- - Monday, January 11, 2016



By Antonia Fraser

Doubleday, $28.95, 268 pages

There are charmed lives and there are charming lives. The two seldom combine. Charmed lives tend to be very public, involving large measures of fame, wealth and adulation. Charming lives, on the other hand, tend to center around the hearth or the heart, a warm family or social circle, a gift for love and friendship, and a life, if not always fortunate, at least lived joyously, productively and to the full. Antonia Fraser, through both advantages of birth and strength of character, is one of those rare human beings who has managed to live a long, eventful life that has been both charmed and charming.

The author or editor of 25 books, including popular and critically acclaimed biographies of Mary Queen of Scots, Oliver Cromwell, Charles II and Marie Antoinette, she was born in 1932, just in time to witness the post-Edwardian slow-fade of England between the wars, when all the external trappings of a dying empire and a dying social order were still on full display. Especially for the daughter of Frank Pakenham, scion of a distinguished old Anglo-Irish family and a future peer of the realm, and Elizabeth Longford, a child of the (extremely haute) bourgeoisie, her father being a wealthy, socially prominent Harley Street physician. As Antonia would do in her own life, both parents dedicated themselves to building useful lives.

Tireless, dedicated socialists and zealous Catholic converts with scholarly interests, they spent much more time trying to save the world than raising their eight children, pretty much the norm for parents of their time and social position. Their daughter seems to understand this; there is no whiff of rebuke in her descriptions of what was not so much parental neglect as parental absence. Indeed, since Elizabeth Longford could be a bit of a preachy Victorian at times — not for nothing was her most successful book an adulatory biography of the “widow of Windsor” — as Antonia entered her teens she probably welcomed as much benign neglect from her mother as she could get.

Especially when she had access to so many of her parents’ more glamorous and exciting friends. A striking example would be novelist Anthony (“A Dance to the Music of Time”) Powell and his delightful wife, Violet. As a frequent house guest of the Powells, Violet served not so much as a surrogate mother for Antonia as a worldlier, more approachable female friend and social mentor. As for Anthony Powell himself, in the early days of their acquaintance, he was “simply the benevolent man who sat down every morning after breakfast and wrote … . This god-like but friendly figure obviously enjoyed what he was doing: that was my strongest impression; and then there was the regular discipline with which he appeared to write. Somehow I began equating writing, discipline and a good life.”

A good early lesson for one whose own adult years could well be summed up in that last sentence: “writing, discipline and a good life.” When she was older, Antonia once asked Powell if he would ever consider basing one of his roman a clef characters on her. “Oh no, Antonia,” he replied. “You are a resolved character. I don’t write about resolved characters.” Powell had a point. As one comes to know the young Antonia and watch her flower into a full-blown author in these pages, we see someone who from a very early age seems to have known who she was, what she wanted, and how to achieve it: resolved and resolute. A picture of her, age three, plump, presumably pink and laughing away in a tin washtub — a bit of a patrician Shirley Temple — captures an uninhibited zest for life that never seems to have left her.

Though so very unalike, she and her mother did share one great gift: the ability of all skilled biographers to apply keen understanding and a sympathetic imagination to their subjects. Having reviewed several works by both of them over the years — and having always enjoyed reading as well as writing about them — I would like to think that this common gift may have brought the slightly starchy mother and the ever-so-slightly louche daughter closer in later years, if not as mother and daughter, at least as fellow writers. “My History” will certainly bring readers closer to Antonia Fraser. And the closer they get, the more most of them will like this willful, winning and very talented lady.

Aram Bakshian Jr. an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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