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THE HISTORIENNE’S DIARY NO. 2 : ‘2007 SECOND HALF’ by Antonia Fraser

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This is the second instalment of The Historienne’s Diary. (The first covered 2007 from New Year’s Day up till 8 June.) I’ve chosen the title as a tribute to the exciting time I had in France last May, promoting the French edition of MARIE ANTOINETTE. I love the word Historienne; it reminds me of my favourite act in the circuses of my youth: the dazzling equestriennes on their plumed and caparisoned ponies.

The Historienne’s Diary is a half-yearly work. This particular period covers chiefly my researches on my latest biographical subject Queen Elizabeth I and activities in promotion of the paperback of LOVE AND LOUIS XIV which was published in August.

11 June 2007
Visited a remarkable exhibition at the British Museum: A NEW WORLD. England’s first view of America. I wanted to get a sense of what the experience of arrival must have been like, and from the point of view of Queen Elizabeth sitting at home, what the travellers’ tales would have covered. The watercolours of John White ravished the eye (as an inveterate key-ring buyer - for whatever reason - I purchased one which replicated his swallow-tail butterfly). But the exhibit which gave me the greatest sense of the past was a sketched outline to the Virginian shore line – what the next batch of mariners might expect to see and thus recognise. Such a slight drawing and yet so vital after the perilous journey. As Spenser wrote in The Faerie Queen (quoted in Kim Sloan’s illuminating catalogue):

‘The sea is wide, and easy for to stray;.. Better safe port, than be in seas distressed.’

15 June 2007
We all know that Queen Elizabeth never married (my jury is out on whether she was actually a Virgin Queen) but I am currently fascinated by the counterfactual possibilities of her suitors. That is to say, what if she had married, say, the Archduke Charles of Austria or Prince Eric of Sweden, two early possibilities, one Catholic, one Protestant? Would it have been happy? Would she have had a large family of dear little Tudors to keep the upwardly mobile Stuarts off the throne of England? Checking out Prince Eric, later King of Sweden, I was at first encouraged to discover the he beget numerous children by his various mistresses: also his picture shows a handsome red-haired Viking hunk. Besides being a hunk, he was intelligent and artistic. Then I learned that he was unstable and finally went mad so perhaps it wouldn’t have been a good plan after all. Nevertheless the Swedish historian Wilhelm Engström who came for a drink yesterday did outline the possibility of ‘a huge Nordic Protestant empire’ if the marriage had come off. So today Her Majesty Elizabeth II, Queen of England, Ireland (bits of), Scotland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway… Tantalising.

16 June 2007
Visited the Philip Mould Gallery, as always to see some new treasure secured by P.M. with all the great knowledge he has. The treasure in question was a miniature of Queen Elizabeth by Nicholas Hilliard, lovely rose pink tones; in fact I liked it much better than the one in the V & A and have now framed a print to hang in my Eyrie. A huge price was apparently paid. Lottie, who showed it to me: ‘Everything about Queen Elizabeth sells.’ I certainly hope so.

26 June 2007
Memorial for Arthur Schlesinger Jr held in the Reform Club. A grave semi-circle sat round listening to talks and also readings from Arthur’s own work. I particularly liked one passage from Arthur: ‘Now the vanity of historians is to suppose that we understand better than the people who were there what the shouting was all about… Too often we suggest that those poor chaps in the past may have thought they were acting for one set of reasons; but we, so much wiser, know they were acting for quite other reasons.’ He adds ominously: ‘And our arrogance invites future historians to practice the same reductionism on us.’ It reminds me of a phrase of E.P. Thompson’s that I have always liked: ‘the immense condescension of posterity’. I remember my mother [Elizabeth Longford, the historical biographer of Queen Victoria and Wellington], warning me many years ago against the mistake of looking down on a historical character and thinking I would have done better myself. So I never believed that I would have made a better Queen of Scots than poor ill-fated Mary, well, not really… did I?

