Lady Antonia Fraser has written a book entitled The King and the Catholics: The Fight for Rights 1829. Don’t be put off by the dreary subtitle. This study of the battle for emancipation, enacted by Parliament despite the tantrums of George IV, is packed with expertly chosen anecdotes.
This I wasn’t expecting – but then I didn’t know what to expect, having always steered clear of the books streaming from the pen of the eldest daughter of the Earl of Longford. I was put off as a teenager by Private Eye’s relentless mockery of her; then there was that business of the soft-Left “June 20 Group” which met in the house of Lady Antonia and her husband, Harold Pinter, in 1990.
The inaugural meeting of the June 20 Group has been forgotten by history. A pity. Lady Antonia’s diaries capture one of the great comic episodes in English literary history. Twenty-one bien pensant anti-Thatcher writers and grandees of the Fourth Estate gathered in the Pinters’ drawing room in fragrant Campden Hill Square. John Mortimer was there, of course; so was Germaine Greer – who is no longer bien pensant, alas, now that she’s offended the “trans” lobby – and Anthony Howard, former editor of the New Statesman. Lady Antonia remembers that Howard spoke for 40 minutes – “a bit long” – and then upset the assembled company by asking how they could take Rupert Murdoch’s shilling.
Peace was only restored afterwards. “Later, when they had all gone,” writes Lady Antonia, “Harold read Shakespeare’s sonnets to me with the perfume of my regale lilies, especially strong this year, filling the drawing room. That was really the best part of the evening.”
Some Catholics were upset when she married Pinter in 1980, but it does seem to have been a happy union. The diaries recall: “As we left the register office, one optimistic journalist called out: ‘How does it feel to be plain Mrs Pinter? ‘She’s not,’ snapped Harold. The next day, the Daily Mirror, of all people, explained the rules of the British peerage to its readers: how ‘Lady’ came from my father, an earl, not my previous husband, and I could carry it with me however many times I married.”
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