Fraser, Lady Antonia
Lady Antonia Fraser 1932–
English biographer, historian, and novelist.
The following entry presents an overview of Fraser's career through 1996. For further information on her life and work, see CLC, Volume 32.
Lady Antonia Fraser has produced works that are both popular with general readers and acclaimed by academics. Some reviewers attribute her success to an ability to tell a good story combined with an attention to detail. "She writes fluently, spins yarns with verve, and knows the secret of the significant fact," Reed Browning affirmed. Fraser's taste for history and writing is deep-rooted. Her father, mother, daughter, and brother are all writers; collectively her family is known as the "Literary Longfords." Fraser's talents as a historian found their first expression with books on dolls and toys, then developed with projects on figures of British history, beginning with Mary Queen of Scots (1969) and continuing most recently in her exploration of the evidence surrounding the 1605 case of Robert Catesby and Guy Fawkes in Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot (1996). In addition to her wide interests and achievements, Fraser is particularly accomplished in her investigation of women in history. She has also launched into crime fiction, creating the detective Jemima Shore.
Born August 27, 1932, the eldest of eight children, Antonia Fraser is the daughter of Francis Aungier Pakenham, a politician and writer, and the 7th Earl of Longford (a title he acquired in 1960 after his brother's death) and Elizabeth Pakenham, Countess of Longford and biographer of such figures as Queen Victoria, the Duke of Wellington, and Lord Byron. As a child, Fraser attended a convent school (which served as the setting for her first mystery novel) and developed an early interest in Mary Queen of Scots and other figures from English history. She earned a B.A. and an M.A in History at Oxford, where her classmates included novelist V. S. Naipaul. After graduating, she worked as General Editor of the Kings and Queens of England series for the London publishers Weidenfeld and Nicholson, and herself published books of history for children on King Arthur and Robin Hood, a book on dolls, and her History of Toys (1966). During this time Fraser had six children with her husband Hugh Fraser, a Conservative Member of Parliament and war hero whom she married in 1956. Her first big success in publishing came when, at her mother's suggestion, Fraser undertook a biography of Mary Queen of Scots, which led to the publication of her first important book Mary Queen of Scots. Subsequently she published Cromwell Our Chief of Men (1973), King James: VI of Scotland, I of England (1974), King Charles II (1979), The Weaker Vessel (1984), Boadicea's Chariot: The Warrior Queens (1988) and The Wives of Henry VIII (1992). In the mid-1970s she began writing mysteries featuring private investigator Jemima Shore, who first appeared in Quiet as a Nun (1977). With this and subsequent Jemima Shore novels, and as her novels were turned into TV adaptations as a series entitled Jemima Shore, Investigator, Fraser acquired a new readership and became a prominent media figure, appearing on popular television shows such as "My Word!" Around this time her marriage dissolved, and in 1980 she married playwright Harold Pinter. In addition to her writing, Fraser has also played an important social role as the chair of the Prison Committee and president of the international writers' organization known as PEN (Poets, Essayists, Novelists). In 1986 she also served as president of the Crime Writers' Association, and is a past chair of the Society of Authors (1974–75). In her work and public image, Fraser is considered by some to be an important role model. As Mel Gussow pointed out in a profile of the writer, "because she synthesises beauty, intelligence and artistic talent, she is a kind of heroine to other women."