9 July 2007
Off to Dartington for the WAY WITH WORDS festival, one of my favourites for its Oxford-college setting and its ardent attenders. Also a significant place in my professional career. Last time I went in 2002, to talk about Marie Antoinette (long car journey there and back from London) I spent the time pondering on whether to proceed with my projected book on the Battle of the Boyne, 1690. It was an important decision (forever associated with Dartington as I told my audience). The trouble was that I disliked the combatants, William III mixed with admiration, James II not mixed with anything. The only time my researches sprang alive for me was when I was considering Louis XIV, James II’s backer. The answer was to switch over to Louis. On return from Dartington I told Harold: ‘I’m going to Bin the Boyne.’ American questioner: ‘I hadn’t thought looking at you that you’d be so intellectual.’ It took me a moment to realise that this, from a courteous man of a certain age, was intended to be a compliment not a complaint. But I think it’s generational, this idea that intellectual women have to look like George Eliot (or, ghastly thought, Edith Sitwell). Marina Warner, probably the most intellectual woman I know, is an Italianate beauty; and the late Susan Sontag on the other side of the Atlantic was extremely handsome.

10 July 2007
A small dinner of the Literary Society at the Garrick. The talk turned to anti-Semitism in England in the past. I was reminded how shocked I was when I arrived at St Mary’s Convent, Ascot, for my first Easter as a Catholic after my first fourteen years as a Protestant. It was 1946, memories of the war so vivid in the mind, the opening up of the death camps only too recent. So I was shocked when in the long Good Friday service when we knelt and prayed for everyone under the sun, we specifically did not kneel for one category: ‘the perfidious Jews’. We prayed for them, but in these terms. Coming from North Oxford, where the numerous Jewish refugees were treated with great respect and sympathy, I could not understand it. I remember reflecting: ‘I rather thought that if anyone, we – the Catholics – were the perfidious ones.’ Fortunately, Pope John XXIII put an end to that, my hero in this as in so many other things.

13 July 2007
The death of Lady Bird Johnson takes me back to the occasion when I was asked along to a performance of Robert Bolt’s Vivat, Vivat Regina by my publisher George Weidenfeld at the Aldwych as her historical adviser. Bolt’s play brought Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots into conflict in a way familiar since Schiller; it was no more than was medium interesting, with a searing performance from Eileen Atkins as Elizabeth and a dreadfully twee one from Sarah Miles as Mary. It was just after my own MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS was published, a great hit in the US, and I was supposed to whisper in the First Lady’s ear: ‘That’s absolutely right’ or more probably ‘That’s absolute rubbish.’ It didn’t quite work out like that. As I had already seen the play at Chichester I did not mind too much sitting at the back of the dress circle with Mrs Johnson’s armed Secret Service agents while she sat in the front row with George. But I did wonder how the escorts were going to protect her in case of some calamity (this was not too long after the assassination of President Kennedy). So I asked the guard: ‘Can you really hit someone who attacks the First Lady from here?’ Secret Service agent: ‘Ma’am, I am not paid to miss.’

20 July 2007
It’s generally some form of public embarrassment which teaches one not to lie about what one has read. I’m rereading the political novels of Trollope which is my recipe in times of stress (in this case a tiresome but hopefully transitory physical trauma caused by slipping from my computer chair onto the edge of a glass table – ludicrous). When I was about sixteen, I was taken to Magdalen College, Oxford, by a boyfriend who was an undergraduate there, and at a dinner party sat next to the President, Tom Boase. He was a huge smiling pussy-cat of a man, but, as it turned out, perhaps more tiger than domestic pet. I had been instructed that ‘Tombo’ was a passionate fan of Trollope. Trollope, I thought, I can do Trollope. I remembered those green volumes which my mother seemed to spend most of the war reading and I had certainly toyed with one or two myself. So I gratuitously informed the President that I knew he liked Trollope and that I myself had read the whole of Trollope. Tombo raised a white hand to silence the table. ‘What,’ he said, ‘All ninety six volumes?’ Tom Stoppard and I used to play a game, imaginary Great Literary Gaffes. I think he won with the man who spent the entire evening discussing Laurence Sterne and Tristram Shandy under the impression that Shandy was the author and LAURENCE STERNE the title.

25 August 2007
I’ve spent my summer holiday [at a rented house in Dorset] rereading my own book CROMWELL OUR CHIEF OF MEN. 350,000 words! How did I dare? I was writing in 1972, my next book after MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS. In 2007, I’m glazed with my own (erstwhile) erudition and definitely think I should have made my mind up about things a little more; I was so nervous of the many seventeenth century scholars, alive and getting ready to kick, that I gave every side of every question, every detail of my prodigious research in order to stun them into submission. What a hope! Geoffrey Elton gave me the rudest review I have ever received. However there turned out to be an unexpectedly good side to that. When I went to sign books at Heffers in Cambridge, a number of dons filed by. They didn’t actually buy the book, but shook my hand gravely with the words: ‘Any enemy of Geoffrey Elton…’

