The Lady Antonia Fraser Interview

January 16, 2004

Today is the day to mingle at the speed of light.


Girls! Girls! Girls! is now available for purchase on, if you are so inclined.

Today's interviewee is a first in many ways. She is the first British interviewee. She is the first historian interviewee. And she is the first interviewee to have a title. She has written many acclaimed, best-selling historical works, including Mary Queen of Scots, Cromwell, The Weaker Vessel : Woman's Lot in Seventeenth-Century England Warrior Queens, The Wives of Henry VIII, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, and also pens mysteries featuring the character Jemima Shore. I'm quite honored to have her here today and hope that I can one day accomplish a tiny fraction of what she has.

The Lady Antonia Fraser Interview: A Little Over Twenty Questions

Is there a contemporary - or recently deceased - royal worthy of a biographical treatment from you? If not, is it because circumstances during their reign have not been complex enough to have given them an opportunity to be a potentially effective force, or is because of lack of personality/power?
Yes King Juan Carlos would be worthy of a full biography as a major player in his country's history post Franco. Alas, my Spanish is not good enough to offer myself!

Among today's prominent women, which do you think will be most worthy of scrutiny in the centuries to come, and why?
Future historians will of course have to scrutinise Mrs. Thatcher, her rise and fall, very careful. Her politics were not mine but I did vote for her in l979 because I wanted to see a woman at No. 10 I haven't voted for her (or her party) since.

Your reputation is by far based on your scrutiny of historical figures. But why do you also pen mysteries? Is that your outlet for commenting on contemporary life?

I enjoyed writing mysteries out of my imagination as a relief from all that research, and also because I could write them in hotel rooms while traveling with Harold on theatrical missions. I like to write and it can be a long gap between the emergence of fully researched historical biographies. I have no plans for a future Jemima Shore mystery, but would write one tomorrow if a good idea came to me.

In Wives of Henry VIII you explored the women behind the stereotypes. Is there one of them with whom you relate more than the others?
I related to Catherine of Aragon because she was so extraordinarily steadfast and principled - she would not lie (that she had been properly married to Arthur) even to save herself and her daughter.

What would've happened to Antonia Fraser if she had been #7?
As the seventh wife of Henry Viii I hope I would have managed to do the old monster in - my cooking comes to mind as I am a hopeless cook- before he did me.

In The Weaker Vessel, you, in essence, maintain that women were able to be strong and effective when character and circumstances enabled them to be, but there was not a straight line progression of women's independence. What about your character or circumstances, then, has enabled you to be a strong voice for women in history?
My great advantage as a woman and indeed a human being has been in having a mother (recently deceased at 96) who believed strongly in women's education. She was an early undergraduate at Oxford, and her own mother, born 1870 , was an early doctor.

Although it is fiction, of course, what do you make of The DaVinci Code and its suggestion regarding the Holy Grail as feminine icon?
Haven't read it. No plans to do so.

Mary, Queen of Scots, seems to have been your all-time favorite woman in history. If this is true, why?
No, Mary Queen of Scots is not my all time favourite because I don't have one. Its like children - I have six- you love them all equally, and get on better with one and then another at different times. Mary Queen of Scots was
however my first love and that is always something special.

Can you speculate what might've happened to her had Elizabeth had allowed her not only to live, but to go free?
I think she would have gone to France, lived in state as the Dowager Queen, and allowed her son James to rule in peace.

If I told you that my Mom has eight of your books, one mystery and the rest non-fiction, all in hardcover, and that she once schlepped them all in a shopping bag to a book-signing of yours here in the Chicago area, and that she had you autograph two of them, and that she had never done anything like that before or since, and has asked me several of these questions to pass on to you, would you consider her a half-crazed groupie? Or just one of your many well-read, highly intelligent and discriminating fans?
Your Mom, like mine, sounds a class act!

By the way, she also thought you were very generous with your time and looked every bit as good, if not better, than your bookjacket photographs. [Note: My mom did not actually include a question here, so I will include one: What is the key to good bookjacket photographs?]
The clue to book jacket photography is to look friendly and approachable - please open/buy my book- but not too glamorous, supposing that is in your power.I hate the only one of my book jackets when I was made up professionally, my hair made into a smooth bell (UK edition Six Wives of
Henry Viii).

Who are your favorite writers?
At the moment I am re reading Henry James as a change from history. I began with Daisy Miller and I've just finished Washington Square. What a brilliant, painful book. I'm glad I was never an heiress. I also love Flaubert.

What are you reading right now?
It's now for Portrait of a Lady when I reach Barbados next week.

If you are beginning a new book, what is your first step in your research?
I make a list of twelve or so points which really fascinate me about the subject, to which I want to know the answers.

James Michener used a stable of young writers/researchers to assist in the research of his writing; do you have similar help?
I am proud to do all my own researcher- frankly noone could
do it as well as me without being me, so why waste time instructing others when you could be reading the manuscripts yourself? The only exceptions (always carefully noted in my books) are matters of foreign language.

What do you think of historical fiction?
I cant read historical fiction because I find the real thing so much more interesting. But I read it as a teenager and remain grateful to Margaret Irwin, Georgette Heyer etc. for the pleasure they gave me.

Your mother was a historian as well. Was there much friendly competition between the two of you? Or with your sisters?
My mother was a politician in my formative years. Her great Queen Victoria was written when I was 36 with five children. We never competed but had a really good relationship reading each others manuscripts and commenting. She was a terror over grammar - my grammar. I used to say: well who taught it to me? My sister Rachel is a novelist so the competition doesnt occur.

Do you get asked very often the question of "If you could have dinner with any historical figure, who would it be?"
I am sometimes asked this question in various forms when lecturing ('Ive just done two evenings at the Kings Head Theatre, Islington and it was asked)

Who would it be?
Kiing Charles II because he liked women's company and well as making love to them.

George Weidenfeld described you as having "Passionate zest for life combined with rigid self-discipline." What are examples from the last week of your zest and self-discipline?
Last wekk I felt no zest and certainly had no self-discipline because I was in bed with flu. Normally I make myself swim, do exercises etc. For zest I like going to the cinema. Just saw the wonderful "Lost in Translation."

If you had to live in a different century, which do you think would be the best for you, as a woman?
Lives in previous centuries for women are largely a matter of class. It would have been fun to have been a rich privileged woman in the eighteenth century, but no fun at all to be her maid.

How does it feel to be the 97th person interviewed for
97 is my lucky number.