In a frank interview, the famed writer talks about motherhood, Catholicism, her parents and soulmate Harold Pinter
Lady Antonia Fraser adjusts her pearls, gazes out of the french windows opening out to the garden, and tells me to f*** awf. This, five minutes into our interview, comes straight after her waving a two-fingered salute at Private Eye.
I had inadvertently mentioned the satirical magazine, so thought I might as well ask her whether she had forgiven the chaps yet for nicknaming her Lady Magnesia Freelove - ooooh, about four decades ago, when London was swinging in every sense of the word. Her first response was as measured and dignified as her demeanour: "I'll tell you what, Ginny, I decided that as I was campaigning for a free press, I couldn't object. But I, too, was free and I never read Private Eye again - because I have the freedom not to read it."
She went on to say that she does read all her reviews: "I take the criticism, you know. I'm interested by it. Of course, I'd much rather have a favourable than an unfavourable review and I mind what the public thinks of my books and I mind what the critics think, you know, historians, but as to what Private Eye thinks, well..." and then came the surprising V-sign.
Did she do that before she met Harold Pinter? "No, he's been a very bad influence on me." I tell her about an interview I did with the late Alan Clark when, on a tour of Saltwood Castle, he greeted a magisterial portrait of his father, Kenneth "Civilisation" Clark, with the same disrespectful gesture. "How frightfully funny!" Lady Antonia, 75, says. Does she often use the F-word, I ask. "No. That's why I put my fingers up." Has she ever used it? "Yes." Can I hear you say it? "Well, I don't want to look at you. Erm..." and then she gamely obliges. But why did she feel that she had to avert her gaze? "Well, I thought it would be so rude to look at someone and say it," she says, and offers me another cup of coffee.
We are sitting in the living room of the house in Holland Park that has been home to Fraser for most of her adulthood. Like her rich and varied life, there is an impression of colour and profusion: walls covered in paintings, flowers tumbling out of vases, every inch of a coffee table layered with handsome books on opera, which she describes as her passion. She is wearing a smart navy dress and has debutante deportment, knees clamped tight at right angles to her feet, which are clad in black patent leather court shoes. This is where she lived with her first husband, Sir Hugh Fraser, the Catholic Conservative MP whom she married in 1956 at the age of 23, and, six children later, divorced in 1977. Two years earlier, the Frasers and their guest Caroline Kennedy narrowly escaped being blown up by an IRA bomb which had been secreted under the MP's Jaguar. Their neighbour, Gordon Hamilton-Fairley, was killed when he spotted something suspicious under the car while walking his dogs.
This was the same year, 1975, that Lady A had her coup de foudre with the playwright Harold Pinter while he was still married to the actress Vivien Merchant. The next year, her anthology Love Letters was published with its dedication "for Harold". In her introduction she wrote: 'It is obvious... that I am on the side of love letters... Anyone can write a love letter and almost everybody has - one should beware those who boast of never having fallen in love, there is either something missing somewhere or else the boaster is subtly begging to be roused from his or her frozen state of inanition."
This reads like a clarion call to lovers. During her research, she wrote: "My friends were not slow to suggest the great love letters of fiction, whereas I should have much preferred them to turn out their own." Fraser has always maintained that her intimate approach to historical biography - did such and such a king visit his mistress's bed or vice versa - revealed a great deal about the character of her subjects as well as the period.
I had rather hoped that this might mean she would be relaxed about talking about her own ancient history in this respect, the list of admirers detailed in the Daily Mail all those years ago, but she says: "I am making no comment on that. I have never confirmed or denied." But why have they (Jonathan Aitken, ex-King Constantine of Greece, Rupert Lycett-Green, Lord Lambton and Robert Stephens, who confirmed an affair in his autobiography) been written about with such authority? "You tell me. But what I would point out is you will not find one statement from me on the subject." Does she think it is unseemly to talk about it, even at this remove, or that married women shouldn't take lovers... "None of your business," she says, firmly but without a trace of froideur.