I am rereading CROMWELL specifically in order to contribute a 3,000 word essay on ‘Cromwell the Commander’ to a series about the world’s greatest generals edited by Andrew Roberts. By concentrating on his military life, I am doing more than revisiting Cromwell’s past, I am also revisiting my own, and all the enjoyable travels round battlefields in England, Scotland and Ireland I shared with Hugh [my first husband Sir Hugh Fraser MP who died in 1984]. Since Hugh fought through the whole war, ending up as a parachutist, he was obviously well equipped to be my military adviser. ‘Oh yes, I can see that hill would be an important feature of any strategy. I myself would have chosen it.’ Then I would discover that I was looking at the map the wrong way round so it was the wrong hill and we had to start all over again.

5 September 2007
369th birthday of Louis XIV – and thus Waterstone’s, Notting Hill, proudly announced my dialogue there with John Adamson on the subject of Louis and the Women. J.A. was extremely well prepared, which was very courteous of him, considering his own magnificent edifice THE NOBLE REVOLT was recently published and he might have wanted to consider that. I told him beforehand that the hardback reviewers – including him – had concentrated on the importance of religion to Louis, thanks to his mother’s influence, which I think is my major contribution, whereas paperback reviewers all concentrated on the ‘gossip’ element (‘gossip’ = sex), less original. So we had a good ‘religious’ talk and left it to the questioners to raise the ‘gossip’ issues. Which they duly did.

11 September 2007
Did an interview over the telephone with a journalist from the Radio Times about this new series, THE TUDORS, having watched two episodes on a DVD. I liked the concept – Henry VIII was once young, fit and attractive – because it’s perfectly true. You only have to look at the change in the shape of his armour to understand how he put on weight later but had once a marvellous athletic figure. I did however criticise one departure from the record: why didn’t Henry have red hair since his golden look was so much part of all that youthful magnificence? All contemporaries commented on it. And of course Elizabeth, with her allegedly dodgy paternity, was delighted that she had inherited it. Radio Times at the end to me: ‘So what was sex like in Tudor times, Lady Antonia?’ Me, couldn’t resist it: ‘I know I’m old, but I’m not that old.’

12 September 2007
Was taken down in a silver car to St Mary’s Church, Putney, scene of the Putney Debates in 1647. Not visited since 1970. A pleasantly ecumenical feel to it all, welcoming, including a café which seemed to be part of the church (excellent idea, after all a church should serve the community, should it not, including serving it with cups of coffee). This was for an interview with Tristram Hunt, to be part of the quatrocentennial celebrations of the Putney Debates. Tristram Hunt asked me whether I would have been a Roundhead or a Cavalier at the time. I went for being a Radical Roundhead lady like Lucy Hutchinson the memorialist. I could never have supported that fearful simp Charles I. I enjoyed the whole experience. Afterwards, back in the delightful café amid very old ladies and very young mothers (it was about 3 o’clock) the producer Sue Rolfe said: ‘Well, you have reduced the all-male quotient of our programme.’ It is true that people find it surprising that I have written about Cromwell. Interviewer on Radio 4 re King Charles II: ‘You’ve never written about a man before.’ Me: ‘Not unless you count Cromwell as a man.’

17/18 September 2007
I got myself in a muddle and agreed to give two lectures, one in Oxford on the Saturday and the other in Rye on Sunday. The result was that I covered miles and miles of England by car (driven, thankfully) since I felt I must go home and touch base in between. Both events took me down Memory Lane, however, always a place where I like to stroll; besides the weather in both Oxfordshire and Sussex was incomparable. As a result, hardly had I thought: ‘I’d really like to live in North Oxford again [I was brought up there], it’s so beautiful’, which I certainly never thought at the time, than I was pining to rediscover my roots in Rye [hometown to my parents’ house in East Sussex where my father played golf every Sunday]. The Oxford lecture was part of a new event, Alumnae Weekend, and I talked about the value of biography. When questions came, a man suggested that King Charles II had been ‘very cruel’ to women unlike Louis XIV. I replied that King Charles II never slept with any unwilling women – nor for that matter did his first cousin Lois XIV, the crown and its benefits being a strong aphrodisiac. Later, at the signing, the questioner explained: ‘I meant his cruelty in imposing his mistresses on his wife as her ladies-in-waiting.’ Which was a good if anachronistic point: after all if no one who slept with the King could be in waiting on the Queen in late seventeenth century England or France, the poor Queens would have had a very thin time of it in terms of service. But it was a nice, interesting exchange, of the sort I relish, part of why I enjoy lecturing.

