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Lady Antonia Fraser splashed out after a literary windfall

Prolific: Lady Antonia is still writing aged 88

The most expensive item the author Lady Antonia Fraser has ever bought herself for fun was a heated swimming pool for her lodge in the Scottish Highlands. 

Fraser, the daughter of an earl and whose second husband was playwright Harold Pinter, told DONNA FERGUSON her biggest money mistake has been betting on the horses because she always loses. 

Now 88, she is still writing as passionately as ever and her latest historical biography – The Case Of The Married Woman: Caroline Norton – is out on Thursday. 

What did your parents teach you about money? 

They taught me two very different things. My father Frank Pakenham, the 7th Earl of Longford, was extremely extravagant and didn’t really have any money. He taught me that it didn’t much matter what you had in your pocket – you decided first what to spend. 

My mother, who was a stay-at-home parent, was the exact opposite. She was extremely careful which of course children don’t appreciate. She taught me that I should keep money in my pocket and on no account spend it on anything pleasurable. 

My father worked as a don at Oxford when I was growing up. He then became a Labour Cabinet Minister and later, leader of the House of Lords. He was also a great prison reformer. 

He was from an Anglo Irish aristocratic family, but was not well off. He was the youngest son and only became earl when his elder brother died, which happened when I was 30. Until then, my father only had the money that he earned, and with eight children to support on an academic salary, money was tight. 

I always knew I wasn’t as well off as my friends. I was the eldest child and it was made clear to me when I reached the end of my university education that the next money I had would be that which I earned. So I got a job. I’m extremely grateful to my parents for that although I wasn’t so grateful at the time. 

Have you ever struggled to make ends meet? 

Yes, during the 1950s and 1960s when I was married to my first husband, Sir Hugh Fraser, father of my six children. He was a Member of Parliament and in those days, which was pre-expenses, MPs got paid little. 

We had an overdraft and would get letters from the bank. I think there may have been issues with paying the mortgage – indeed there were problems paying everything. But we were young and it was a happy struggle. 

The money that unexpectedly came in from my first major book, which was about Mary, Queen of Scots, was important to us. But I can’t pretend that money was my motive for writing it because at the time I wanted to tell her story more than anything in the world.

Have you ever been paid silly money? 

No. My books make money but they don’t make millions – and they take a long time to write. But I’m not in it for the money. I’m very lucky because what I do in life is what I want to do, and it allows me to earn enough to keep going. 

What was the best year of your financial life? 

It was 1969, the year my book on Mary, Queen of Scots was published here and in America. 

It sold so many copies that I was able to pay for the renovation of our holiday home, a lodge in the Scottish Highlands that had been left untouched for years. I was able to do exciting things to it like install a heated swimming pool. 

We spent all our holidays there and I have some wonderful memories. I didn’t see it as a remarkable achievement to have had six children in the 1950s and still manage to earn that sort of money as a woman in my own right. I was just doing what I’d always wanted to do and having a very happy life.

The most expensive thing you bought for fun? 

I’d probably have to say that swimming pool. It was 50 years ago, so it’s difficult to remember how much it cost. But I remember it being expensive at the time. 

I love swimming. Having that heated pool was like a dream come true. I spent some of the happiest days in my life there. We used to swim in it on New Year’s Eve with snow all around us. 

How did your finances change after you met Harold Pinter? 

He was infinitely the higher earner. He was already a successful screenwriter and famous playwright. I wouldn’t say he was extremely wealthy but we led very comfortable lives. 

Tying the knot: Lady Antonia with playwright Harold Pinter on their wedding day in 1980

Tying the knot: Lady Antonia with playwright Harold Pinter on their wedding day in 1980

We could do whatever we wanted and go abroad for our holidays with the children. It was lovely. I have such wonderful memories of those holidays.

What is your biggest money mistake? 

I love betting on the Derby and the Grand National. But that’s where I’ve made my biggest money mistakes over the years because I’m an extremely unlucky gambler. 

If you’re around me when you’re having a bet on the Derby, you want to bribe me not to bet on your horse. I always lose. 

The best money decision you have made? 

Buying my home in West London. It’s an eight-bedroom house with a garden in a famous square, which I bought in 1959 for £18,000. I walked in and it was dark brown with no heating and nothing worked – and I said, ‘I have to have it.’ I just had a feeling. 

Its value has soared. I’ve had offers for amounts I’d rather not disclose – but several million pounds. I’m not selling. I love living there. I don’t need eight bedrooms now. So a lot of the house is rented out which provides me with an income. 

Do you save into a pension? 

No, I get a state pension at my age. I never saved into a private pension when I was younger which I don’t regret. My home is my pension and I’m still writing. I’ve got a lot to be happy about. 

What is the little luxury you treat yourself to? 

The occasional painting. I buy them for pleasure. I recently bought a lovely painting by Amy Shuckburgh of a moon and various objects. It’s a picture full of imagination. She also did a portrait of Harold which I gave to the Harold Pinter Theatre in London. 

She was his favourite portraitist and painted the last portrait of him before he died. He liked it very much so I suppose her work reminds me of him. 

If you were Chancellor what would you do? 

I would set up a special, wheelchair-friendly, taxi service for the elderly – to take them places and make them more mobile. Everyone would make a token payment to use it but it would be almost free and funded by the taxpayer. Ideally, it would be staffed by Black Cab drivers because they’re so nice and helpful. 

Do you donate money to charity? 

Yes, I donate to Give a Book, a wonderful charity which provides books to disadvantaged people, including prisoners and young children. It’s played an important role for many people during lockdown. 

What is your number one financial priority? 

Not to have to think about money or worry about it. And I think I have mostly achieved that. 

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