In my research, I came across a gem of an article written by Aitken in 1969, the year of Fraser's first biography, Mary Queen of Scots, which was a publishing phenomenon. He sounds mildly irritated: "Antonia Fraser rather defensively likes to mention the interviews she has turned down. Some cynical observers might think she has turned them down only because she had difficulty fitting them into her schedule." But then beguiled: "Lady Antonia turns out to be a sort of Lady Madonna of the tennis courts. Clad in a plain white miniskirt, with a glory of golden hair tumbling over her shoulders, and beautiful Botticelli-like features, she looks about half the 36 years she claims on the book's dust jacket."
Wherever this attraction may or may not have led, the two have remained close in the intervening decades. She describes him as "a very kind person who takes a lot of trouble... I'm sure there are lots of people in the world who nobody knows about who've been helped by Jonathan." She talks about her grandson - one of an incredible 17 grandchildren - Thomas, son of Benji, who is at Harrow where Aitken gave a talk about literacy in prisons and prison reforms: "Thomas went up to him and introduced himself and Jonathan took infinite trouble to talk to him about his grandfather, Hugh, whom of course he never knew."
I wonder whether she found her old friend much changed after his seven-month spell in prison. "He came to lunch after he came out and he was incredibly thin, of course. Very, very thin," Fraser recalls. "Yes, I think he has changed. He would say that he's seen the light. I don't know what language he uses but..." He's embraced religion? "Really embraced it, believes strongly. And this is what saved him in adversity. I think it's wonderful to be saved by something spiritual."
This talk of prisons and spiritual succour takes us into Fraser's own fascinating family and, in particular, her father Lord Longford, who died in 2001 at the age of 95; 14 months later, in October, her mother, the writer Elizabeth Longford, died at 96. In November, the next month, Myra Hindley - the child murderer on whose behalf Lord Longford had campaigned - also died, at 60, of a chest infection.
What were her views of Hindley? "I never met her. I want to make that quite clear. Didn't want to meet her. Wasn't asked to meet her. I think that I admired my father for his position that no one is beyond redemption, very much. But the children were the same age as my oldest children so
I could never really read about it and if I did, I felt too unhappy. I did think, 'Why shouldn't she be parolled after 35 years, just logically, you know, she cannot be a danger.' On the other hand, a bit of me thought about the wretched parents. So I just didn't want to be involved in either position." But did she talk to him about her? "No. Didn't want to."
As she says, the Pinters' shelves are full of books stuffed with horrific details of the torture of prisoners and human rights travesties - indeed, it could be argued that her husband is almost as famous for his political anger, these days, as for his plays - so it is not as though Fraser's sensibilities are too delicate to dwell on unpleasantness, complicated or otherwise. But, equally, there was something so viscerally horrible about the Brady-Hindley cases that one can understand her reluctance to form any sort of connection with the murderers. Her father once tried to read her the letters Brady had written to him about his daughter's Mary Queen of Scots. "And I said, 'Stop there! I've no interest in what Ian Brady thinks of Mary Queen of Scots.'"
The eldest of the Longfords' eight children - Antonia's sister, Catherine, the baby girl of the family, was killed in a car crash at the age of 23 in 1969 - Fraser is still protective of her father, who became a somewhat lampooned caricature of an eccentric, with his anti-pornography stance (he was nicknamed Lord Porn) and the public unease about his championing of Myra Hindley. "I liked talking to my father very much and we had a lot in common," she says. "We were both fascinated by history and politics and oratory and as I say, I admired his principles. But the nitty-gritty of prison visiting wasn't for me." (Rachel Billington, her writer sibling, has taken up their father's prison mantle and still contributes to Inside Time, the only national newspaper for prisoners, which she helped found in 1990.)
The one position Lord Longford took that caused his whole family to blanch was his intolerance of gays. "The funniest moment was when my father got up in the House of Lords - it was the homosexual debate, Clause 28 - and he said, 'I am proud to say that none of my grandchildren is homosexual,'" Fraser recalls. "And one of my children [they range between 40 and 50 now] rang up and said, 'I've a good mind to come out of the closet,' not that the child was in it, you know, but, 'I've a good mind to declare myself as gay... I found that so irritating.'" Did they give him a hard time over it? "No, not really. They loved him."
