Lady Antonia Fraser

Daniel Snowman meets the biographer of Tudors and Stuarts, and the author of The Weaker Vessel and The Gunpowder Plot.

When Antonia Pakenham was a girl living in wartime Oxford, where her father was a politics don, she would terrorise the dragon at the public library by actually borrowing lots of books. Worse, she’d often consume a volume of popular history in a single day and return that evening for another. She still remembers giving a Mary Stuart biography the one-day treatment.

This pattern of enthusiastic industriousness has lasted a lifetime and seen Lady Antonia Fraser, now in her sixty-ninth year, through the production of seven or eight works of serious historical scholarship, a similar number of mystery novels, a fistful of anthologies, half-a-dozen children and a high-profile public life. ‘Passionate zest for life combined with rigid self-discipline’ was how George Weidenfeld characterised her.

The same might be said of her parents, Frank and Elizabeth Pakenham (the Earl and Countess of Longford), both of them highly educated, industrious and motivated. Pakenham, a protégé of F.E. Smith (and later assistant to Beveridge), sent a frisson of dangerous excitement through the household in the mid-1930s when he announced his conversion to Catholicism; Lady Antonia, the eldest of his children, followed him into the Church of Rome as an adolescent a few years later.

In 1953, having just finished a history degree at Oxford, Antonia joined Weidenfeld and Nicolson as an editorial assistant. One of the ways W&N remained solvent in those early days was by mass-marketing out-of-copyright children’s classics at Marks and Spencer stores. One day Weidenfeld proposed King Arthur. ‘But you can’t just re-publish Malory,’ piped up his assistant, explaining in her earnest way that it was written in the fifteenth century and quite unreadable.  ‘Then, my dear Antonia, you will have to write King Arthur!’

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