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Wednesday, August 27, 2014


By Guest Blogger Spencer Blohm

Lady Antonia Fraser is one of the most highly respected and influential biographers in the world. A born and raised Londoner, she’s shined a light on history's most prolific, controversial, and infamous characters. For her 82nd birthday on August 27th, let’s take a look at the times of a woman who’s lived a life not too dissimilar from her own book subjects.
            Born in London in 1932 to the 7th Earl of Longford and the Countess of Longford, part of the well-known “Literary Longfords,” who come from a long line of authors, biographers, and poets. Growing up in a literary inclined household meant an emphasis on education, particularly for Lady Antonia, whom her mother described as “the most precocious” of the eight Pakenham children. Her education included stints at the Dragon School in Oxford, St Mary’s School, Ascot, and Oxford.
            Following her graduation, she began work as an assistant at Weidenfeld & Nicolson, a publishing house. However, she soon met and married Sir Hugh Fraser, a Member of Parliament for Stafford and Stone, and quit working in order to become a homemaker and mother. For nearly 15 years, her focus was on her children and husband, but the creative instincts so deeply ingrained in her DNA were always boiling under the surface. After it was suggested to her mother (also a published author) that she should write a biography about Mary Queen of Scots, Lady Antonia persuaded her mother to let her write the book and, while carrying her fifth child, she began her research. When asked about how she could have possibly managed to raise six children while also doing the extensive research and hard work required to write historical biographies Lady Antonia explained to The Telegraph:  “I allowed no one to disturb me between 9.30am and 12.30pm with anything much short of a broken leg. My daughter Natasha put up a sign on my door saying, ‘Nobody allowed not even you otherwise no pocket money, no conversation and worst of all no mother’”
            In 1969 Mary, Queen of Scots was published, marking the beginning of the then-37-year-old Lady Antonia’s long and wildly successful career. From there, she quickly churned out book after book detailing the rich history of her native England and its eccentric monarchy. As her writing career took off, her marriage disintegrated and she notoriously found solace in the playwright Harold Pinter who, at the time, was married to the successful stage and film actress Vivien Merchant. With both of them leaving their respective spouses in order to get married, Lady Antonia had her first real experience with the press. However it wasn’t the literary pages who were now writing about her, and the subject was far from her work.
            After the couple wed in 1980, she continued to write and published historical biographies of noted monarchs like Charles II, the fabled Boadicea, Henry VIII and his many wives, as well as a critical examination of the life of a woman in the 17th century England called The Weaker Vessel. It was in 2001, however, that her most well-known book, Marie Antoinette: The Journey was published. The book offers a refreshingly unbiased and deeply analytical look at the life of the notorious French queen. Before the book was even published, director Sofia Coppola reached out to Lady Antonia about discussing the possibility of Coppola buying the rights to the book to make a film. Of this proposition Lady Antonia noted in her diary, “But of course the film won’t actually happen. Because it never does.” Obviously she was wrong, and she served as a source as Coppola both wrote and directed the movie. Lady Antonia was a vital resource to the creation of the film and met with many of the cast and crew before and during filming to consult with them on the direction they were going and the historical accuracy of it all. Of the final product, she wrote “In principle I loved Sofia’s use of anachronisms—the witty flash of sneakers amid a delicious montage of pink and turquoise shoes was especially pleasing. None of the liberties taken bothered me.”
            To coincide with the film’s release, her book was republished in 2006 and gained an even larger following than it had after its initial release. She continued to focus on the French court, as a change of pace, and published Love and Louis XIV: The Women in the Life of the Sun King which, perhaps not coincidentally, was also released in 2006. It was at this time she decided to focus on a subject much closer to home; herself and her husband. Following the death of her husband in 2008, she decided to write about her life with her late husband and the decidedly elegant and grand 33 years they spent together. The book, Must you Go?: My Life with Harold Pinter was published in 2010 to critical praise.
            While she has yet to release a book since 2010, Lady Antonia continues to be an important figure in English culture. She was elevated to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2011 and has continued to work on passion projects like the protection of English cultural objects and even serves as an advisor to the Man Booker International Prize committee. She also revealed in April that she’s currently working on a memoir of her early life, slated to be published in 2015. It looks like despite having every right to retire and put up her feet, Lady Antonia Fraser still cannot resist the drive to write, something for which we are surely all grateful.

