Love and Louis Marie Antoinette Mary Queen of Scots

THE HISTORIENNE’S DIARY NO. 1 : ‘2007 SO FAR’ by Antonia Fraser

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This is the first instalment of The Historienne’s Diary. 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. It is true that finding myself described as ‘l’Historienne Anglaise’ I did protest and asked to be described as ‘l’Historienne Irlandaise’ instead (since the days of the Jacobites, the French historically speaking prefer the Irish to the English and my father’s family is Irish). Nevertheless 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 will be an occasional work and starts with:

New Year’s Day 2007. I realise I am trying to do three absolutely contradictory things this year. First of all I’m giving lectures on my last book LOVE AND LOUIS XIV: THE WOMEN AT THE COURT OF THE SUN KING, published last August with the paperback coming out now (very handsome cover of fleur-de-lys and Madame de Maintenon wearing a pearl earring that I covet). Then I’m still happily engaged talking about the book before that MARIE ANTOINETTE: THE JOURNEY (deliciously pretty paperback cover with the Queen wearing a pearl and lace choker I also want). This is in connection with Sofia Coppola's film, based on my book, which has marvellously made it a world-wide best-seller five years after publication. Thirdly, I’m starting on my new biography - it will be the tenth - on Queen Elizabeth I. I’ve always wanted to do this since MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS came our nearly forty years ago: I’m going to look at the sixteenth century from the other side of the mirror as it were. Although I have to admit that I have a large Christmas card of Mary Queen of Scots from Sandy Nairne of the National Portrait Gallery on my mantelpiece: and she is staring at me with a reproachful expression Of course I get in a fearful muddle at times when I’m lecturing, especially with the two French subjects. I keep saying Marie Antoinette was married to Louis XIV for example! Which would have been afar happier fate for her than the weak and overweight Louis XVI; I think she would really have enjoyed being the Sun Queen, and even if her husband had numerous mistresses, at least he would have made love to her as well.

To celebrate New Year’s day however I concentrated on Queen Elizabeth and went to the V&A where there was a rich exhibition Life in Renaissance Italy including a picture of girls playing chess. This was, it seems, considered a ladylike pursuit: certainly Queen Elizabeth was a skilful player. I spent the rest of the day chasing the history of women’s chess on the internet, since all libraries were shut.

11 January 2007 Two put-downs at a party at the British Academy. First, a retired diplomat told me he had always imagined I wrote ‘pot-boilers’ until he actually read one. He said it quite angrily as though his previous estimate had all been my fault. Secondly, a lady politician, very gracious, told me that she knew my son Michael very well. This is actually my brother Sir Michael Pakenham, former Ambassador to Poland and he’s a mere eleven years younger than me. All good for the soul, no doubt.

19 January 2007 What is it about my books and anaesthetists? (I’ve just had a minor operation.) They all seem to read my books - which is very nice - but then insist on discussing them with me just as I am going under. This has now happened to me four times [I had a series of knee operations in the last few years] and really can’t be a coincidence. I remember the charming anaesthetist at the King Edward VII Hospital asking me the title of my next book. I just got out ‘Love...’ before I blanked out. When I came to, I was muttering: ‘And Louis XIV’, desperate he would get the wrong impression of me as a romantic novelist. At the Cromwell, the anaesthetist is very knowledgeable about my CROMWELL, more than I am under the circumstances. I suppose if these fans ever run out of anaesthetics for their patients, they can read aloud my books... wait, wait, don’t let’s go that way.

19 February 2007 Exhilaration of the Royal Academy show CITIZENS AND KINGS, particularly as I had it entirely to myself at 9.00am: as a reward for giving a lecture [on 23 February]. The ante-chamber showed the beautiful, haughty bust of Marie Antoinette. Far more than in any portrait, you get the sense of the Archduchess, daughter of the Emperor, because here her full ‘Habsburg’ lower lip cannot be altogether concealed. It also of course displays her beautiful long neck of which she was justly proud - so much so that she rarely wore necklaces, making cruelly ironic the whole tragic scandal of the Diamond Necklace Affair.

