antonia

I’m not a particular fan of Antonia Fraser (I’ve only ever read The Wives of Henry VIII by her) but I couldn’t resist this memoir about her pre-war/wartime childhood and post-war teen years and the experiences that turned her into a historian. Both of Fraser’s parents were politicians and very well-connected so she had a colorful childhood of campaigning for her parents and growing up with seven siblings in a household that encouraged curiosity and learning. When Antonia was a girl she became enchanted with Mary Queen of Scots and her passion for this tragic figure runs all through the novel leading to her writing her first major historical biography of Mary in the late sixties, which kickstarted her career.

Fraser’s memories about her childhood and education are fascinating and reading about the famous figures she knew as a child is impressive and jaw-dropping. This is a woman who had both Christine Longford and Anthony Powell in her family and received letters from her parents’ friend Evelyn Waugh, among others. I really enjoyed the book up through her school years. However, once she goes off to Oxford I think it dragged a bit, became overly name-droppy and wasn’t as interesting. But, overall, this is a wonderful account of the making of a historian and of what it was like to be a privileged child in England in the 30’s and 40’s.

It has inspired me to seek out some of her books – I’d especially like to read her book on Marie Antoinette.

Have you read Antonia Fraser’s historical biographies or other works?

12 Comments

  1. I tried her Jemima Shore books years ago and I’m afraid I loathed them. The heroine was so feebly susceptible to any male around that they only had to look at her and she fell into bed with them – or so I seem to recall! Maybe her historical works are better!

    • I certainly hope they’re better! I don’t like the sound of those Jemima Shore books – she only mentions them briefly in the memoir.

  2. piningforthewest

    I’ve read most of her Scottish/British royalty biographies and have Boadicea waiting to be read, haven’t read her Marie Antoinette yet. I think I would find her memoir fascinating but also annoying, as all these ‘silver spooned’ people tend to be, it’s envy I’m sure! I also find people who have changed religions to be always a bit suspect mentally, it certainly never stopped her from behaving really badly and splitting up a marriage.

    • She writes about her conversion in a really breezy, ‘fun’ way that sounded very odd. I think she only converted because her parents did and she thought it was romantic – that’s what it seemed to me. And I did get a bit tired of hearing about all the advantages she had in life. She certainly didn’t have to struggle very hard for her success. But reading about her childhood is very interesting as a way of life that has gone by the wayside (I think).

  3. I have read only “The Six Wives of Henry Vlll” which I found quite hard-going but I did finish it. Her father, Lord Longford was a bit of loose cannon.

    I heard her recently reading from her biography, it must have been one of the 15 minute slots on Radio 4, in the mornings. I was interested to start with but, as happened with you, I became tired of her and wanted to hear no more.

    • Her father was a very enigmatic and aloof presence in the book and in her childhood it sounds like. He was more involved with his politics and his causes and his wife than with his children, which she admits.
      It took me about 3 weeks to finish this and I didn’t realize it before, but I think it was because I didn’t really like hearing about her late teens/early adulthood – it wasn’t as charming to me and was more about all the famous people that she met than about her experiences.

  4. I confess that I have only read about Antonia Fraser. As soon as I learn that somebody adores Mary Queen of Scots, I check out immediately, unless it becomes clear that they are talking about the CW show Reign, in which case, we can talk I suppose. :p

  5. I have this out from the library now, and I’m pretty sure I won’t get to it before it’s due. Now I’m wondering if I want to put it back on the list.

    I had her book on Mary Queen of Scots on the TBR shelves for years, before I finally admitted I was never going to read it and gave it to the library sale.

    • I would say if you have other books that are more enticing this can probably wait for another day. It was wonderful in its way, but not a must read.
      It’s funny you gave her Mary book to the library sale – that’s where I bought her Marie Antoinette book!

  6. The book on Marie Antoinette is good – a bit too cute (she tries to make you believe her romantic idea) but the information is excellent.

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