Fraser's first major work, and to many her finest, is Mary Queen of Scots (1969), in which the legendary Queen emerges as a powerful, influential woman who defies stereotypes. In the biography Fraser pursued a long-standing interest in the subject, and it marked the direction her work was to take: the genre of historical biography and the themes of politics and gender. Her method was also set in this work: breathing life into stories about the past by telling them with passion. For this she has acquired an enthusiastic readership and garnered many laudatory reviews. While she explored male figures in Cromwell, King James: VI of Scotland, I of England and King Charles II, her attention has turned more often and with more popular and critical success to the history of women. The Weaker Vessel, subtitled Woman's Lot in Seventeenth-Century England, looks at the social conditions of women in the 17th century. Boadicea's Chariot: The Warrior Queens—later published in America as The Warrior Queens (1989)—examines women in warfare from Boadicea to Margaret Thatcher. In a more recent study of historical women, The Wives of Henry VIII (1992), the usual focus of the dominant, eccentric patriarch at the center of the historical facts is set aside in favor of the women in the story. In the genre of crime fiction, Fraser has fashioned a strong feminine protagonist in Jemima Shore, who made her first appearance in Quiet as a Nun. In a review of Fraser's book by mystery writer P. D. James, Shore's character is described as "a contemporary heroine, a successful television investigator, liberated, prosperous, unencumbered with husband or child, and with all the fashionable accoutrements of success." Fraser's crime writing is considered as artistically successful as her history. Anne Tolstoi Wallach, reviewing The Cavalier Case (1990), points out that Fraser writes mysteries as she writes her biographies, "with zest and verve," and that "her primary interest is people."
Fraser is lauded for her attention to detail while recreating a version of the past that has the spark of life. Mary Queen of Scots was received with comments such as those made by J. P. Kenyon, who announced that Fraser had produced "a first-rate historical biography" distinguished by a "tense, muscular narrative." Historian Lawrence Stone, reviewing The Weaker Vessel, praised Fraser for thorough and careful research, high-quality writing, and "good judgment and a subtle appreciation of human psychology." Blair Worden, reviewing The Six Wives of Henry VIII, offered the following: "Fraser's scholarship, albeit unambitious, is always diligent, clear-headed, responsible." He went on to compare Fraser to Victorian writer Agnes Strickland, a writer of popular history who also came from a literary family and who also wrote about Mary Queen of Scots and the lives of the queens of England, but points out that while Strickland was guilty of "errors of scholarship and judgement," Fraser is not. However, unlike Strickland, who "was able to carve out fresh historical territory," Worden maintained that Fraser is limited in her research to the learned articles upon which bases her work. Ives suggested that in Fraser readers find "above all imaginative sympathy." Her risk-taking in the interests of a passionate story are generally admired, although her method does draw some criticism in the area of accuracy. Her perspective is also an area of concern for some reviewers. In The Weaker Vessel, Stone objected to Fraser's focus on nobility and complained that Fraser lacks a "profound immersion in all aspects of seventeenth-century English history." He added that she "attempts little in the way of interpretation. She selects a striking story, tells it extremely well, and then moves quickly on to the next." Most critics acknowledge that Fraser's passion for women's history is expressed through a reliable and effective method. Kenyon, in his estimation of Mary Queen of Scots, noted with relief that the work did not display the undesirable quality that "afflicts female historians writing about women," namely, "a special kind of martyred sentimentality."
A History of Toys (history) 1966
Mary Queen of Scots (biography) 1969
Cromwell: Our Chief of Men (biography) 1973
King James: VI of Scotland, I of England (biography) 1974
The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England [editor] (nonfiction) 1975
Quiet as a Nun (novel) 1977
King Charles II (biography) 1979
The Weaker Vessel (history) 1984
∗Boadicea's Chariot: The Warrior Queens (history) 1988
The Cavalier Case (novel) 1990
†The Six Wives of Henry VIII (history) 1992
Jemima Shore at the Sunny Grave and Other Stories (shorts stories) 1993
Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot (history) 1996
∗Published in the U.S. as The Warrior Queens.
†Published in the U.S. as The Wives of Henry VIII.
(The entire section is 107 words.)
SOURCE: "A Discordant Queen," in New York Review of Books, November 6, 1969, pp. 40-42.
[In the following review, Kenyon presents an informed account of the history of Mary Queen of Scots and the political environment of the time, while commenting on Fraser's Mary Queen of Scots and comparing it to the work of other historians.]
Lady Antonia Fraser is young, beautiful, and rich, an earl's daughter married to a busy and successful politician, the mother of a large family; yet she has surmounted all these handicaps to authorship to produce a first-rate historical biography. I do not mean to sound sarcastic or patronizing. Only a practicing historian knows the hours of boring and backbreaking labor that go into a book like this; and in a well-trampled field like the life of Mary Stuart the burden of such labor is not lightened by the hope of some exciting find.
