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The life of the bewitching Lady Antonia Fraser

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My History: A Memoir of Growing Up by Antonia Fraser

My History: A Memoir of Growing Up by Antonia Fraser

Family holiday in the west of Ireland 1947:  Antonia (centre) with her siblings Paddy, Thomas,  and Judith on Skellig island.

Family holiday in the west of Ireland 1947: Antonia (centre) with her siblings Paddy, Thomas, and Judith on Skellig island.

Antonia Fraser

Antonia Fraser

My History - A Memoir of Growing Up - Antonia Fraser

My History - A Memoir of Growing Up - Antonia Fraser

My History: A Memoir of Growing Up by Antonia Fraser

When I was a young reporter in London's Fleet Street, there were two much-adored celebrities on the glitterati's radar -both beautiful, clever and bewitching: these were Edna O'Brien and Lady Antonia Fraser. Both, as it happened, had Irish connections. And indeed in this memoir, the historian Antonia recalls a moment when, in a literary Paris setting, there were some haughty criticisms of "an Englishwoman" having the nerve to produce a biography of Queen Marie-Antoinette: she protested, with persuasive charm "Moi, je suis irlandaise!" which turned the tide entirely in her favour.

As is widely known, Antonia is the eldest child of the late Frank Packenham, Lord Longford, of Tullynally Castle in Co Westmeath, devoted friend, even worshipper, of Eamon de Valera, and Elizabeth Longford, the historian and biographer. Antonia was conceived at Lismore, the Duke of Devonshire's Irish seat, when the chatelaine there was Adele Astaire, sister of the more famous Fred. Born in 1932, Antonia was to be the first of eight children, and just 11 months older than her next brother, Thomas, whom she calls her "Irish twin", and to whom she has co-dedicated this book.

Fairy godmothers smiled particularly on Antonia from the start: she was gifted, pretty, lucky, and had a temperament of fortitude and serenity. It was in some ways a privileged upbringing - her parents knew everyone in London, Oxford, and of course, Ireland - TS Eliot, John Betjeman, Sonia Orwell, Hugh Gaitskill, Clarissa Churchill, Cecil Beaton, among many others, and in Italy the ruling elite like the De Gasparis. The aristocracy and upper classes are also richly intermarried so there are interesting cousins too - her mother was a cousin of Neville Chamberlain and an aunt to Harriet Harman MP - and the Pakenhams are intermarried with a clutch of writers, including the Irish poet and playwright Lord Dunsany, patron to Francis Ledwidge.

Yet, if privilege smiled upon the Longfords and "Dada" - Frank was so accustomed to servants he literally couldn't make himself a cup of tea, nonetheless there was an austere streak too - no bad thing in the matter of character-forming. Elizabeth Longford came originally from Unitarian stock and believed in high thinking and plain living. When Antonia was shopping for a wedding dress, her mother sought to make a matching donation, for the price of the frock, to Oxfam.

Although there were regular holidays in Ireland, Antonia mostly grew up in Oxford, where she excelled as a schoolgirl and at playing rugby (she is also an ace shot, as it happens). She went to Oxford University where her father was a don and after a spell working at Fenwick's department store - where she was asked to model hats, because of a passing resemblance to Julie Christie - she proceeded to work for George Weidenfeld, the publisher. A job opportunity prompted by her mother's connections. Lord Weidenfeld, Antonia reminds us, was not only a brilliant publisher but he had the best chat-up lines with intelligent and attractive young women: "Have you ever thought of writing a book?"

And so began her long career as a writer and historian.

Antonia knew she wanted to marry a Catholic aristocrat, and presently she was indeed engaged to Hugh Fraser, an affable Tory MP, and younger brother of the war hero Lord Lovat, from a Catholic Highland family: they would have six children. The Queen Mother advised her to "have a fling" before marriage, but "a fling" was the last thing she wanted at that age.

In the fullness of time, she would marry, for the second time, the playwright Harold Pinter, and there is a happy point of serendipity when she returns to the Gate Theatre in Dublin with Harold, where dear Michael Colgan is running a season of the Pinter plays: it's serendipitous for Antonia because her beloved uncle, Edward, the previous Earl, used to stand outside the Gate collecting money to keep that Dublin institution afloat, back in the 1950s and 60s. I contributed many a schoolgirl sixpence.

Uncle Edward, "the fattest man in Ireland", often signed himself "Eamon Longphort". With his wife, Christine, he deserves to be remembered for his service to the arts in this country. Some have found ­Antonia's early life a little grand, and the text a little name-dropping, but names make news, and are worth mentioning when relevant.

She is also unfailingly generous in paying tribute where tribute is due: she particularly singles out Aidan Higgins as a great Irish writer, and I'm glad she reminds readers, too, of Harold Pinter's short but wonderful memoir of life as a repertory actor in Ireland in 1950, Mac.

Against the often bleak view of Ireland in the 1940s and 50s, Antonia too provides a sunnier counter-narrative.

It is also clear that her Catholic faith means a lot to her: the co-dedicatee of her book is the Loreto nun who first encouraged her, and she notes that she finished this memoir on the feast of St Anthony. Pinter was an atheist who nonetheless agreed to have their marriage convalidated as a Catholic sacrament because he loved her: it would be hard indeed not to be utterly entranced by the remarkable Lady Antonia.

This memoir of Antonia's early life ends in 1970 with the publication of her first book, Mary Queen of Scots, which became a worldwide bestseller.

Happily, there is much more to come.

 

My History: A Memoir of Growing Up; Antonia Fraser; Weidenfeld & Nicholson, hdbk, 300pp, £20

Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350

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