Spencer Blohm is a freelance entertainment blogger for http://www.direct-ticket.net/. He came to know about Lady Antonia through his love of medieval and renaissance monarchy and is still a steadfast (although slightly closeted) history buff. He lives and works in Chicago where he can usually be found with his nose in a book or eyes glued to the T.V.

Monday, August 25, 2014



Victoria here. After about two years of fighting here and there, nothing about the War of 1812 had been settled. 
For our post on the beginning of that war, click here.

“Capture of the City of Washington”,
Based on an engraving from Rapin’s History of England,
published by J. and J. Gundee, Albion Press, London, 1815.

After April 1814, when Napoleon had abdicated the first time (see our post here), many of the battle-hardened British troops were sent to North America. Great Britain planned to finish the War with the United States, which had so far been fought in a variety of places, including the high seas, in Canada, in U.S. territories, the disputed west where many Native Americans allied themselves with the British, and in the Gulf of Mexico. None of the battles, whether skirmishes or out and out facing off of warships, was decisive.

Battle of Lake Erie, Sept. 10, 1813

Once the British troops reached North America, one group landed in Canada and set out to defend and attack from the north, they were effective in limiting any U.S. victories there.  A second group sailed into Chesapeake Bay with the objective of capturing Washington City, the fledgling capital of the young U.S.A., and Baltimore, a busy port and commercial center just about 40 miles north of Washington.

 The British troops routed the Americans at the Battle of Bladensburg, just outside Washington, on August 24, 1814. The capital was expecting an invasion, and as the fleeing U. S. militia men fled through the streets, most residents evacuated.
Dolley Madison, by Gilbert Stuart
One cannot tell the story about the burning of the White House without including the wife of President James Madison, Dolley Payne Madison (1768-1849).  In the absence of her husband who was elsewhere conferring with generals, she was left alone at the White House. She had been working with the architects to furnish the building, only finished a few years previously.  Though continually urged to flee, Dolley would not leave without the monumental painting of first President, George Washington which had to be removed from its frame and the canvas rolled up for its survival. 
George Washington by Gilbert Stuart
Both of the above paintings are in the White House Collection
For a detailed account "How Dolley Madison Saved the Day" from the Smithsonian Institution, click here.  One of the ironies of the story is that the full-length portrait of Washington was a copy, probably by Stuart himself, of the painting commissioned in 1796 as a gift for the Marquess of Lansdowne, the British Prime Minister (known then as Earl of Shelburne) who helped to conclude the Revolutionary War with the independence of the U.S.A.  It now hangs in the  National Portrait
Gallery, Washington, D. C. while the version saved by Mrs. Madison is in the White House. For the whole story of the Lansdowne Portrait, click here
During August 24 and 25, the British burned many of Washington's government buildings, including the Capitol and the Treasury. When an arsenal exploded prematurely and killed several dozen of the British troops and a freak thunderstorm broke out bringing high winds and heavy rain, the British troops withdrew.  Though many of little Washington City's buildings were in ruins, most of the residences and many businesses were intact.  When the Madisons returned, they took up residence in the Octagon House, still standing just a block or two from the White House.
The Octagon House Museum
1799 New York Avenue NW, Washington, D.C.
The unfinished United States Capitol Building was set aflame and only parts of it survived. 
U. S. Capitol in August 1814 after the fire
For all the details of the fire and the rebuilding, click here.
Many historians say the British burned Washington in retaliation for the burning and sacking of the Canadian city of York (now Toronto, Ontario) by the Americans in 1813.  Accounts can be found showing that many buildings were saved in Washington because the troops were well disciplined and had been ordered by their commanders, Admiral Cockburn and Major General Ross, to spare civilian lives and structures.
 Queen Street, Alexandria, Virginia
In late August, British ships laid siege to Alexandria, a thriving commercial city on the Virginia side of the Potomac River just south of Washington. The city, which had no defenses, surrendered and the British took large stores of flour, tobacco, wine, and sugar from the warehouses.  After several days of occupation, the British withdrew on September 2, 1814, leaving all buildings intact.
After the British troops left the immediate Washington vicinity, they turned their attention to taking Baltimore, to the north,  We will report on that battle in a few days