It is the defect of most "amateur" historians that they evade this drudgery, or abandon it halfway through. They pad out their bibliographies and cut back their footnotes (blandly announcing that this is to humor their illiterate readers, the poor dears), they hopefully cram their prefaces with acknowledgments to Professor X and Doctor Y, and in the last resort they pretend that a book to which they have devoted years of effort, of one kind or another, is only an interim report. It is easy for any biographer, trained or...
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SOURCE: "James Made Even Stronger," in National Review, May 23, 1975, pp. 571-72.
[In the following review, Yoder comments on Fraser's portrayal of her subject in King James: VI of Scotland, I of England.]
Having bracketed the fascinating figure of James I in previous biographies of his mother, the Queen of Scots, and of Cromwell, the nemesis and executioner of his son, Antonia Fraser seemed destined to write about him. And this she has done [in King James: VI of Scotland, I of England]—but strangely. She finds James an abler king than is commonly portrayed—Trevelyan, who is typical, calls him "comic." But she has written a cameo, a sketch, which in its elegant way features the unusual and has the perverse effect of rendering James a stranger figure than he was. And he was quite strange.
James, while in some ways sympathetic, lacked qualities usually deemed essential to a prince. He was a coward, a physical wreck, and a man of unorthodox sexual predilections. At the age of 13 he fell madly in love with a male French cousin, Esmé Stuart, sent to his court as emissary of the Guise family. Years later, by now Queen Elizabeth's successor on the English throne, his unseemly mooning over the royal favorite, Buckingham, stirred the ridicule of the court. But he could always explain—he had a penchant for explanations: "Jesus Christ," he told the Privy Council one day in 1617, "did...
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SOURCE: "Chronicles of the Monarchy," in Times Literary Supplement, August 11, 1975, p. 893.
[In the following review, Fulford outlines the contents of The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England, a work edited by Fraser.]
[The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England] is a businesslike and readable account of our kings and queens from William I to Elizabeth II. The authors are not, as the Victorians used to say, "viewy", and they spare their readers too much of those personal stories by which kings and queens are particularly afflicted. Antonia Fraser opens with a spirited defence of royal biography which, she trenchantly argues, gives us a theory of history. Certainly no one would dispute her emphasis on the popularity of royal biography, and she even calls in aid that industrious spinster Agnes Strickland, who seems to be the first serious royal biographer to cause offence at Windsor. Her life of Queen Victoria in 1840 was fiercely annotated by the Queen.
Whether everyone would agree that the lives of our monarchs provide us with a theory of history is perhaps open to question, but they certainly give us a sensible boundary to the past within which an individual can deviate according to fancy. While it may not always have been by positive action, what our monarchs did or did not do has affected our lives for nearly a thousand years. Would cabinet government have...
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SOURCE: "Nunnery Whodunnery," in Times Literary Supplement, May 27, 1977, p. 644.
[In the following review of Quiet as a Nun, James comments on Fraser's handling of the elements of crime fiction.]
Antonia Fraser is the latest recruit to the ranks of established writers who have turned their hands to crime fiction. "And when are you going to write a serious work?" crime novelists are always being asked; it would be nice to think that the question may now be reversed. Lady Antonia has chosen to describe Quiet as a Nun, a judicious mixture of puzzle, excitement and terror, as a thriller, and the setting has, indeed, all the Gothic horrors reminiscent of much earlier excursions in the genre: Catherine Morland would have relished it.
"And is it horrid, are you sure that it is horrid?" Yes, indeed, very satisfyingly horrid, but with a modern heroine well equipped to cope, with its perils, rational if not spiritual, both above and under ground. Every detective writer knows the advantage of a closed community for the convenient containment of victim, villain and suspects—and what more closed than a convent? Lady Antonia is not the first crime writer to make use of it as a setting—Gladys Mitchell, in particular, has done so twice with conspicuous success—but she moves with confidence in what to most of us is an alien and vaguely disquieting world. Her nuns may all look like...
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SOURCE: "Antonia Fraser: The Lady as a Writer," in New York Times Magazine, September 9, 1984, pp. 60-62, 75-78.