Like most speakers, I have collected some bizarre questions over the years. One of my best was in Washington at the Smithsonian Institute last year. A good-looking woman in an elegant black trouser-suit had a question about why the entrails of the Bourbons were buried separately from the bodies (quite true) but in the process of asking it, she gave us all a very long and far too explicit lecture on innards and embalming generally. ‘It’s not my area of speciality,’ I finally responded rather feebly which got a big, relieved laugh from the similarly abashed audience.

19 October 2007
Denounced the new film ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE on Front Row (Radio 4). It was a great disappointment since the first instalment, also starring Cate Blanchett, was so vivid and exciting. I love historical films when they are fun, but dreary ones are worse than dreary ordinary films, I find. In this case I quickly tired of seeing Clive Owen as Raleigh lounging in and out of the Queen’s presence in a white shirt open to the waist à la Errol Flynn, and wanted to shout: ‘Give that man a doublet!’ As if anyone would have marched in and out of the Queen’s presence looking like that, whatever the intimacy.

23 October 2007
Sat opposite two very beautiful young women at the Sunday Telegraph Arts Lunch at the Arts Club. Both are actresses: Rebecca Night who had just played Fanny Hill on TV, and Kate Fleetwood whose fabulous Lady Macbeth we had just admired. Amused myself during lunch by imagining all the roles they might have in Harold’s plays during their long, long futures. (Rebecca is just 22 and Kate only a few years older.)

4 November 2007
Went to Making History, the exhibition to mark the tricentenary of the Society of Antiquaries at the Royal Academy. The eighteenth century watercolours of Stonehenge were ravishing but best of all I liked the ancient ballot box, polished and burnished with separate apertures marked ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. Thought it should be sent to the US instead of those ridiculous chads. The mummified finger of a Frenchman from Canterbury Cathedral Archives was less immediately appealing. And we both quailed at the picture of some antiquarians gingerly crossing a chasm on a delicate ladder, laid flat, to investigate a prison in a tower. If that’s what it takes to be an antiquarian, give me the dear old British Library.

5 November 2007
Delighted to report that my acid review of ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE has met with general acclaim, especially in the Ladies’ Changing Room of the Lambton Health Club [where I swim], that important forum of public opinion. Several naked-ish ladies have come up to me and commended it.

9 November 2007
Since I could not travel to Paris to launch LES FEMMES DE LOUIS XIV (Love and Louis XIV apparently does not work in French, sounds like a romantic novel, I’m told) the French Press came to me. I prepared myself by talking to Jean-Pierre [my son-in-law on a visit from Paris]. I asked for some swinging phrases to pep up my rusty French. He came up with ‘Il n’y a pas photo…’ which means something like ‘No contest’. So I spent most of lunch trying to find a situation where this saying was even remotely appropriate, like that parlour game we used to play, where two people are each given a separate, slightly eccentric sentence to introduce – but it must fit smoothly into the conversation. I had to wait some time before a blissful Frenchman asked me whether I would rather have met Louis XIV or Charles II. ‘Entre Versailles et Windsor,’ I began carefully,’ Il n’y a pas photo.’ And he even used that as the headline of his piece! A triumph for Jean-Pierre.

3 December 2007
Last day at the British Library until the New Year. [I’ve been working there regularly on Elizabeth since the autumn.] This was a really encouraging day and thus a good note on which to end for the time being. I learned about two new subjects which intrigued me, The first was the ballads of the late Tudor Age in an article by C.H. Firth in The Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 1909, including a rare broadsheet scattered in the streets of Rye before her visit in 1573. It included such lines as ‘Such joy before was never seen / In Rye as now to lodge the Queen.’ I wish I had found that before my September visit: I must remember to try and wangle another invitation when ELIZABETH comes out – when! – so I can quote it.

The other topic was tournaments and the reality of tournaments as opposed to the chivalric myth, discussed in a book of 1987 by Alan Young. The reality became especially vivid when I discovered that tournaments had to be cancelled in the event of heavy rain, just like the Trooping of the Colour (or Test Match). I suppose the courtiers’ armour was not waterproof? Those famous chinks. Their costumes underneath certainly cost a fortune. How maddening, however, to have staked all you had on catching the Queen’s eye with your manly emblazoned gear and prodigious decorated lance, Spenserian compliments to the raddled old Queen ready in case you won, and then finding that rain stopped play.

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