Reading about her family background, one can quite see how impossible it would be for any of the offspring to lead average lives. Her father, Frank Pakenham, was a peer four times over - three baronies (Pakenham, Longford and Silchester) and one earldom (Longford). After the predictable trajectory of Eton and Oxford, Longford (the seventh earl of) became a don at Christ Church, where he met and fell in love with Elizabeth Harman, a bewitchingly attractive undergraduate, described as the Zuleika Dobson of her day.
Fraser's maternal grandparents were Unitarians - a non-conformist faith with a strong emphasis on social reform (notable followers include Charles Dickens, Beatrix Potter and Elizabeth Gaskell). Her mother was a great niece of the Tory radical Joseph Chamberlain and a first cousin once removed of the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain. (Harriet Harman is Elizabeth Longford's niece.) "All of that was very important to us," Fraser says. "I had cousins my age I could stay with in Birmingham where my grandfather - N. Bishop Harman - was a very distinguished doctor and secretary of the BMA. He was also a lay preacher and I remember his great, thundering, terrific sermons - sort of Reverend Ian Paisley [I'm also thinking of Pinter's lambasting oratorical style]. Many years later, when I came to write about Cromwell, I started to think about my grandfather again. Various people said, 'How can a Catholic write about Cromwell?' And I said, 'I have no Catholic blood. My father was Protestant Church of Ireland and my mother was Unitarian up to the age of 20, when she abandoned it.'"
It wasn't until she was in her thirties that Fraser discovered that her father had suffered a nervous breakdown when she was a child. In the earliest cuttings, before she was aware of this, the writer referred to him being a gentle but rather shadowy presence in the home, with her mother by far the more vivid character. This makes rather more sense in hindsight. She remembers reading in the newspapers that he had announced that he'd had a breakdown, "and I said to my mother, 'But that's not true, he just had very bad flu.' And she said, 'No, he had a breakdown in the Army,' which he insisted on going into very bravely... because he was 35." And not cut out for it? "No, but because his father was a war hero who died at Galipolli..." So he had to live up to that? "Yes, and then he was saved by the Catholic faith." She says that on his prison visits he would read from the New Testament and took it very literally: "I've got one of his huge-print bibles - he was pretty well blind - and he'd marked things on all the pages." She can't be sure but she thinks it was Evelyn Waugh who converted him. "They were good friends and certainly became much closer after my father became a Catholic."
There were other conversions, too. Elizabeth Longford became a committed socialist in the early Thirties when she was a Workers Education Association lecturer in Stoke-on-Trent and witnessed the reality of ordinary people's lives. It was she who persuaded her husband to leave his job at Conservative Central Office and switch political allegiances. He went on to become a junior minister in the Labour government from 1945-1951 and was a cabinet minister under Harold Wilson from 1964-68. His wife had her own political aspirations but finally abandoned them in 1950 after fighting the general election unsuccessfully as Labour candidate for Oxford. Antonia used to joke about, "Mummy's red mac for canvassing and grey fur coats for everything else." To which her mother's reply was: "If I could have found a red fur coat, I would have worn it." Elizabeth went on to write her own acclaimed historical biographies in her late fifties on Queen Victoria and the Duke of Wellington and in 1986, at the age of 80, she published her memoirs, The Pebbled Shore.
Her daughter, who kindly gave me a copy as a parting gift, wrote a foreword to The Pebbled Shore in 2004. In it she makes the observation that her mother's life demonstrates that, "The problems of what is now called 'having it all' are nothing new. They are on the contrary endemic in the life of a woman who is intelligent, ambitious and idealistic as well as being a loving mother and wife." She also writes disarmingly that she never witnessed in her mother "the ratty solipsist behaviour of the working-mother-at-home - 'Don't interrupt me, I'm a genius' - with which I undoubtedly greeted my own children."
