Lady Antonia Fraser is another one of PEN’s incredible women, serving the organisation for decades as a member and as President of English PEN 1988-1990.
Fraser began her literary life in publishing, working for George Weidenfeld at Weidenfeld and Nicolson, whilst pursuing her own writing career. Her first major work was Mary, Queen of Scots (1969) and she went on to publish widely on history, particularly women’s history, winning the Wolfson History Award for The Weaker Vessel (1984) which documented women’s lives in seventeenth-century Britain. Her book Marie Antoinette: The Journey (2001) was adapted for the film Marie Antoinette (2006) by director Sofia Coppola, and starred Kirsten Dunst. She published her latest novel, The Case of the Married Woman: Caroline Norton last month and continues to be a literary and intellectual force well into her eighties.
Whilst English PEN President, Fraser led opposition to the introduction of Section 28 in 1988 which sought to prevent the so-called promotion of homosexuality by local authorities in the UK. Fraser, and her fellow signatories the novelist Sybille Bedford, Harold Pinter and Michael Holroyd were outraged, writing to The Times that the ‘word “promote” is imprecise and as such highly dangerous’ and that this might permit libraries to ban or refuse to stock any books with any homosexual content at all. This was precisely as the British government had intended and their protests fell on deaf ears: The legislation was not over-turned until 2003 (2000 in Scotland).
Fraser was also President of English PEN during the Salman Rushdie case, taking the lead and the international spotlight in defending an English writer threatened with death as a result of his work.
On 24thFebruary 1989 Fraser even wrote to the Guardian newspaper noting how much English PEN had done to defend Rushdie, in response to an article claiming that the British literary establishment had been slow to act on the matter: ‘For the record, we sent a telegram to Rajiv Ghandi protesting against the banning of the book in October and in the same month attempted to engage in dialogue with the Moslem [sic] Council for Religious Tolerance on the subject of freedom of speech; protested against the Bradford book-burning in letters to the Press on 2 February’ and noting their letters to the British Prime Minister and Pinter’s own appearances on British and US television to discuss the matter. She added ‘it should be recorded that our firm but non-inflammatory position has received widespread Moslem [sic] support.’
Most recently, she awarded poet and Reggae legend Linton Kwesi Johnson the PEN Pinter Prize 2020, which honours writers like her late husband, the playwright Harold Pinter, who show ‘fierce intellectual determination….to define the real truth of our lives and our societies.’ The prize is given alongside the International Writer of Courage Award, selected by PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee, in order to draw public attention to the struggles of a writer facing persecution or violence for their writing or their beliefs. This highlights a crucial part of PEN’s campaigning and one in which both Pinter and Fraser were heavily involved – Fraser is a former Chair of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee. This year’s International Writer of Courage was the Eritrean poet, critic and Editor of Zemen newspaper, Amanuel Asrat, who has been detained in high security prison since 2001.
At the ceremony Fraser remarked that, ‘on what would have been Harold’s 90th birthday, this is the perfect way to mark to memory of Harold, because, like him, the PEN Pinter Prize combines respect for great writing with an unquenchable concern for human rights.’
Her own ‘unquenchable concern for human rights’ has led Fraser to a lifetime of engaging with issues of free expression and writers’ rights all over the world, as one of English PEN’s most well-known and most influential members.