4 March 2007 Really enjoyed MARIE ANTOINETTE: THE MOVIE for the third time in its final version (Sofia showed a sort of rough cut to me back in November 2005). There was a special showing at the Curzon cinema with questions thereafter, all chaired by Sarah Greenberg, intelligent, also glamorous editor of the Royal Academy Magazine. Afterwards I took a straw poll and 97% of the audience had enjoyed the movie: so maybe this is one whose popularity will grow and grow with time.

5 March 2007 I had two panic attacks working in the British Library (not visited for some time). 1) I couldn’t work the microfilm in the special enclosed room where I had ordered up a thesis from Cambridge and 2) I couldn’t even get on line for the main catalogue. Answers: 1) the machine was bust; 2) I was pressing with the wrong bit of my thumb. In both cases I was rescued by Good Samaritans among readers who took pity on my distress. I felt guilty about interrupting their work and even more grateful than guilty.

7 March 2007 ‘Everyone is saying “Your Granma is really cool.’ I think this is the nicest compliment I’ve ever received, repeated to me by Blanche [Fitzgerald, aged 16] after I spoke about the value of biography to her school, Queen’s Gate. I was intensely nervous as the girls were all ages, and I wasn’t at all sure at what level to pitch it. After all Honor [Fitzgerald aged 12] was also in the audience. In the end I decided to ‘Show not Tell’ as they say in the film world, and brought along my pretty patterned work notebooks and held them up for inspection. Of course I’d also been in an awful fuss about what to wear (does one ever grow out of this?) so Blanche’s second compliment: ‘I like your purple coat, Granma. It’s regal,’ was equally welcome.

21 March 2007 Went to speak at the Oxford Festival on LOVE AND LOUIS XIV. Twice referred to Louis XVI thanks to the recent Curzon experience! I must get a grip. The Festival was being held in Christ Church, and the ‘Green Room’ was in Tom Squad. By a wonderful coincidence, the rooms used were actually my father’s rooms [then Frank Pakenham, later Longford] when he was a don there in the 1930s. I remember being taken to them as a child and finding them even more damp and icy than our own house in Oxford at that time. Aged five, I thought: ‘Dada must have done something bad and is being punished.’ Actually it was once again absolutely freezing in the Quad - first day of spring, ho, ho - but the welcome in the ‘Green Room’ was warm, also in the Library where I gave the lecture. ‘You make Louis out to be a paragon,’ said one questioner which made me consider whether my lecture has got altogether too one-sided and favourable. Louis XIV may not be Henry VIII but he was certainly extremely selfish in old age, to put it mildly.

22 March 2007 Exhilarating encounter with Dr Tarnya Cooper of the National Portrait Gallery. She talked lucidly and inspirationally about the five-year NPG project of dendo-chronology. That is to say, dating pictures from the wood they are painted on. The famous ‘idol’ Coronation portrait of Queen Elizabeth has been redated by its wood to 1600, the end of her reign, instead of 1559, the actual year of her coronation. I find this kind of thing fascinating and I admire the NPG’s long-term project to date all their Tudor pictures. I just hope they get the funds.

27 March 2007 Trip to the Tower of London on the most glittering sunny day: all the skyscrapers in the city looked like beautiful palaces. And the Tower itself lost that appropriate look of menace that an east wind and scudding rain generally give it (I last visited it over the Gunpowder Plot because Guy Fawkes was held and tortured there). When the then Princess Elizabeth was taken to the Tower by her half-sister Queen Mary Tudor in 1554 she can have had no inkling that she would one day use the Tower as a base for her own coronation four years later. All she knew was that her mother Anne Boleyn had been executed in this very place, which must have made her stay there totally traumatic.

2 April 2007 Visited Hatfield House to look at the amazing archives, founded by Robert Cecil, Queen Elizabeth’s chief minister following his father Lord Burghley. The lodge keeper who directed me, then got me to sign copies of my books for his wife. Where else but Hatfield would you have a historically-minded lodge keeper?

