- DESERT ISLAND DISCS
- LADY ANTONIA FRASER'S LIFE LESS ORDINARY
- RESPONSE TO LETTER SENT TO THE BRITISH LIBRARY
- SPEECH GIVEN AT THE OPENING OF ‘ON THE NATURE OF WOMEN'
- LETTER SENT TO THE CHIEF EXECUTIVE OF THE BRITISH LIBRARY
- SPEECH GIVEN AT THE ‘CELEBRATION FOR DRAGON WOMEN’ LUNCH (2)
- SPEECH GIVEN AT ‘CELEBRATION FOR DRAGON WOMEN’ LUNCH (1)
- THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL (Part 2)
- THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL (Part 1)
- ANTONIA FRASER'S DIARY
- Truth and Reality in Operatic Librettos (part three)
- Truth and Reality in Operatic Librettos (part two)
- Truth and Reality in Operatic Librettos (part one)
- Society Portraits
- THE FRENCH CHILD
- CULTURAL LIFE
- QUEEN ELIZABETH: A PERSONAL VIEW
- ANTONIA FRASER’S DIARY
- IF I CAME BACK AS…
- SPECTATOR DIARY
- LOVE, LOUIS XIV AND ME Part 2
- LOVE, LOUIS XIV AND ME
- MY HERO
- BODIAM CASTLE
‘History in the making can be most exhausting.’ When I first read these words – by Noel Coward – I immediately assumed they applied to the writing of it. Having just finished a long book about the loves of Louis XIV, I thought I knew all about that exhaustion. So much for solipsism. Noel Coward was actually recording in his diary for 3 September 1945 his feelings at the end of a long war with ‘the world in physical and spiritual chaos’. I read the entry in a wonderful book THE ASSASSIN’S CLOAK: An Anthology of the world’s greatest diarists, edited by Irene and Alan Taylor, with multiple extracts for every day of the year: no bathroom is complete without it. The most sympathetic entry comes from Lady Cynthia Asquith for 14 October 1915. She heard that there were Zeppelins about but experienced ‘not the faintest tremor. I longed and longed for more to happen… My only words were “something for my diary”’. My father Frank Longford showed a similar diary-comes-first spirit in the summer of 1981 over the wedding of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer. My mother, a great admirer of the prince, prayed not be invited on the grounds of infirmity. My father, not quite such an admirer, prayed that they would be asked because he was keeping Diary for publication. (In the end my mother’s prayers won out.)
In the long term, possessiveness is probably the true mark of the historical biographer. Nearly 40 years after my MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS was published – long enough, you might think, to get over or move on in Tony Blair’s favourite phrase – I still felt total amazement that the respected Tudor historian John Guy had chosen to write about my Mary. The book was extremely well reviewed; all the same it took me two years to read it. It was in fact a thoroughly enjoyable experience as I refought old battles in my head and ended by liking everything about the book except its inappropriately Mills & Boon title MY HEART IS MY OWN. I must learn to move on, like Tony Blair. Well, not exactly like Tony Blair since he is, we believe, shortly going to retire and I am never going to retire.
Curiously, I never experienced any such tormenting emotion over Sofia Coppola’s film based on my biography of Marie Antoinette (coming here this month). It is true that I didn’t exactly invent the character of Marie Antoinette: but the same, to be quite honest, could be said of Mary Queen of Scots. But the fact was that from the very first I felt Sofia to be engaged in a project which was so totally different from mine – and yet so engaging – that I could only enjoy it. And that went for the film itself as well as the film-making, with its ravishing settings, the equally ravishing Kirsten Dunst, and its witty post-modernist touches. As I told Eleanor Coppola, I could and did write pages about the beauty of Versailles without having anything like the impact of one shot of Sofia’s: that hunt in the dawn light of the forest, perhaps, the dogs, the horses, and even poor Louis XVI looking rather beguiling – or as played by Jason Schwartzman, anyway. In the late seventies my son Orlando played the part of a ten year old boy in the film THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN starring Jeremy Irons (he was on screen for about five minutes). With the confidence of youth he went up to Jeremy at a party and asked: ‘How’s our movie doing?’ I know the feeling.
The current waves of Betjemania remind me of how charming the future Poet Laureate was to us when we were children in North Oxford. In particular we appreciated his gallant approaches to our awesome mother. ‘All hail Eliza!’ he would begin, throwing himself on his knees before her: to the rest of the world my mother was always very firmly Elizabeth. A stream of cod-Shakespeare followed: ‘Lo, by the western gate…’ and so forth and so on while my mother giggled, something else we did not associate with her. I think one of the reasons John Betjeman liked visiting us was the titivating proximity of our house to the Dragon School (he must surely be counted as the most distinguished Old Dragon, with Sir John Mortimer coming second.) He loved the idea that I played rugger, like all the twenty odd girls scattered through a school of four hundred boys. In later years he always insisted that I had played in the scrum. I preferred the more graceful image of myself fleeting up the wing like Camilla of the Volscians, she who could run across a cornfield without bending a single blade. Of course I did not realise that for the poet, the scrum was probably the more exciting option: Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, had she been at the Dragon School, would probably have been in the scrum not on the wing.
I’ve just been reading THE THREE MUSKETEERS in a new translation by Richard Pevear. Much of the plot turns on the fleur-de-lys branded on the shoulder of the wicked enchantress Milady de Winter. This secret mark is only visible in moments of passion when the thin silk slips back: it indicates that she is a convicted criminal. In real life the villainess of the Diamond Necklace Affair, Jeanne de Lamotte Valois, was branded publicly as a thief, V for voleuse, although she struggled and screamed so much that the executioner missed her shoulder and branded her on the breast. I reflect on these things at my local health club where the bodies of the young and beautiful (as both Milady and Jeanne were) are adorned with numerous thrillingly exotic tattoos. These are of course the result of a voluntary ordeal. At least I hope they are.
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