In 1946, six years after Lord Longford's Catholic conversion, Elizabeth followed suit. In the epilogue to her memoirs, she makes it clear that her faith gave her support and "saved me from asking the terrible questions, 'Why? Why her? Why me?' when her youngest daughter was killed".
Antonia became a Catholic in her teens. I wonder what sort of imprint her faith has made on her own life, expecting her to talk about the way it has guided or nourished her, but she talks about its effect on her writing: "All my books have a very strong theme, one way or another, of religious faith. People to whom their faith was important for good or bad. My book about Louis XIV is really stressing that although he philandered for the world, at the same time his mother was very religious and her example haunted him. He wanted to be saved. Literally, salvation. I think he always wanted to get back to someone like his mother... devout, you know."
Even by the standards of her impressive family, Fraser seemed destined to cut a dash. Her mother once said, "She dazzled us all since the moment she could speak." At eight, she went to Dragon School in Oxford - one of 40 girls to 400 boys - where she was "intensely happy" and played rugby (on the wing) for the school team. Her next school, a C of E girls boarder, was not a success: "I was really a boy, you know," she says. "I was way ahead of everybody in work and way behind emotionally and nobody wanted to walk with me."
From there, she moved to a Catholic convent, St Mary's at Ascot, and was intensely happy again: "I found the world of nuns frightfully interesting," she says. It was that world that Fraser drew on for the first of her nine Jemima Shore mysteries, Quiet as a Nun, in 1977. She arrived a Protestant in 1946 but the next year, as her letters home revealed - full of the brio of adolescent righteousness - she had converted with a vengeance: "I often wonder why there was ever a Reformation... I feel like rushing out into the streets and just telling people what utter fools they are not to be Catholics."
Fraser is quite unabashed about being an intellectual snob: "I always brighten up when it turns out that somebody is very clever or got a frightfully good degree because I was brought up in a university town and my father, to his dying day, always knew who got a first and who hadn't." His daughter fell into the second category, having spent her time at Oxford - where she was at Lady Margaret Hall, like her mother - doing nothing but enjoy herself, "after having worked very, very hard up till then", and gained a reputation for being "radiant and eccentric" with a penchant for cigars.
During the early years of her first marriage, there were occasional signs of that independent, tomboy spirit - she took flying lessons in 1963, when her fourth child was born, and the following year went on an adventurous expedition with her brother Thomas, the third writer of the Pakenham pack, riding on mules through Ethiopia. "All my life I had secretly wanted to be the first white woman to tread somewhere or other. Anywhere," Fraser wrote in one of her lively dispatches for the Evening Standard.
It was a good time to leave her children, she says. Her husband was in London and they had a wonderful carer. Hugh presumably was too preoccupied with his political career to be much of a hands-on father? "He was extremely busy, but he was terrific," Fraser says. "For instance, he always took the children to school in the morning, and what a bonus that was." His ex-wife was at his side when he died of lung disease in 1984, four years after she married Pinter. A few years ago, Fraser described him to Andrew Billen as "a very fine person, rather detached, but a very fine person". It is tempting to ask whether it was that detachment that prompted Fraser to seek engagement in other areas of her life.
But she is under strict instructions from her children not to talk about the break-up of their parents' marriage, as she informed me at the outset: "They just don't like it, you know, and why should they really?" What she does say is that she certainly didn't go into the marriage thinking that it was possible that it would end. Divorce, she says, "was sort of unheard of. Of course, you feel more than a taint of failure. You feel a failure - well, you are a failure. You have failed, you know. But that's all I have to say on the subject."
Fraser, like most fully rounded human beings, is an intriguing combination of strength and vulnerability. For someone who is known as quite a beauty, she has always been unsure of her looks and still is judging by her anxiety about being photographed. In 1969, she said: "I'm very insecure in my appearance. I love it when someone says at a party, 'You look terribly pretty,' and I believe it." When I ask her about this, she says: "As a teenager, people would say, 'What lovely skin Antonia has,' and then their voice dotted away.
