JULY 3, 2011
“I’LL TAKE THE DARK ONE,” says Antonia Fraser, singling out the brooding figure at a nearby table. The restaurant is Étoile in London’s Fitzrovia. The time is the mid-1970s, and “the dark one” is Harold Pinter, looking dashing over lunch with fellow thespians. So begins the affair between Pinter, Britain’s leading playwright of the postwar period, and Fraser, the biographer who made her name with the 1969 best seller Mary Queen of Scots. He is a stormy creative titan, widely acknowledged as the heir to Samuel Beckett. She is a beautiful, fair-haired aristocrat who has carved out a place as a popular historian by writing the lives of royal women. In a milieu of scruffy hotel bars, opening nights, and family homes, they promptly recognize each other’s glamour and fall in love, not just with each other, but also — and perhaps more importantly — with the idea of each other.
This is no springtime romance. The lovers are both in their forties, and both married. They come from different worlds: she from a privileged upbringing in North Oxford, he from a Jewish family in the East End. They cross paths now because they move in the same circles of literary prestige. Fraser’s husband is an easygoing Tory MP with whom she has six children. Pinter’s wife is actress Vivien Merchant, who originated what he called the “mysterious, sexy Pinter Woman” onstage in the late 1950s. No strangers to extramarital romance, the new lovers are surprised by the strength of their feelings. And so they set about dismantling their respective lives and forging one of the most enduring partnerships in British public life. Must You Go? chronicles the three decades they spent “famously married,” writing, traveling, campaigning, loving, and quarrelling, until Pinter’s Nobel Prize win in 2008, followed shortly after by his death from cancer at 78.
Fraser adds her book to a genre with a long history: the marriage memoir. When husbands attempt it, the results tend to come trailing clouds of scandal and betrayal. After Mary Wollstonecraft died in childbirth, her husband William Godwin published a record of her unconventional life. In Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Godwin laid out her highs and lows, her love affairs and suicide attempts, to clear the record and establish her genius. But instead of enshrining his wife’s reputation, Godwin’s book had the effect of tarnishing it for nearly 150 years. Two centuries later, British poet laureate Ted Hughes reportedly went into hiding for nineteen days following the publication of Birthday Letters, the 1998 volume in which he finally broke the silence about his marriage to Sylvia Plath. The poems, assembled from across the years, were as contentious as could be expected: Marjorie Perloff called them “the unkindest cut of all.”
If widowers’ tell-alls are a risky (and sometimes risqué) business, then women’s counterparts have more often been decorous catalogues of What the Great Man Ate for Breakfast. In the hands of Victorian widows, it was a genre of genuflection. Florence Hardy’s two volumes of reminiscences, Early Life of Thomas Hardy and Later Years of Thomas Hardy, were ghostwritten by her husband. Even the spirited Katherine “Kitty” O’Shea does her duty, in her memoir of the Irish liberator Charles Stewart Parnell, delivering the expected record of meetings and decisions. But luckily, in a delicious later chapter called “Parnell as I Knew Him,” she at last lets herself go, writing personally and revealingly of Parnell’s ways with women, of his irresistibly delicate features and tired, shadowy eyes.
In recent years, the tradition has been revamped with several high-profile books chronicling creative partnerships. No more the handmaiden-to-genius genre, these new widow’s books are tributes to the pleasures of intellectual companionship as well as intimate chronicles of grief, written by women no less distinguished than their husbands. The movement began with the runaway success of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking in 2005. In this short volume, Didion remembers her marriage to the writer John Gregory Dunne and reflects on her unanticipated reactions to his loss. The book was adapted for the stage by David Hare and came to Broadway starring Vanessa Redgrave in 2007, who briefly reprised the role after the loss of her daughter, Natasha Richardson. More recently, Patti Smith has galvanized the genre with Just Kids, the story of her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the New York bohemia of the late-1960s and early 1970s. It won this year’s National Book Award for Non-Fiction. While on the one hand reminding the world of her unsurpassable cool and vigorous artistic vision, Smith also reinvigorated the marriage-of-true-minds genre; in this memoir, the two lovers were never actually married (though, for the benefit of his parents, they pretended to be). In Just Kids, Smith and Mapplethorpe come across as endearing reciprocal muses with a mutual affection strong enough to guard them against their own rivalry, not to mention the lice and crabs that seemed endemic at the Chelsea Hotel. As Smith’s generation ages, surely we can expect more such volumes: the latest entry is Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story (Ecco, 2011).
