Ladies and Gentlemen, Thomas Carlyle once famously – or infamously – said that a well-written life is almost as rare as a well-spent one. This is certainly not the motto of the Biographers Club. I therefore have fallen into the custom of reversing and adapting this motto for myself, and suggest humbly the same for fellow members, as follows: “It is possible to have an extremely well spent life, trying to achieve a well written one.”

It is because that this is how I have spent a large part of my many years in this endeavour, whether successful or not, that I am particularly honoured and moved to receive the Club’s Lifetime Award.

This is a proud moment for me, perhaps the proudest since I was being taken round the gardens of Versailles (for Love and Louis X1V) in an electric buggy. It was autumn, misty, and there were not many people about. Suddenly we encountered a large body of Japanese tourists in our path. What to do? In the spirit of the Sun King, I waved most graciously. There was a buzz, a murmur, a clap, more claps, a torrent of clapping. The guide solemnly informed us: “They think you are the Queen Mother of England.” Of course I waved some more! I had to, for the honour of England. Tonight therefore, I feel like the Queen Mother of Biography.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I will now take you back. Not, you will be happy to hear, as far as my early efforts at the age of seven when copying Our Island Story – that great book encouraged me to believe that I too could tell any historical story I liked to the general applause of the grown ups. No, I will take you back a mere 50-odd years to the moment in 1964, when my mother, the distinguished biographer Elizabeth Longford, came to pay a ritual tea time visit to her grandchildren, and actually started to discuss her own flourishing career. She had just scored an enormous success with Queen Victoria and the usual biographer’s question was rearing its head: What next?

Suddenly I heard my beloved mother say the following words: “Graham Watson [her agent] says I should do Mary Queen of Scots.” Ladies and Gentlemen, I froze. I froze with horror.

“You can’t do that!” I said wildly. “She’s my Mary Queen of Scots.” I looked round for a way to stop her, to stop this celebratedly good woman forever. “You can’t do that,” I said. “You’re far too moral.” Well, she could hardly argue she wasn’t all that moral, could she. Elizabeth Longford merely said: “Oh, that’s all right. I’ll do Wellington if Philip Magnus sticks with Edward V11 and Gerry Wellington agrees.” This biographer’s prattle was quite lost on me; the thought was just going through my head – I’ll do it. It was a sudden, irrevocable decision, and one I have never regretted. So that’s how I took on, or rather grabbed my first historical biography.

I think my reaction does illustrate one thing: the highly possessive nature of biography. Of course all great subjects must as it were change and develop over the years, and I am the last person to say that there can never be another biography of Mary Queen of Scots. There’s at least one excellent one I read with much pleasure.

After all, is there a better subject? I don’t think so. When I was working on it as an unknown quantity all those years ago, I bumped into Mark Bonham Carter, who was working for the then Collins publishers. Son of Lady Violet, grandson of Prime Minister Asquith, a brilliant man in his own right, he had, shall we say, an astringent sense of humour.

“Antonia,” he said, “I hear you are writing a biography of Mary Queen of Scots. You know what publishers say.” Of course I didn’t. “They say that no books on South America sell and all books on Mary Queen of Scots sell.” Pause. “Of course, yours may be the exception.”

Returning to possessiveness, I do think not only do we get possessive about our subjects, but we need to do so, if we are to spend the time, secure the empathy and immerse ourselves in the world.

So during this long and well spent life, as I see it, I have written four full length biographies and four books such as The Warrior Queens and The Weaker Vessel using the biographical method. Apart from immersing myself twice in Versailles, I have fought the English Civil War – at the head of the cavalry, acted as a 17th-century English midwife, attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament…

Obviously I believe that the biographical method is the way to get at history. In fact my last book, about the Drama of the Great Reform Bill, although focused on one specific exciting event in 1832, was actually founded on the biographical method: an attempt to get inside the minds of the men who fought for or against the Bill – what were they really like?

In my biographer’s life I have watched, incidentally, the art of biography ascend in the public consciousness. When I began, so-called narrative history was not in vogue. I remember an 18-year-old schoolboy saying to me very kindly, at a literary party given by his famous father: “Never mind that you’re considered old fashioned. Some of us you know, really do make time for narrative history.” Did I mention the fact that he was at Eton? I wanted to snap back: Finally, what is the whole of history but a narrative, made up of individual biographies. I’m glad to say I managed to smile.

Anyway, I certainly do not need to convince my audience and fellow members tonight of the value of biography. If the wheel of fortune for biography goes down, we can always reflect again as I did in the Sixties: “Nobody likes biography but the public.” I will therefore end with echoing my gratitude once again and saying what a highly enjoyable lifetime this has been. I believe Ruskin used to ask about a work of art: Was it well made? That is, was the craftsman happy while he was doing his work? In the course of writing biography, this particular craftsman can answer resoundingly: Yes.