[The following essay provides a portrait of Fraser's personal life as background to her work.]
Antonia Fraser lives on a quiet, tree-shaded square in the Kensington section of London in a large, airy house that she shares with her second husband, the playwright Harold Pinter. With them live the four youngest of her six children by her first marriage, to the late Sir Hugh Fraser. Sitting in her garden on a recent afternoon, Lady Antonia looked softly feminine, a portrait of gentility. A large white picture hat shielded her face from the sun. A wasp buzzed her ear, and she seemed unperturbed. "I prefer to believe that nature's on my side," she said, "but Harold gets worried," and she indicated, high overhead, his response to nature's sting—an electric bug catcher.
Lady Antonia is a serious gardener, growing amaryllis from bulbs and bringing them indoors in winter. Her fig tree was soon to be joined by an olive tree, a gift from her husband for her coming 52d birthday. But Lady Antonia at home—as wife, mother and gardener—represents only one aspect of a woman who seems to lead a dozen lives. She is a best-selling historian and biographer, as the author of Mary Queen of Scots, Cromwell, Royal Charles and her 14th book, The Weaker Vessel, published in America...
(The entire section is 5890 words.)
SOURCE: "Women at Large," The Nation, Volume 239, No. 8, September 22, 1984, pp. 244-46.
[In the following review, Quilligan contemplates the ideas on women and society that arise from Fraser's Weaker Vessel.]
The Weaker Vessel, Lady Antonia Fraser's study of women in seventeenth-century England, opens with a personal anecdote. Fraser described the topic of her new book to a distinguished (male) friend; before vanishing into his club, he turned and asked, "Were there any women in seventeenth-century England?" The Weaker Vessel is her attempt "in part at least" to answer that question. The answer, more than 500 pages long, is armed with a host of anecdotes as telling as the one about the jesting clubman. As any modern historian might have told the fellow, it requires a significant degree of perversity to persist in thinking that history has been a masculine enterprise. Obviously there were women in seventeenth-century England. The question for us, heirs and heiresses of that pivotal moment in early modern England, is: What kinds, and what were they doing?
Fraser's unofficial subtitle gives us a preview of her findings and approach: "Women in 17th-century England—heiresses and dairymaids, holy women and prostitutes, criminals and educators, widows and witches, midwives and mothers, heroines, courtesans, prophetesses, businesswomen, ladies of the court, and that new...
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SOURCE: "Only Women," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXII, No. 6, April 11, 1985, pp. 21-22.
[In the following review, historian Stone objects to several features of Fraser's Weaker Vessel and praises others.]
Before beginning a discussion of the books under review, I must first set out the ten commandments which should, in my opinion, govern the writing of women's history at any time and in any place:
1. Thou shalt not write about women except in relation to men and children. Women are not a distinct caste, and their history is a story of complex interactions;
2. Thou shalt strive not to distort the evidence and the conclusions to support modern feminist ideology: social change is by no means always the product of an activist minority, and all change is relative not absolute;
3. Thou shalt not forget that in the past nearly all women paid at least lip service to the idea that they were in all respects inferior to men, as ordained by God. The only area in which they were thought to be clearly stronger was in their sexual voracity, their capacity to have multiple orgasms, but this was more a source of shame and temptation than of pride;
4. Thou shalt not confuse prescriptive norms with social reality;
5. Thou shalt exercise subtlety in recognizing diversity, ambivalence, and ambiguity concerning the...
(The entire section is 2147 words.)
SOURCE: "The Name of Frailty," in The Kenyon Review, Vol. VII, No. 2, Spring, 1985, pp. 130-33.
[In the following review, Browning scrutinizes The Weaker Vessel and comments on its strengths and failings.]
[The Weaker Vessel] teems with entertaining stories: Ann Fanshaw braves the turbulent seas; Joan Flower dons the identity of a witch; Mary Ward fights for educational reform; Lady Eleanor Davies scans the future; Jane Whorwood plots to spring Charles I; Joan Dant becomes the queen of pedlars. Whatever else may be said of these women, they were not weak. And that is the burden of Lady Antonia Fraser's examination of the lot of English womankind from the final years of Elizabeth I to the reign of Queen Anne: despite the attention given to Saint Peter's dictum about women being "the weaker vessel," women were in fact strong—in spirit, in resourcefulness, in resolve, in devotion, in enterprise, and even at times in physical prowess.