American confessionalists like Didion, Smith, and Oates invite readers to share their shock, grief, and gradual reckoning with loss. Fraser’s memoir is not so intimate. Must You Go? is more like a scrapbook on display than a voyage to the end of the night. Part family album, part reflection on her own career and practices of writing, the book is also a diary of two prominent writers and their responses to the major political events of the past thirty years. Fraser holds readers at a distance, making it clear that her first loyalty isn’t to us, but to her husband. As a result, her book lacks the emotional resonance of these other recent memoirs of loss.
Fraser explains that Pinter was passionate about his privacy: he saw himself in the line of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, two writers whose estates are among the most tightly guarded in the literary world, and from whom he inherited a hawkish sense of the writer’s need for control. Fraser’s loyalty on this score is long-standing: even when Joyce’s love letters came to light in the 1970s, Fraser didn’t read them “out of deference to Harold’s wishes.” She reports Pinter’s fight with a friend who argued that “Joyce the writer was a public person” and she makes it clear that this was “[d]efinitely not Harold’s view.” In 1978, when she agreed to be her husband’s executor, she promised “to be sterner than any Literary Executor has ever been before: ‘Not a comma will be changed, not a pause unpaused.'” This unfortunate stance, reminiscent of the one taken by the Beckett estate, may brand Pinter’s works in perpetuity but will ultimately petrify the living, breathing traditions of both scholarship and performance.
Because of its reserve, Must You Go? may not become a classic of grief literature, but it has its own charms. There is no one quite like Antonia Fraser, a royalist biographer who combines the vocations of romance novelist and professional historian. Her career hearkens back to Vita Sackville West’s (whose bed she sleeps in at Sissinghurst). She calls herself “intensely romantic,” but she is more of a modulated romantic: her habits and her judgments speak of austerity and personal discipline, diplomacy and community. Must You Go? reveals her character as steady and down-to-earth. She always keeps up her family responsibilities, always thinks of her place in the wider world and honors her commitments. She has disciplined her romantic tendencies, it seems, so that they are little more than charming frills on a fundamentally serious personality. As she deposits her manuscripts in the British Library, she can’t help but spray them with a splash of her perfume. But when she sees the results of a garden photo shoot gone awry, she chastises herself: “I should stop fooling around with hats and roses.”
Born in 1932, Fraser came of age in the 1950s, and while she positions her books — especiallyThe Weaker Vessel, her survey of women’s lives in the seventeenth century — as feminist projects, they are demure, well-behaved ones. Her feminism has none of the incendiary energy that characterized the works of some of her second-wave contemporaries like Germaine Greer or Gloria Steinem. Her contribution, though, her distinctive brand of women’s history, should not go overlooked. I remember, as a teenager, coming home from the library with her books in my arms. They were, along with the sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay, some of the best treasures I found. My favorite was her 1989 anthology Love Letters (dedicated to “Harold”). It looked more like a Valentine than a work of scholarship. It was an illustrated collection of the passionate envois of famous lovers from John Keats to Zelda Fitzgerald, filed under headings like “Declarations,” “Ecstasies,” and “Passions.” Here was history arranged by what Fraser called “emotional categories” rather than dates and battles. It was a history of love. For the first time, it seemed to me, the writing of history was a desirable calling.
Love Letters is Fraser’s most effusive volume. In her biographies, she is more commonsensical. She always emphasizes the limited options open to women, even in royal worlds. She is alert to the misogyny that threads its way through the documents surrounding women’s history. She was particularly outraged by the “scapegoating” and “denigration” of Marie Antoinette, and sought to unearth the rather ordinary person from the vitriolic media campaigns against her in the 1780s. In the case of Marie Antoinette and of the wives of Henry VIII, Fraser is concerned with situating her subjects in webs of friendship and family, social pressures and personal interests, rather than defining them only in relation to the men in their lives.
