Drawing almost exclusively from her diary entries, Lady Antonia Fraser has crafted quite an interesting book. It got good reviews, and I made a note to pick it up from the library, thinking that I would be interested to get a glimpse of the social scene in which two such famous people were likely to be involved.
Fraser, a writer of histories, of which the most famous is Mary Queen of Scots, met Pinter, celebrated playwright, in January of 1975. Each of them was married at the time, he to actress Vivien Merchant and she to MP Hugh Fraser. As she tells it, they were immediately attracted to one another and began an affair, moving in together in August of that year, and living together for the next thirty-three years, until his death.
Fraser writes openly and honestly about the difficulties the couple suffered as they forged ahead in their adulterous relationship, from spouses, parents, friends, and from the constant attention of the press. One gets a sense of the intensity of feeling they had for one another, an intensity which seemed never to flag over all the years they had together.
Another aspect of the book gives a window into the society they moved in, with lunches, dinners, and weekends with people involved in London’s theatre scene. Opening nights of Pinter’s plays, opening nights and runs of plays under his direction, rehearsals and ideas for new dramas–the reader gets a sense of what it was like to be involved with that very creative crowd. There is much international travel, visits to museums, concerts attended, holidays taken in exotic places. I did enjoy her restrained descriptions of their version of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
I was curious about how Fraser, who was Catholic and married to a Catholic, could square her actions with her conscience. She talks frankly of her parents’ disapproval, but does not mention any qualms she might have had in taking up the relationship with Pinter. She was 42 or43 years old when it began, so we’re not looking at a schoolgirl’s passion here. She had six children, and the younger ones were going to Catholic public schools at the time. In connection with that, she mentions that one of the nuns she knows at her daughter’s school didn’t pass judgement on her.
Fraser mentions going to Mass a couple of times, but even so, I was very surprised when she reveals that, in the summer of 1990, she began to talk with Pinter about having their marriage convalidated. Both their spouses had died, and therefore they were free to marry in the Catholic Church. Pinter was a Jew, but had no objection, and so they had a quiet and private ceremony. She says, “So now I am well and truly in a state of grace!” and mentions feeling “fulfillment and happiness.” I felt happy for her, as I had grown to like her for her attachment to her children and grandchildren, and for her devoted care for Pinter.
The latter part of the book tells of Pinter’s failing health and the difficulties he had to suffer. He was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus, had surgeries and various treatments and was declared cancer-free, but before long began to decline. He was given the Nobel Prize but was too ill to travel to accept it. He received many other tributes for his years of support of international social causes as well as for his plays. A cancerous tumour on his liver was found to be the cause of his continuing ill health, and he died soon after, on the 24th of December, 2008. The book ends there.
There is much else of interest in the book–for example, the fatwa declared against Salman Rushdie, who was a friend of the couple, their meetings and friendship with Vaclav Havel, and many other famous persons. They enjoy happy times together and with their extended families. Well, it is covering 33 years, after all. And I haven’t mentioned Fraser’s continuing research and writing, as well as Pinter’s various collaborations with other playwrights, and his writing of film scripts.
I enjoyed the book. I was not prepared to like Fraser’s style; I expected a certain haughtiness from her, but no, I found her very readable. In fact, it was that excellent thing, a real page-turner. I’ve already recommended this book to my daughter, and I extend the recommendation to anyone who has an interest in the arts, or in the lives of the famous. Enjoy!