The work falls into three broad sections: in the first, Lady Antonia treats the enduring matrimonial matrix which, above all other factors, determined a woman's status during the course of the entire seventeenth century. Through a series of vignettes, she canvasses attitudes toward affection and spinsterhood, addresses the realities of pregnancy and widowhood, and reminds us that in the hierarchical world of the Stuarts women held an...
(The entire section is 1557 words.)
SOURCE: "The Bad Old Days," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. II, No. 9, June, 1985, pp. 17-18.
[In the following review, Woods compares The Weaker Vessel with another work on the cultural history of women.]
Anyone who investigates the social of cultural history of women is painfully aware of how little of our past is accessible, even the relatively well-documented past of the English speaking culture. Some things are retrievable, including the expressed attitudes of men toward women and the legal and social restrictions imposed by men or women; less well understood are the motives and conditions of men's writing about the nature and position of women, and the actual lives of women themselves. For the England of the Renaissance and seventeenth century, two new complementary studies shed welcome light.
Linda Woodbridge, a literary scholar, uses literary and historical evidence to analyze the sense of threat that men in the Renaissance apparently experienced from women—especially from aggressive and vocal women, from female dominance in love and marriage, and from female, friendships—and investigates the cultural expression of and reaction to men's fears, particularly through a study of the stock literary figure of the "woman-hater." [In The Weaker Vessel] Antonia Fraser, biographer and historian, depicts the general condition of women in seventeenth-century England...
(The entire section is 2565 words.)
SOURCE: "Lady Antonia Fraser," in Publisher's Weekly, Vol. 231, No. 24, pp. 104-105.
[In the following interview, Fraser discusses her writing life and her crime fiction.]
During an early spring evening in London, when the daffodils in the square across the way are just beginning to blossom, Lady Antonia Fraser opens the door of her Kensington home to PW. On the occasion of the U.S. publication of her short story anthology, Jemima Shore's First Case … and of her new Jemima Shore novel Your Royal Hostage in England, the author talks about her varied writing career, as well as her life as wife, daughter and mother in a celebrated literary family.
While pouring tea from a silver service in her graciously furnished sitting room, Fraser tells us that writing came naturally to the eldest daughter in the family known fondly in Britain as "the literary Longfords." Her father, Lord Longford, was an Oxford don and a prolific writer (later a politician), and her mother, Elizabeth Longford, is the biographer of queens Victoria and Elizabeth II, as well as Byron, Wellington and others. Fraser's siblings, too, include writers: her sister Rachel Billington is a successful novelist; another sister, Judith Kanzantzis, is a poet; her brother Thomas Pakenham is a historian. Asked when she first began to write, Fraser replies modestly, "I just always wrote. And if I didn't...
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SOURCE: "Manifestations of a Myth," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4467, November 11-17, 1988, p. 1248.
[In the following review of Boadicea's Chariot: The Warrior Queens, Beard assesses Fraser's version of Boadicea's story in relation to several other available accounts.]
Boadicea is myth. She was already a part of mythology for the Romans who first wrote about her and about her hopelessly doomed rebellion against the forces of occupation in Britain. At the time her story, retold and embellished, evoked both admiration and fear. For some Romans she was the noble savage, who at least for a few days jolted the complacency of an imperial power, effete and corrupt at its centre. For others she was the mad witch, who made real those dread male fantasies of female control. In Britain, at the margins of the civilized world, the Romans escaped from her only by the skin of their teeth. It was a useful reminder of woman's potential for destruction—and Roman writers made the most of it.
From the time of Boadicea's rediscovery in (significantly) Elizabethan England, she has been invented and re-invented as a symbol for a variety of quite incompatible causes. Feminism, not surprisingly, is one of these causes. She was a guest among the galaxy of female stars at Judy Chicago's installation "Dinner Party". And—no doubt with rather greater popular appeal—she has been heralded as a firm...