By the age of 42, when she met Harold Pinter, Fraser’s own life was such a web of family, friends, professional and personal pursuits. It was never in her nature to be an iconoclast like her husband. Like many Anglo-Irish converts to Rome, she has always had a special affection for Catholicism and a desire to tell its history: she writes of Catholic queens, Catholic causes, Catholic recusants. Never a radical, rather than re-envisioning society along new lines, Fraser turns to the past to seek out smaller, Austen-like manoeuvres within the established order. But her intellectual and political credibility seem always in danger of foundering on her royalism. Herself an aristocrat, Lady Antonia treads a delicate line: on the one hand, she freely admits to her “love of social hierarchy”; on the other, she declines invitations to comment to the press on royal doings, proffering the excuse “I like my royals dead” (a line that worked, she says, until Diana’s death rendered it in bad taste). Pinter turned down a knighthood, and Fraser’s class investments seem to have been a point of tension in the marriage. We read between the lines that his response, when he finally read Mary Queen of Scots, was not favorable. As an historian, hers was not so much the “history from below” associated with the British generation surrounding Marxist historian E.P. Thompson, but a “history from beside,” the stories of the women and “Catholic refuseniks” whose lives told different stories than those of the Protestant gentleman, and later lads, to whom British history was dedicated.
Must You Go? is both a wife’s reflection and a historian’s. Her diary entries document the people, places, and causes of her day, which gives her book some of the energy of Samuel Johnson’s and Daniel Defoe’s writings about London: Fraser presents a buzzing city, full of interesting people, sights, and sounds. Ultimately, its interest may lie less in its portrait of Pinter than in the picture Fraser sketches of British intellectual life across thirty years. Everyone turns up in Must You Go?, from the Princess of Wales to Orhan Pamuk. We hear first-hand accounts of Pinter’s friendships with Václav Havel and Tom Stoppard, his fight with Didion over El Salvador in the mid-1980s, and his speeches against the Iraq war in 2003. Fraser’s diary returns us to the days of IRA bombings and the Rushdie fatwa. She confesses to hating A Chorus Line in New York and loving Anything Goes in London. She finds Princess Diana surprisingly “vivacious” and “eager to please.” We learn of her crush on Tim Robbins, her friendship with Sofia Coppola (who directed the 2006 film adaptation of Marie Antoinette), and the early-career advice she got from Dame Rebecca West: to spend her royalties “while you are young and pretty.” Like her husband, she voted for Thatcher (once) in 1979. In his case, “Union selfishness” was the cause, in hers, it was “unashamedly to see a woman walk into No. 10.” She later marched against Conservative policies alongside E.P. Thompson. Her political decisions seem to have been as personal as her husband’s were principled: she officially joined a party for the first time (Labour) because she liked Tony Blair’s smile.
Though the book is rich with insights into Fraser’s own practices as a writer and historian, the Pinter/Fraser marriage is its raison d’être: so what do we learn about it? Their match was charmingly unexpected in its loyalty and its longevity, but in terms of its origins, it was socially predictable. Fraser works hard to dispel the idea that this was, at bottom, a shiksa/poor boy romance. But she also reveals that “I like anyone who comes from nowhere” (apropos of Oliver Cromwell and Jimmy Carter). And Pinter brags about his dancing in the “Hackney style” while she describes hers as “South Kensington.” Yes, they were complementary in disposition and intellectually well-matched, but the spark that kept them interested in each other, it seems, was preordained.
Their union was passionate but not easy. The ugly side of Pinter’s character is here too, though presented through rose-colored glasses and in small doses. On their second meeting, while Fraser is giving a reading at the National Portrait Gallery, she hears a ruckus breaking out at the back of the gallery. “Oh, that was Harold Pinter,” she is told later. “He attacked the attendant for opening the door in the middle of the recital.” Because of the disturbance, the sound recording underway is ruined, and plans for an album based on the event are scrapped. The hero is unapologetic. “Yes,” he tells Fraser, “I do that kind of thing all the time.” And she concludes: “I can’t say I wasn’t warned.” Fraser loves Pinter, but she does not try to make us love him; she is the one who appears as the liveliest and most lovable character in her book. She does little to debunk the rumors of his explosive personality, nor does she apologize for loving a man who picks public fights and doesn’t seem to like her books. This is a discreet tale, one that keeps many rooms of this famous marriage behind closed doors, but it is not entirely rosy one.
Fraser confirms much of what we knew about the playwright: that the chip on his shoulder was a heavy one, and that he was a person of political courage and deep artistic commitment. We learn that he made his wife happy, but that he never found his own happiness. He was troubled by guilt at his ex-wife’s death and his son’s estrangement. He suffered from periods of “savage melancholy.” Fraser simply stops some of her stories midstream, just before plates are about to fly. She hypothesizes about the nature of their dynamic when she quotes an old friend: “You have a special problem. You are a woman and a strong character yet you want your husband to be stronger.” But as Must You Go? suggests, in spite of the Nobel Prize winner’s formidable powers, at home Harold Pinter was the weaker vessel.