"But I was terrifically helped by the Sixties and the emergence of people like Julie Christie. Although if you know Julie Christie, as we do, I mean she's a wonderful miniature Venus - nothing miniature about me - but there's a sort of resemblance and suddenly my looks came into fashion."
That "nothing miniature about me" is telling. My mother was a tall stunner, like Fraser, and also had a shoe size which matched her statuesque physique. I remember her excitement when Mary Queen of Scots came out and how it inspired her to study history and become a Blue Badge Guide. Fraser is gratified to hear this but less happy when I mention my mother's other source of glee. I tell Fraser that I think she felt quite a kinship when Vivien Merchant said that bitchy thing about you being able to wear Harold's shoes: "I don't go that way, Ginny," she says hastily.
She doesn't go that way partly, one suspects, because as she made abundantly clear in print, the previous Mrs Pinter never reconciled herself to the break-up of her marriage, which must have played a factor in her unhappy alcoholic death at the age of 53. Pinter and their son remain estranged. As Fraser would doubtless say, why should she be expected to talk about such private, hurtful matters to a stranger. But there is also something almost quaintly old-fashioned about her reticence which is at odds with our confessional culture.
Other femmes serieuses certainly do not feel the same compunction. Marjorie Wallace, the admirable chief executive of SANE and former Sunday Times journalist, has apparently incurred Lord Snowdon's displeasure by talking about their long affair. And Joan Bakewell wrote about her seven-year affair with Pinter - which started at the beginning of her marriage to Michael Bakewell, a BBC head of plays, and lasted through her second pregnancy - in her autobiography The Centre of the Bed in 2003. But Pinter had already opened that door - in a betrayal of his own, it could be argued - by using their affair as the basis of his 1978 play Betrayal. At the time, it was assumed that the woman at the heart of the affair was Antonia Fraser, but the truth emerged in Michael Billington's biography of Pinter, which the playwright read before publication, in 1996.
Fraser has kept diaries through all her tumultuous decades. She refers to them when talking about V.S. Naipaul's late wife, Pat, who was an old Oxford friend and helped her do the "donkey research" for Fraser's anthology of Scottish Love Poems published in 1974. (She was absolutely "charmed", she said, to discover at a recent Sunday lunch at Chequers that Gordon Brown had been at the launch party when he was a student at Edinburgh. "Now I know that he is very literary and intelligent and knows his stuff.")
These diaries would be a biographer's dream - with such a cast of illustrious characters and Fraser's sharp observations, not to mention her insights about her own various tangles and predicaments. But she says that she very rarely looks at the diaries unless she has to check something and when she does she finds them all too interesting, "which is why I don't read them. I don't want to start. I'm still living my life."
All this time, the invisible presence of Harold Pinter - her soul mate for almost half her life - has been weaving in and out of our dialogue. It is striking how often Fraser references him, in the way that those who are newly smitten want to steer the conversation back to the object of their affection. Or that the recently bereaved draw comfort from talking about their departed loved one.
When we talk about her marching against the Iraq war, she reminds me that Harold spoke. I mention Norman Lamont's rather moving address at Benazir Bhutto's memorial service, and she smiles: "Well, of course, Norman and Harold crossed swords over Chile and Pinochet." Early on, when we were discussing love letters, I asked her whether she had received many good ones: "Wonderful letters from Harold but very few because we were always together. The quality of his love is in the poems he's written to me. Nowadays he writes poetry; he feels he's written enough plays." Nine years ago, Fraser was offered counselling after a pair of white-masked men threatened to kill her with a crowbar if she didn't hand over her jewellery, "but I said, 'No,' because I had Harold". Is he good in a situation like that? "Very good. Absolutely." Was he angry? "No. His priority was me. Anger wasn't going to help me."