(The entire section is 843 words.)
SOURCE: "Women at Arms," in The New Yorker, April 24, 1989, pp. 108-111.
[In the following review, Bliven examines the characteristics of the historical figures outlined by Fraser in The Warrior Queens and comments on their significance.]
Antonia Fraser's The Warrior Queens is an intelligent and artful study of women rulers who commanded in battle. The book begins in prehistory—practically every pagan pantheon featured a warrior goddess—and comes down to the present; its heroines lived in Europe, Asia, and Africa. (The New World has produced no warrior queens known to history.) The author's ground rules exclude the West's most famous woman warrior, Joan of Arc, because she did not wield political power, but Ms. Fraser finds a place for Margaret Thatcher, who, living at a time when a nation's political chief is no longer expected to appear on the battlefield, made the decision that sent British soldiers to fight for the Falkland Islands.
The book—inevitably, I think—leads to feminist conclusions, but it is not a feminist tract. I would call it an exploration, and what it explores is a repeated pattern that a woman biographer and historian cannot help noticing. Women have ordinarily been denied public authority, and women who have become rulers (in the past, usually through the workings of mortality in hereditary systems), and particularly women rulers who have been...
(The entire section is 1469 words.)
SOURCE: "A History of Women at the Helm," in The Christian Science Monitor, June 7, 1989, p. 12.
[In the following review of The Warrior Queens, Tirrell objects to some of the methods and assumptions in Fraser's study.]
Within a pride of lions, it has always been the female of the species that hunted and killed. By contract humankind has traditionally relegated women to the home and family circle, often in an inferior status, and certainly far from the amphitheaters of battle.
Still, throughout history there have been women who have defied convention and risen to meet the exigencies of war, often leading their peoples to victory. This idea is the subject of Lady Antonia Fraser's newest work, The Warrior Queens, published earlier in Great Britain as Boadicea's Chariot.
Though it begins with a discussion of warrior queens from antiquity, such as Semiramis and Cleopatra, Part One of Fraser's book focuses on Boudica (as her name is spelled in early references). The author tries to unravel the twisted strand of fact and fiction that has become the legend of Boadicea.
Boudica, queen of the Celtic tribe Iceni, in AD 60 led a revolt against the occupying Romans. Under her leadership, the Celts sacked and burned Colchester, London, and St. Albans, until they were stopped and brutally slain by the Roman troops under the leadership of the...
(The entire section is 660 words.)
SOURCE: "Not Quite Your Usual Historian," in Time, Vol. 135, No. 3, January 15, 1990, pp. 66, 68.
[In the following essay Angelo presents details of Fraser's life and records comments on Fraser's crime fiction and historical work.]
She is the kind of woman Maureen O'Hara used to play in big-budget costume movies: Lady Antonia Fraser, beautiful, hot-blooded, titled daughter of a noble line, turreted castles in her background and the whiff of scandal in her past. But the portrait of a romance-novel heroine slips out of focus with a closer look, for that same Lady Antonia is an internationally established historian, the author of best-selling biographies and a social activist. She is mother of six, protective wife of renowned playwright Harold Pinter, and also dashes off detective stories, wafts along the British TV celeb circuit, and displays an admirable tennis serve.
But forget Goody Two-Shoes. This paragon wades into controversy with brio. She has publicly criticized Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's policies and rallied British writers to think more politically. She marches for Soviet Jewry. She organizes petitions and badgers officials to help free dissident writers in jails across Europe and Africa. One of these has made history: playwright Vaclav Havel, the new Czech President. For years, from his prison cell, he exchanged letters with Pinter. The couple will visit Havel to share...
(The entire section is 2019 words.)
SOURCE: "All the Best Houses Have Ghosts," in New York Times Book Review, January 6, 1991, p. 18.
[In the following review of The Cavalier Case, Wallach considers Fraser's contribution to crime fiction.]
