The King and the Catholics by Lady Antonia Fraser, in conversation with Anna Sebba
Duke Street Church - 07 November 2019
Review by Eliza Hall
An evening of gentle discussion which hinged on the book The King and the Catholicswas led by Anna Sebba. Lady Antonia was introduced to the 300 strong audience, via her books and the amazing reviews they have all received.
Turning to the book to be discussed, we were given a glimpse of the opening scene of violence and bloodshed and the reason Lady Antonia wrote this as she explained that that it was in fact a bloodless time of emancipation during the reign of George III. Anna had asked Lady Antonia how she started the book, was it a scene that that she imagined or a real moment in history? This led to some interesting answers about how the author gains a feeling about the time and in particular the characters involved with the Gordon riots against Catholic Relief in 1780.
When Lady Antonia was asked to explain why there was such a depth of feeling against the Catholics she took us back in history to look at the background of fear of Catholic Europe and our wars against the Spanish and French, of Guido Fawkes’ attempt to blow up parliament – with a wry interjection from Anna about our present parliamentary situation. Lady Antonia was not drawn on this, but reminded us of the plaque placed on the Monument after the great fire of London which blamed the destruction on the Catholics. Taken down by James III it is now housed in the Museum of London. An historical event, she made very clear, should not be erased from history. It is fact and stands for a particular time in our history. She went on to explain that the Pope was seen as a ‘bogey man’ as he appointed the Catholic priests who were still present in England. Catholics were still not allowed to vote, hold commissions in the armed forces, or attend university. Catholic peers were not allowed in the House of Lords even though some peers were prepared to change their religion to Protestantism in order to take their seats.
Lady Antonia explained that she grew up a Catholic, having experienced her parents’ conversion. She was eight years old when her mother converted and when she was fourteen years of age Antonia did the same, attracted to the ‘choreography’ of the services or she described it, as ‘the smells and bells’, the music and the mystery of the religion, including the mystery surrounding the nuns at her school.
After this little reminiscence, which helped explain the context of her interest in Catholicism, she was asked what was her narrative drive in her books or how does she attempt to make history accessible to the reader. Again she brought us back to the characters and how in this particular book two heroes emerge, the Duke of Wellington and Daniel O’ Connell. Digging deeper into this, Anna asked about narrative history and Lady Antonia reminded us that her characters did not see what we see in retrospect and how one cannot tell a story if you review it from the present. It is the present of the historical situation and the characters, how they behave, that make the history.
This became more evident when she made a clear distinction between writing historical fact and historical fiction, which Lady Antonia said she did not read, but acknowledged that Hilary Mantel has probably brought more history than anyone and rekindled those who might have lost their taste for the past. When questioned about the film adaptation of Marie Antoinette by Sophia Coppola, she was complementary and enjoyed the interpretation.
She touched later on some specific incidences where she was challenged by history’s outcome, wrestling with the activities and decisions that people in power make, citing George III and the Act of Union with Ireland which he refused to sign, just as George IV had the same trouble in deciding if he should swear an oath to uphold the Protestant Church, where his life style did not help his decision making.
Antonia is very aware of the present political situation with Ireland and Brexit and could see certain resonances in today’s lack of tolerance , acknowledging that Jewish emancipation came much later, we still live in an intolerant society and exclaimed that to pass judgement on another’s religious habits, rituals, life style, she said ‘is none of my business’.
Two amusing little anecdotes were prompted by questions about her liking the characters she wrote about. She still dearly likes Mary Queen of Scots, and recalled the time when her mother, also an historian, said she would be writing about her, at which Antonia exclaimed to her mother, ‘No, she’s mine !’ On a much later occasion she started a book on the battle of the Boyne but realised she disliked Edward III and had to stop, saying to her husband ‘Harold, bin the Boyne’.
What fires her to write? She loves what she does and is able to be the captain of her own destiny: ‘I never became a writer, I was born a writer’. She recalled receiving an e-mail from Elton John who told her that she was his favourite historical writer. When he asked how long would she continue writing she replied to him ‘As long as I receive praise like yours, I’ll write’.
Spending an evening with Lady Antonina was fascinating. We all learned what we already knew of her – an erudite, objective, thoroughly-researched, master storyteller of our past.
Photography by Holly Ibbs
Duke Street Church, Richmond Literature Festival,