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Lady Antonia Fraser in conversation with the Vice Provost

A healthy crowd of boys and members of the Eton Community squeezed into the ‘Holy of holies’ venue of the Provost’s Drawing room  - Standing Room Only for a good few – to hear Lady Antonia Fraser, author of 13 History books, daughter of an OE (and Labour politician), and widow of one of the 20th Century’s most noted playwrights, ‘in conversation’ with the Vice Provost. Dr Gailey had very kindly stepped in at short notice given the illness of the Provost, but he had certainly done his homework, and discussed various aspects of Lady Antonia’s life firstly as a schoolgirl, then student in Oxford, then working in publishing, and up to her ‘breakthrough’ biography of Mary Queen of Scots in the late 1960s. She told us that ‘officially’ she had not seen the recent film, because she didn’t want to be asked questions about in in the Press, but ‘unofficially’ she had seen it and didn’t think too much of it (!). She was disarming about her upbringing in Ireland and the reasons for her fearlessness in climbing the rock stacks on Skellig island – (‘as a girl of 15 I was quite keen on the lighthouse-keeper!’). She was very illuminating on the books she has written and on the reasons for dropping those she did not write – notably on the Battle of the Boyne and on Elizabeth I. She was happy to give Charles II the accolade of the biographical subject she’d most like to dine with – notably because that Monarch appreciated the intelligence of women. Indeed she was clearly proud of her work of the 1970s The Weaker Vessel, based on the lives of seventeenth century women mostly in sieges and battles. She also allowed that Cromwell, whatever his other shortcomings, had a proper regard for his daughters, wife and sisters, and for that matter if he banned theatre, permitted opera (which was a surprise) and liked dancing (ditto). Asked how Harold Pinter had influenced her work, she said he read as she wrote it and as a master of prose himself could be a severe editor – getting her to cut down on words like ‘sanguine’ which in his view could be used once but not six times on a page. A final question from the Vice-Provost certainly delighted the audience – yes, it was true that in wartime Oxford she had, as pretty much the only girl then in the school, played for The Dragon Rugby XV – on the wing – and scored many tries. Since the Secretary of the Society had played for the self-same team and in the same position – and no doubt with the same success, it was serendipity itself. A splendid meeting.

ASR

DATE POSTED: 09 February 2019

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