It's hard to fathom, but there are authors who relax from writing books by writing different books. Larry McMurtry took six weeks off from Lonesome Dove to write Desert Rose, one of his best novels. Agatha Christie, in among 60 full-length mysteries, 19 short-story collections and 14 plays, wrote romance novels as Mary Westmacott. William Buckley seems to relax, if at all, by writing thrillers; Anne Rice writes erotic novels as A. N. Roqueture. And we all know the Rev. Charles Dodgson, who relaxed from mathematical treatises by writing the best children's books of all as Lewis Carroll.
Lady Antonia Fraser is a star member of this industrious group. Her vast biographies of Mary, Queen of Scots and Oliver Cromwell are works of scholarship; no library would be a library without them. She has produced careful and fascinating histories of dolls and toys. Her recent nonfiction book, The Warrior Queens, was acclaimed both left and right of the Atlantic. Still, she has found time to invent Jemima Shore, who in just eight books has become a memorable heroine of the mystery genre.
Jemima is not as lovably eccentric as Peter Wimsey, Jane Marple,...
(The entire section is 672 words.)
SOURCE: "Return of the Monarch," in The Spectator, Vol. 269, No. 8564, August 29, 1992, pp. 25-26.
[In the following review, Worden comments on Fraser's previous work and examines the style and content of The Six Wives of Henry VIII.]
It is a surprise to realise that Antonia Fraser has not written about Henry VIII's wives already. She has written so many books on monarchs and women. There are her long biographies of Mary Queen of Scots and Oliver Cromwell and Charles II. There is The Weaker Vessel, a long study of 17th-century women. There is The Warrior Queens, an account of women leaders from Boadicea to Margaret Thatcher which, exceptionally among her history books, she kept below 400 pages. There is a novel about a royal wedding. Then there is Weidenfeld's Kings and Queens of England series, which she edited and to which she contributed a life of James I. Yet, she tells us, it took a friend to suggest the subject of Henry VIII's consorts, with the words, 'This may not sound like a good idea, but …'
It could be a good idea. Kings and queens are back in historical business, after the decades when they seemed to have been mere puppets of social and economic forces, and when interest in them seemed a frivolous distraction from serious issues of class and ideology. So long as the civil wars of the mid-17th century appeared to have been caused by the rise of the...
(The entire section is 1245 words.)
SOURCE: "My Fair Lady," in Harper's, No. 3371, November, 1992, pp. 58, 60.
[In the following interview, Samson and Fraser discuss The Wives of Henry VIII.]
When her friend and erstwhile New Yorker editor Bob Gottlieb suggested she write her next book on the wives of Henry VIII, Lady Antonia Fraser remembers thinking that it was the book she was born to write. "I felt like rushing around the streets of New York, accosting people and telling them what I was going to do," she says.
The idea was a natural for a writer who had long since earned her place as a major historian. At 27, Lady Antonia wrote the definitive biography Mary, Queen of Scots, which was a best seller in eight languages. It was followed by equally acclaimed volumes on Oliver Cromwell and Charles II. Then she moved on to The Weaker Vessel, about women's sufferings in the 17th century, and The Warrior Queens, which she wrote afterward "because I felt so depressed that I had to cheer myself up."
Yet for all her renown as an established biographer, Lady Antonia resists pigeonholing. Between her more serious works, she writes crime novels featuring the female detective Jemima Shore and is a fixture—along with her husband, the playwright Harold Pinter—on London's fashionable literary circuit. (She inherited her title from her father, the Earl of Longford, and uses it on feminist...
(The entire section is 1016 words.)
SOURCE: "Betrothals and Beheadings," in Chicago Tribune, December 20, 1992, p. 7.
[In the following review of The Wives of Henry VIII, Cole examines the intricate individual stories that make up the work.]
In this new study of King Henry VIII and his wives [entitled The Wives of Henry VIII], Antonia Fraser sets out to dispel the historical perception that stereotypes those six women—Catherine of Aragon as the Abandoned Wife, Anne Boleyn as the Temptress, Jane Seymour as the Good Woman, Anna of Cleves as the Flanders Mule, Katherine Howard as the Bad Girl and Catherine Parr as the Mother Figure. Fraser points out that those images, while true in some measure, will not bear the hard scrutiny of history.
