Archive for the ‘Antonia Fraser’ Category

I am happy to see 2015 go.  I had a productive year but it was a tiring and sombre one.  With friends and family falling ill and passing away with alarming frequency, this was not a year for intensive reading.  Or, some months, any reading at all (I only managed to finish two books in September).  That said, hidden among the comfort reads and mindless fluff that typified my reading this year were some truly excellent books.  Most of which I unfortunately never got around to writing about.  It took fierce concentration to get the list down to ten but here they are:

Top Ten - 310. The Song Collector (2015) – Natasha Solomons
A lovely, gently-paced novel about love, aging, and music.

9. Knight Crusader (1954) – Ronald Welch
I read this historical children’s novel (the first in Welch’s Carey series, currently being reissued by Slightly Foxed) back in January and was so impressed I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.  Welch’s thoughtful character development and rich historical details compliment a rip roaring plot to delight readers of any age.

8. My History (2015) – Antonia Fraser
A breezy, charming memoir about Fraser’s early years.

Top Ten - 27. Iris Origo (2000) – Caroline Moorehead
I adored this biography of Origo, famous for her wartime diary (War in Val d’Orcia – which I’ve yet to read) and her garden at La Foce (which I’ve yet to see).  Moorehead does an incredible job of describing the richly complicated Florentine expat community Origio grew up in and her extraordinarily varied circle of acquaintances, as well as her personal achievements.  There was nothing simple or straightforward about Origio and Moorehead does full justice to her subject’s complex life.  When I visited the Val d’Orcia region of Tuscany in September, I was delighted to see for myself the landscapes Moorehead had described and which Origio knew so well.

6. Sofia Khan is Not Obliged (2015) – Ayisha Malik
An entirely unique comedy about the romantic and spiritual plights (often entwined) of a young British Muslim feminist.  It remains the only book that kept me up reading long past my bedtime this year and had me giggling even more often than Bill Bryson’s The Road to Little Dribbling.

5. Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (1992) – Marcella Hazan
An unusual choice for this list but this is easily the book I’ve spent the most time with this year.  And what a book it is.  Hazan’s precise recipes are a joy to read and a delight to recreate.  Since buying this in Portland last February, I don’t think more than a week or two has gone by without me trying a new recipe from it.  I am devoted to the soup chapter, in thrall to the pasta sauces, and had a revelation over brisket when I made the beef roast with braised onions.  It has quickly become my most cherished cookbook.

Top Ten - 14. A Desperate Fortune (2015) – Susanna Kearsley
A thrilling historical novel with two equally thoughtful, appealing heroines.

3. Anthony Trollope (1992) – Victoria Glendinning
Glendinning’s thorough, affectionate, and very readable biography of Trollope gave me a new appreciation for the books of his I’ve already read and more impetus to read the others.  I was especially fascinated by her interest in his relationships with the women in his lives and how they influenced his female characters.

2. The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867) by Anthony Trollope
A funny, poignant, generous novel to end Trollope’s extraordinary Barsetshire series.

STW Letters1. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Letters (1982) edited by William Maxwell
An enchanting collection of letters spanning almost fifty years.  STW was a wonderful correspondent, filling her letters with richly-detailed annecdotes, self-deprecating humour, and the most delightful flights of whimsy.  I’ve yet to read a single one of her novels but, after reading this and the wonderful collection of her letters to William Maxwell (my favourite book of 2012), I can’t help but think of her as a close, dear friend.

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My-History-coverMy favourite biographies to read are those of people I know next to nothing about.  I can crack open the book without any of the trepidation I feel when I read about my idols – there is nothing more disappointing than discovering that someone you deeply admire is actually a self-pitying bore, unrepentant adulterer, vegan, or in possession of other similarly off-putting character traits.  No, much better to stride out into the unknown.  And that is just what I did when I picked up My History by Antonia Fraser.

Despite being a devoted student of history, I’ve never actually read any of Antonia Fraser’s books.  I think I had a copy of Mary Queen of Scots lying around the house for a few years but, in general, my areas of interest don’t overlap much with Fraser’s, at least when it comes to historical research.  When it comes to the details of her life, however, I am absolutely fascinated.

Going into this book I knew two things about Fraser: that she was an author and that her first marriage had broken up when she’d fallen in love with Harold Pinter.  Her memoir of her relationship with Pinter, Must You Go?, has been on my to-be-read list since it was released several years ago.  One day I’ll get around to reading it but I think this memoir of her youth and early adulthood was a much better introduction to Fraser, for me at least.

Fraser was the eldest of eight children born to Frank and Elizabeth Pakenham.  One of the great delights of the book was learning about both her parents, each fascinating figures in their own right.  Both Oxford-educated, they were passionate about politics (both ran for office), religion (they converted to Catholicism, though at different points), and social reform.  Their interests kept them busy and allowed their children to grow up with only mild parental intervention.  Fraser enjoyed this and spent much of her teen years in a vaguely dreamy state, spinning fantasies about favourite historical figures or dashing characters from novels, even while being dragged about the countryside by her campaigning mother:

I was even delighted to sit on the platform at the end of the row because in the romantic haze in which I chose to live, the Marquis of Vidal, saturnine hero of Georgette Heyer’s great novel Devil’s Cub, might see me sitting there and…after that I was vague, and even vaguer about the circumstances in which the Marquis of Vidal or his like would attend a Labour Party meeting in Oxford in February.

(Having just read Devil’s Cub for the first time last year, I can only wrinkle my nose at Fraser’s choice of Vidal as her romantic hero.  But perhaps that’s the benefit of reading a book for the first time at twenty eight rather than fifteen – you are much less likely to fall in love with aristocratic murders.)

But it’s not just Heyer’s characters who fuelled young Fraser’s daydreams:

Aged eleven, I had discovered Trollope in a huge green-and-gold edition in my parents’ house.  (I learnt later that there was a lot of wartime Trollope reading among the grown-ups ‘to get away from the war’.)  Thus I was temporarily obsessed by the character of Lady Glencora Palliser in Can You Forgive Her?  The tiny, tousle-haired heiress and her fatal love for the wastrel Burgo Fitzgerald occupied most of my waking thoughts.

Anyone who loves both Heyer and Trollope is clearly a kindred soul.

As we hear – in a charmingly self-deprecating style – about Fraser’s pleasant wartime childhood, excellence at school, and (rather too briefly described) adventures as a young working woman, we are also introduced into her alarmingly well-connected world.  She vacationed in Italy with the Italian Prime Minister’s family, met Bernard Berenson in Florence (BB has shown up in my reading a least once a month this year), had her wedding portrait taken by Cecil Beaton (his gift to the bride), worked for the publisher George Weidenfeld, and was the niece of Christine Longford (whose novel Making Conversation is available from Persephone).  There are countless other connections that I’ve forgotten but it’s an excellent resource if you’re ever stockpiling information to play six degrees of separation.  Which I always am, obviously.

Starting as a complete stranger to Fraser, this was a wonderfully entertaining introduction to her and her fascinating family.  Now I just can’t wait to read The Pebbled Shore, a memoir written by her mother, Elizabeth Longford.

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