March 24, 1980 12:00 PM

For a time Rachel Billington seemed to be only a footnote in a remarkable English family of letters. Father is an Oxford don turned historian, the seventh Earl of Longford and a sometime cabinet minister dubbed “Lord Porn” for his antismut crusades. Mother is Elizabeth Longford, author of highly praised books on Queen Victoria and the Duke of Wellington. Among Rachel’s elder siblings are Lady Antonia Fraser, London’s leading biographer (Mary Queen of Scots, Cromwell and Charles II), and brother Thomas Pakenham, another historian. As for young Rachel, “I was a jolly, conventional little girl,” she recalls, “not very bright by our family’s standard.”

Now, at age 37 and with four children of her own, Lady Rachel (she rarely uses the title) may one day eclipse all of the literary Longfords. This winter A Woman’s Age, her seventh novel in 11 years, reached American bookstores. Tracing four generations of a family, it is a poignant examination of female evolution from Edwardian England to contemporary times. The book, five years in the writing, is Rachel’s weightiest effort yet.

For inspiration Rachel seeks her muse from a garden deck chair or cozy bedroom. After sending Nathaniel, Catherine Rose, Chloe and baby Caspar, 8 months, off to school or nanny, Mother settles down at 9:30 each morning to the music of Bach, Mozart or Beethoven and prepares to “start the great battles.” She writes until midafternoon.

The fifth of eight children, Rachel enjoyed a sheltered girlhood with no pressure to succeed “because the older ones already had done so well.” After a degree in English from Oxford and two years as a researcher for British television, Rachel packed off to New York and a job with ABC-TV. There she met Kevin Billington, a BBC director eight years her senior. A year later Kevin became her husband. There were some raised eyebrows among the noble Longfords over the fact that Kevin’s father was a factory worker.

Although Rachel’s plans for writing were still “very muddled,” Kevin “took me seriously,” she says. “No one had ever done that before. I hadn’t myself.” Kevin locked his new wife in his study to keep her busy. Such tactics are no longer necessary, Rachel concedes. “The excitement of my life is a blank piece of paper.”

For her raw material, says Rachel, “I’ve always been interested in the secret life of ordinary people. The middle classes are very good at covering things up. I can sit on a bus and pick up all sorts of things from observing a man’s socks.” Thanks partly to her literary successes, she and Kevin live a cut above the middle. On trips to their six-bedroom country home, the oldest (14th century) inhabited dwelling in Dorset, they drive a classic ’65 Bentley. In London they frequent the opera and hold season tickets to the Queen’s Park Ranger soccer games. Rachel takes modern dance classes twice a week and plays tennis with Antonia, who lives nearby with playwright Harold Pinter.

Rachel is already plotting her next book, an Anna Karenina-type saga set in the present. A once lapsed Catholic who has returned to the Roman fold, she admits that the arrival of more children may delay the book’s progress. As a late bloomer herself, Rachel says, “Coming up from behind has turned out to be quite agreeable.”

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