Anne Boleyn was certainly more than the King's goggle-eyed whore and Anna of Cleves more dignified than the cruel sobriquet that attaches to her name. Catherine of Aragon was a woman of character who bravely resisted banishment, fighting to the end for the legitimacy of her daughter, Mary. But to a greater or lesser extent, all six of Henry's wives were created or destroyed by what Fraser describes as their biological destiny—their capacity, in an age of grim infant mortality, to fructify the sovereign's bed with royal progeny, especially male offspring, and thus to perpetuate a dynasty insecure from its inception in 1485, when Henry of Lancaster killed Richard III on...
(The entire section is 1594 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Wives of Henry VIII, in The New York Times Book Review, December 20, 1992, p. 11.
[In the following review, Goreau considers Fraser's perspective on Henry VIII and his wives.]
"Who does not tremble when he considers how to deal with a wife?" asked Henry VIII in 1521.
That the King was writing on behalf of marriage, emphasizing the precious and sacred charge involved in such a union, must surely be one of the odder ironies of history. Odder still, given subsequent events, was that his motive in writing "The Defence of the Seven Sacraments" was to refute Martin Luther's heretical challenge to Pope and church. For Henry's efforts, the Pope granted to him and his successors the title Defender of the Faith.
Just six years later, Henry initiated the divorce that ultimately propelled England into the maw of schism. The divorce (never, of course, recognized by the Holy See) took another six years to orchestrate, but, once accomplished, ushered in a period of marital chaos whose extremes have rarely been equaled—even in our own era of rampant family dysfunction. Renaissance Europe watched aghast as the King of England ordered his second wife, Anne Boleyn, beheaded on trumped-up charges of treason after only three and a half years of marriage, then registered with disbelief the coronation of four more Queens of England in the space of little more...
(The entire section is 1233 words.)
SOURCE: "A Good Crumb," in History Today, Vol. 44, No. 11, November, 1994, p. 60.
[In the following review, Ives assesses the strengths and failings of Fraser's approach to writing history as evidenced in The Wives of Henry VIII.]
That Antonia Fraser's Six Wives of Henry VIII is available in paperback as well as on library shelves should guarantee circulation to the only current account of Henry VIII's wives and by far the best of its kind. It has all the Fraser virtues: liveliness, enough but not too much detail, a grasp of up-to-date scholarship and an eye for the memorable—I shall treasure St Bernadino of Siena's remark that the mother who fails to tell her daughter what to expect on her wedding night 'sends her to sea with no biscuit'. Above all imaginative sympathy; the past lives as is too rarely the case in academic history today. After half-a-century Eileen Power's quip still remains true: 'Once upon a time there was a historian who was so dull that all the other historians began to notice'.
The dullness of academics is partly fear of being wrong, and it is the case that the Fraser method does take risks. Points are sometimes missed. The evidence suggests that Henry divorced Anne Boleyn not on grounds of precontract to the Earl of Northumberland but on grounds of his own previous intercourse with Anne's sister (macabre consistency). Feel for a good story...
(The entire section is 1196 words.)
SOURCE: "Playing Modern Detective In the Gunpowder Plot," in The New York Times, December 4, 1996, pp. C3, C7.
[In the following review, Gussow investigates Fraser's ideas on the research she conducted for Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot.]
While writers as diverse as John le Carré and V. S. Naipaul journey to exotic places in search of material, Antonia Fraser habitually goes to the reading room of the British Museum, where she is surrounded by her research (and sometimes by her mother, daughter or other members of her family of writers, the literary Longfords). For Lady Antonia there is also a sense of adventure, despite the quietude and the archival aspect of her creativity.
In her books she has looked deeply into the lives of major figures in English history, searching for facts behind myths. For her new work, Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot, there is also a mystery. In 1605, Robert Catesby, Guy Fawkes and other Roman Catholic dissidents threatened to blow up Parliament and assassinate King James I of England as a protest against religious persecution.
As she says in her book, the problem was to draw conclusions from "imperfect records and testimonies taken under torture." As a result, some historians have raised doubts that the plot ever took place, suggesting that the Government may have imagined it in order to blame...
(The entire section is 1100 words.)