when I ask her what the future of the church in this country is. “I would like a lot of thought to be given to the position of women in the church so that young women are encouraged to go forward as Catholics. The Church must change in order to remain the same.” I leave, having been offered a glass of wine, wishing that the Catholic Church could have more female voices like Antonia Fraser’s.
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