Antonia Fraser

Diary - 28 June 2003

Finks ain't what they used to be

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The word 'traitor' seems to be bandied about a good deal at present. 'So you're a traitor, then,' said the complacently smiling lady sitting next to my husband Harold Pinter at the British Library literary dinner – rather a surprising venue for such an accusation, I thought at the time. They were discussing our recent stay in Paris. Harold explained his approval of French foreign policy over the Iraq war, coupled with his disapproval of the British action. Then I was alerted by John Guare to the possibilities of Clicking on the word 'Traitor' produced a rather more sinister result. This voice was male as well as soft and low. 'You're a traitor!' it hissed at me from my hitherto friendly screen. What, me? What is it with us Pinters? However, the text rather contradictorily urged me to 'get to know your traitor', and then gave a very long list of possible candidates, with helpful identifying photographs. It was headed by Susan Sarandon, but included Ted Kennedy, Madonna, George Clooney and Barbra Streisand, as well as John Guare himself.

The word itself was also defined: 'If you do not support our President's decisions, you are a Traitor.' After that, however, came a strange annotation on the website as follows: 'These "Traitors" are not legal "Traitors" of the US.' Did some namby-pamby lawyer suggest it? In any case it seems there is now a distinction between a Traitor – a fashionable new word of abuse for political views opposed to your own – and a legal Traitor, who has actually committed treason. It all takes me nostalgically back to the heady days of the Gunpowder Plot, when, as it were, treason was treason. An accusation carried with it the terrifying prospect of being hanged, cut down alive, your body eviscerated and then dismembered if found guilty. (I don't think Harold's neighbour envisaged this for him, or anyway not at the beginning of the conversation.) Sir Edward Coke's prosecuting speech at the plotters' trial (there was, of course, no defence in a treason trial) still chills the blood, with its last request that the broken remains of the bodies should be exposed as 'prey for the fowls of the air'. But then these plotters had planned to blow up Parliament, not merely disagreed with their government in public. I do not think the violent terrorists Robert Catesby, Guy Fawkes and co. would have made much use of Susan Sarandon in their band; and even the virile George Clooney might prove a bit of a disappointment.

We were in and around Paris because I am researching a new French subject, following Marie Antoinette with Louis XIV and His Ladies. I find the study of Versailles irresistible, although it's one of the many things it's probably better to contemplate from the perspective of history. For one thing, I should have to become a mad keen gambler, something completely inimical to my nature. But I hate standing around for long periods; unfortunately, by Versailles rules, even a mere stool was reserved for duchesses. But if you gambled, you got to sit down even in the presence of the King. My theory is that the courtiers lost fortunes in the 17th and 18th centuries for the sake of taking the weight off their satin-shod feet, and I should have been among them.

A change of period means for me a change of music since I like to saturate myself in the music of the time. So out goes my beloved Gluck who taught Marie Antoinette music in Vienna, and was in return promoted by her in Paris. Thanks to her royal patronage, the French learnt about sensibility and weeping at Orphée, for example. (One anxious man wrote to a friend that he knew he had to weep, but didn't know quite where, so took the precaution of weeping noisily throughout the opera.) Even Jean-Jacques Rousseau found himself humming 'J'ai perdu mon Eurydice' as he left the opera. In comes Louis XIV's court composer, Lully, whose operas at first listening I find much less moving. But I'm working on it, and Lully's Atys is gaining on me; it helps that it was the favourite opera of Liselotte, Louis XIV's splendid letter-writing sister-in-law. On the other hand, the church music already evokes emotion: the Dies Irae written to commemorate the death of Louis XIV's wife Marie Thér'se in 1683, for example. And then there is the Te Deum written to rejoice over the King's recovery from a peculiarly unpleasant operation. Alas, in the course of conducting, Lully managed to stab himself in the foot and died painfully of gangrene as a result. It used to be thought that the injury came from his baton, but, as Philippe Beaussant points out in his recent biography of the composer, we can see clearly from the pictures that Lully conducted with an innocuous rolled-up piece of paper. He must have been banging his cane on the floor to demand silence from unruly courtiers – which is more sympathetic if less romantic.

French music, French painting – these will be my pleasing fate for the next few years. There is also the question of the French language. 'You must speak wonderful French,' say my listeners optimistically when I lecture in English. My own test of someone speaking wonderful French is derived from my second world war childhood. Would he or she survive as a special agent sent over to occupied France posing as a French native? I can only say that any secret organisation which sent me over as a pseudo-French operative would have a hostile agenda, and I don't mean only towards the Germans. Still, as Archie Rice says in The Entertainer, I have a go. And I am much cheered by reading about the travails of others in the past. Richard Holmes's biography of Coleridge gave me the following mantra: 'As to Pronounciation, all my Organs of Speech, from the bottom of the Larynx to the Edge of my Lips, are utterly and naturally anti-Gallican.' Then there is the robust approach of Thomas Carlyle when working on The French Revolution. The anecdote is told by Edward Strachey, grandfather of Lytton, who accompanied him from London to Paris. At the end of this intensely long journey, young Strachey noticed the coachman hanging about and suggested rather nervously to the great man that he might be awaiting a tip. Carlyle declared that he would deal with the matter himself. 'Non, Monsieur,' he declared in his best pugnacious French accent. 'Non, Monsieur. Vous avez drivé devilish slow.' That's my kind of French even if, in my fantasy life, it would scarcely have saved me from the Gestapo.