If all nonfiction, particularly memoirs and biographies could be as engaging and amusingly told as Antonia Fraser's My History: A Memoir of Growing Up, I might just read a steady diet of it (rather than the very skimpy smattering I seem to be doing lately). Likely it is thanks to Fraser's marvelous book that I am now having such a hard time settling on a new nonfiction read. Where will I find one as breezy and entertaining yet filled to the brim with wonderful insights? I know they are out there, but she is a hard act to follow. In theory I should have struggled with this far more than I did (which is to say not at all). She does talk a lot about her family, her parents especially. And there are a lot of political references that I am sure just floated by over my head. But she tells her story so very confidently that I didn't mind any of those little 'would-be' obstacles that might well exasperate me with another author.
There is so much of interest to share, as is always the case with nonfiction, that I am not sure where even to begin and it is impossible to give you all the most interesting details of her life. I'll try instead to just share a few highlights and excerpts--things that really struck me that I would like to remember (and can use this post as a reminder of all the goodness of Fraser's memoir).
It's interesting that there are some parallels between Fraser's life and the lives of others I have been reading about--both in my nonfiction reading but also in some of the novels I have been spending time with. I rarely have trouble distinguishing books from one another, but I did have to orient myself a bit (despite the periods each was writing about being different) when I would move from the Fraser memoir to Lucy Wadham's Underground book I just wrote about. Two young women growing up in London/Britain, post-WWII, smart, Bohemianish with interesting families. Antonia Fraser's family also converted to Catholicism like the fictional Clara Batchelor in Antonia White's quartet of books, which I am also reading at the moment. Antonia Fraser specifically mentions White's book Frost in May, which she also read with great interest when young. Lots of crossing of paths with my reading right now.
So, Antonia White is the eldest of eight children and her parents were both deeply and dedicatedly involved in Labour politics and always felt their political leanings must be imbued with idealism. Her own first husband was also an MP, but she was drawn to something else as a young girl--History.
"There were various elements involved but from the age of four and a half, until the coming of teenage romance altered the balance, by far the most important element was History--my History. I can date the arrival of this great constellation in my life exactly according to the copy of Our Island Story which is inscribed Christmas 1936 . . ."
History was always the driving force in her life, it seems, but she was a very bookish girl and her parents didn't scrimp on her education. She actually attended a 'very good' school when living in Oxford--a boys' school! Curiously the school was called the Dragon, and the handful of girls who attended were known as She Dragons. They all played rugger and participated in school theatricals. She might not have felt privileged at the time (though, "what an exciting and unusual education, compared to our contemporaries, we had received."), but it was a rigorous education and it prepared her in many ways for her later studies and career. Interesting, though not surprising, that it's thanks to a Boys education, that she did so very well for herself. Later on she would find herself well ahead of the other girls she encountered yet in other (social) ways rather far behind.
"To know three Shakespeare plays virtually by heart, to love them, before the age of twelve, to realize there was a whole Shakespearean world and it was part of History--these were inestimable gifts."
She did all kinds of reading as a girl and young woman--everything from Georgette Heyer to Anthony Trollope. She even was a fan of history fiction of the type written by Margaret Irwin (I've read her, too!), though later it was 'real' history she came to prefer reading rather than historical romances.
She went on to study at Oxford, though not History (every young woman seemed to want to study it and to get in she had to follow a slightly different track), but she knew from early on that she would some day write History. It was just a matter of figuring out how she would do it. It is almost a given that she would go into publishing. It's thanks to her mother, and her mother's assurance that Antonia could speak other languages (which was something of an exaggeration, but it got her the job) that George Weidenfeld took her on where she worked for some years at Weidenfeld and Nicholson. She calls her work with George her 'last university' and indeed it was educational and offered her an entry into the literary world.
And dream realized, she does go on to write History. I love publishing-world stories and all the anecdotes she shares a vivid and interesting and if her History books are equally as interesting as her memoir, I really must go in search for something soon. I have barely told you anything and to me it all feels very disjointed, but if you enjoy memoirs, books on British history or politics, women's lives, coming-of-age stories in the 1930s and 40s onwards, I think I can fairly confidently press this books into your hands.
Two little asides, that I found fascinating, but that don't quite fit in elsewhere in this post--Antonia was named for Willa Cather's My Antonia (how utterly cool is that--from a Nebraskan and great fan of Cather's novel), and I think I knew this, but during the 40s it was highly unusual for young people to travel after finishing school--impossible really as 'large' amounts of currency could not be taken into foreign countries--essentially prohibiting that travel abroad year (she got around it--as others did at the time--by becoming an exchange student).
Antonia White had a very happy second marriage to Harold Pinter and wrote a memoir (I think it actually consists of diary entries) about their happy lives together that I will be looking for. An absolutely lovely read.