She seems genuinely mystifed by her husband's reputation for being angry. "I don't see that side of him," she says. Isn't he always telling people to f*** off ? (There is a great photograph of the couple, reproduced on page 23, when they were first together, with Pinter waving his two fingers and Fraser, fabulous in a fur-trimmed coat, half-smiling as she looks down.) "Is he? Well, not to me anyway. You know, the press writes that someone is angry and then everything they do is angry. If you saw him do his Nobel speech on television, you have to ask yourself, is this man - in the most public thing that he'll ever do - is he angry or passionate? And if he is angry, what is he angry about?
"I mean, Harold has very strong views. I like that. I have very strong views, too. We mostly agree politically but not entirely." (She is more critical of Cuba and its treatment of dissidents and gays than her husband.) Do you argue much? "Not really. I'm not a very quarrelsome person - or that's my story, anyway."
What has been the secret of their long and happy marriage? "I find Harold a very interesting person, which is not surprising. And I suspect he finds me interesting. And one of the nice things about him is that it's impossible to predict who he will take a fancy to and who he won't. Also, we're both writers but we write absolutely, totally differently. I can't think of two more different things than the plays of Harold Pinter and the historical biographies of Antonia Fraser. So there is absolutely no competition. Harold is not competitive, except in cricket, anyway.
"At the same time, Harold knows exactly what it's like being a writer - the ups and downs, the failures, the successes - and that's probably the bedrock. And I love the theatre, of course." When she was on the Evening Standard panel, before she knew Pinter, she voted unsuccessfully for Old Times to win. What was it that she liked so much about his plays? "I'm not a dramatic critic so I find it difficult to say. I only know that I liked the plays before I met the playwright." I try to prompt her to be more specific: "They're powerful. Poetic in parts. Very funny in other parts."
Billington, who of course is a critic, when asked what makes Pinter tick, wrote: "I believe that memory is almost the key to Pinter's whole work as an artist. He is plagued and haunted by the whole notion of memory and by the idea that as we go through daily life we are occupied by our memory of past events, past emotional circumstances and they can break through at any moment."
I'm sure some people would find it surprising that with their very different backgrounds (Pinter is the son of a Jewish East End tailor), they have forged such a deep connection. "That's such baloney. It's ridiculous. What background? We were both sophisticated enough - Harold was in his mid-forties and I was in my early forties. It didn't matter where we came from, it mattered where we were going."
Pinter will be 78 this October and has been battling ill health. I ask how he is faring now. "Ginny, I'm very superstitious," Fraser says. "You know, he's got so many things wrong with him and yet he's surviving. I don't want to say he's fine and by the time this comes out, he's back in hospital. He had cancer, and then he had a very rare auto-immune blood disease, and then he had some interior troubles."
I wonder whether she found her love changing as her husband became ill. She used to speak so proudly of his robust health and vigour on the tennis courts. "I think that everybody - if their partner is ill - naturally becomes more protective and I certainly don't think, 'Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds.'"
The couple still seem to lead an enviably active cultural life but Fraser can't quite bring herself to see Vanessa Redgrave's performance in A Year of Magical Thinking, the adaptation of Joan Didion's book about the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. "I think I'd find it too harrowing," she says, "having been through so many fears."
She has only just read Sheila Hancock's book, The Two of Us, because the actress is in The Birthday Party round the corner from her London home. "I ducked the book at the time - because John Thaw died of oesophageal cancer, which is what Harold had - while Harold was having chemo but then I read it and thought it marvellous. It's about much more than dying, really. It's about love."
The doorbell rings and Fraser says we must stop. She has an important engagement with one of her many family members: lunch followed by the theatre. Before I go, I feel I must ask her about Nigella and the rise of the Domestic Goddess. Lady A has always been rather admirably undomestic. She loathes cooking and shopping and womanly duties. Of course she knows Nigella, but then she seems to know everyone. So what does she think of this recent phenomenon?
"Isn't it fascinating?" she says. "I'm amused by it, actually." So do you eat ready meals whenever possible? "Yes, of course," Fraser smiles, ready to break another taboo. "Doesn't everybody?"