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Lisa Hilton interviews Lady Antonia Fraser for International Women’s Day

Antonia Fraser, Non Fiction

Amy Davies - March 8th, 2015

Lady Antonia Fraser is the author of many widely acclaimed historical works, including biographies of some of history’s most extraordinary women. Here, as part of our Wonder Women celebration, Lisa Hilton interview her about the importance of these women for International Women’s Day.

Lisa Hilton: Lady Antonia, you have focused on the lives of many extraordinary women in your historical career. If you had to choose one amongst them, which to you stands out as the most extraordinary?

Antonia Fraser: Lady Catherine of Aragon is a much-neglected strong woman although as the first wife of Henry VIII, she was queen for far, far longer than any of the others. Think about it: she came here as a Spanish-speaking teenager and was married to Prince Arthur before she was sixteen, a marriage which was probably not consummated. He dies, and a few years later, after languishing in a foreign country,  she is married off to his younger brother Henry VIII. They remain married for twenty four years, in the course of which she maintains her dignity and strength – a great patron of humanism, for example – however the King behaves. Her further strength in refusing the divorce is also admirable because it was a matter of principle. She would have been far better off if she had agreed (against her conscience) and so would her daughter, Mary. 

LH: In your autobiography, My History, you quote Trevelyan on the powerful draw of the historical imagination, the fact that other generations of men and women, now gone, have walked and thought and spoken in the same places that we do. You also discuss the resonance of intimate primary sources, such as letters. Do you feel that primary source material remains paramount, in the digital age, for making connections with those lost generations of women?

AF: For real historians, there never be any substitute for the primary sources. It’s surprising how many little mistakes creep into the printed ones. And then there is the minor but important matter of hand-writing. I learnt so much from reading the letters of Mary Queen of Scots and Marie Antoinette in the original: the degenerating sloping handwriting in times of stress.

LH: Why do you feel that figures such as Mary Queen of Scots and Marie Antoinette continue to exert such fascination over every generation of readers, despite the amount of scholarship already available?

AF:  The stories of these two tragic queens justify the old cliche: you couldn’t make it  up. In both cases the youth is intensely romantically happy, which makes the tragic endings even more distressing.  

LH: You have also written on Oliver Cromwell and Charles II, amongst many other influential men. Do you think that there is a tendency in popular history to judge men and women differently – perhaps attributing women’s actions and decisions to more ’emotional’ factors, for example? Mary Queen of Scots has of late been particularly susceptible to such interpretations. How is it possible to write feminine history which is not ‘feminized’?

AF: The real difference between the lives of royal men and women is surely the issue of marriage leading to child-bearing. It’s always there: will she bear a child, that is, a royal heir, and if not who will inherit the crown? It does, after all, dominate the life of Queen Elizabeth I, even if she found her own imperious solution to it. I remember how quite late in Elizabeth’s life, her minister Cecil was assuring the French Ambassador representing a possible royal bridegroom, that the Queen was still pre-menopause (probably not true but it is remarkable that such an issue was an affair of state). The diligent monthly reports of Marie Antoinette’s potential fertility from the Austrian Ambassador in France back to her mother Marie Theresa also make disquieting reading. It didn’t happen to the princes!

LH: If, perhaps, you were to write another biography of an extraordinary woman, whom might she be?

AF: I would love to have written about Marie Antoinette’s mother the Empress Maria Theresa. Unfortunately, the primary sources – her letters, for example – are written in German, and my German is limited, not good enough for me to have absolute confidence in what I discover. The same applies to Catherine the Great, whose birth  language was German before she went to Russia (and I don’t read Russian even minimally). Thank goodness, Marie Antoinette followed her French father, the Emperor Francis, born a Prince of Lorraine, and wrote in French. 

You can find all of Lady Antonia Fraser’s biographies here.

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