9 April Easter Monday Took Harold on a tour of the NPG, repeated all I had learned from Tarnya Cooper. He actively loved the John Donne portrait, which I think has to be seen properly to appreciate the full sensuality of those red lips.

18 April 2007 While I was in Leeds for Harold to get an Honorary Degree, I seized the opportunity to go the Royal Armouries which moved here from the Tower of London some time ago. I adore armour, and was determined to see the armour of Elizabeth’s favourite, the Earl of Leicester, in order to decide whether he was ‘a hunk’ as I put it to the amiable Keeper, Karen Watts. Karen not only took the measurements for me but unlocked the case and I was allowed to touch it to see if I could get vibrations. Naturally I quivered. And I even put his elaborately gilded horse’s armour over my head and looked at the world from a horse’s point of view. Like a biker’s helmet but rather more beautiful.

21 April 2007 Visited Sofia Coppola and her new baby Romy; I hadn’t actually seen her in the filming since the filming of Marie Antoinette. We had a merry time since Romy is an exceptionally jolly and well-behaved baby. She’s named for Sofia’s brother Roman; I had secretly hoped she might be called Antoinette!

10 May 2007 Meeting to decided on the winner of the Elizabeth Longford Historical Biography Prize [founded in memory of my mother the historical biographer by my daughter Flora Fraser and her husband Peter Soros]. The winner HENRY VIII’s LAST VICTIM: the Life of the Earl of Surrey by Jessie Childs is right up my street: that dangerous mid-Tudor period when almost everyone got executed (including the unfortunate Surrey), well conveyed but with a proper use of Surrey’s poetry as well.

12 May 2007 Visit to Kenilworth with Flora and Ivo Dawnay. Memories of Sir Walter Scott and his eponymous novel which I loved so much and had just re-read in preparation. Of course Scott makes the death of Leicester’s wife Amy Robsart happen here, instead of Cumnor Place, near Oxford. All the same the image of poor Amy lying with her neck broken at the bottom of the stairs like a heap of white feathers has haunted me since I read it at the age of ten. Climbed about, trying not to become a heap of white feathers myself, as some of the stairs upwards were extremely steep. In the end settled for meditating over what had once been Leicester’s mere instead.

27 May 2007 Hay-on-Wye Festival. There was a moment on the way towards Hay, via the Severn Bridge, when I prayed: ‘Oh God, bring me back in the next life as an unsuccessful author who isn’t asked to go to Hay...’ This was because the torrential rain was so extreme that I couldn’t even see the sides of the bridge. The driver Mike Lawson was a hero in all this, and unlike me very calm: but each car in front created a fresh Tsunami, never mind the lorries and the vast trucks. Motorcyclists, their visors apparently obliterated with water, looked like the figures of death in the film Orphée. And the Festival itself was no better: duckboards fighting a losing battle against the rising waters. I spoke in a large tent which I had to believe was well secured although the flaps were rising and the roof billowing. The audience was now the hero. I quoted the famous remark of the Duc d’Aumale to Louis XIV when the King noticed he was absolutely drenched. ‘Sire,’ he cried, ‘the rain at Versailles does not wet’: supreme sycophancy! Unfortunately not true at Hay.

8 June 2007 A ‘historic’ journey to West Tilbury to see the Fort and the field where Queen Elizabeth made her Armada speech. It was arranged by Jonathan Catton, Heritage Officer and local expert, with Randal Bingley, former Curator of the Thurrock Museum. At the Museum itself, I was delighted to be given a convincing reproduction of the Armada medal which Jonathan gives to schoolchildren as part of their instruction. Had the Museum existed then, Queen Elizabeth would surely have been very gracious, something she knew so well how to do. The countryside ranges between areas of great natural beauty, purple and yellow wild flowers, gipsy horses, huge motorways, and then areas of industry and ‘London’s waste’ which make you shudder in shame. In Elizabeth’s day of course it was a place of enormous strategic importance and the friendly horses and foals I saw grouping would have been war-horses. I would swap the industrial present for the dangerous past. Now back to the British Library! No more gallivanting for the time being.