Antonia Fraser

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Antonia (Pakenham) Fraser 1932–

English biographer, novelist, scriptwriter, and short story writer.

Born to "the literary Longfords" of England (historian Francis Pakenham, Earl of Longford, and Elizabeth Longford, author of several historical memoirs), Fraser's interest in writing has culminated in several best-selling historical biographies set in the seventeenth century. Critically valued for their depth of research and sympathetic character portraits, Fraser's biographies attempt to free their subjects from the dry factual analyses common to many academic discussions. She also writes mystery novels which center on a liberated heroine, Jemima Shore, as well as short stories, juvenile books, and scripts for radio and television.

Fraser burst upon the literary scene in 1969 with her critically acclaimed Mary Queen of Scots, a thoroughly researched attempt to uncover the woman whose image has become distorted. Some critics contend that her treatment of politics is uncertain in places. Many debate the conclusions regarding Mary herself; Roy Strong states that the biography depicts "a dim and stupid woman," while J. P. Kenyon contends that it shows Mary to be politically and intellectually astute. Fraser's second biography, Cromwell, Our Chief of Men (1973), was also reviewed as unpolished in its treatment of political events but generally successful as an attempt to "humanize" such a historically biased figure. King James VI of Scotland, I of England (1974) is a less extensive work of scholarship which Alden Whitman nevertheless finds to be "thoroughly readable as a character study." Royal Charles: Charles II and the Restoration (1979) attempts to correct the historical portrayal of another prominent royal figure. Some critics believe Fraser's assessment of Charles is overly favorable. Critics praise Fraser's recent history The Weaker Vessel: Woman's Lot in 17th Century England (1984) as a pioneering overview of the repressive state of women's lives during that era. The book is based on memoirs, diaries, and character studies representative of the period.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88 and Something about the Author, Vol. 32.)

V. G. Kiernan

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Women have been great purveyors of historical novels, but [Mary, Queen of Scots] is emphatically not one of them. Everything in it is carefully documented, and what is romantic in the story stands out more effectively because the handling is always realistic and critical, imagination working on facts instead of on fantasies. Sources of information about Mary are numerous, and if few new ones have been found, or are likely to be found, the known ones have been meticulously used. It is typical of the author's thoroughness to have had a search made in the Vatican archives for a document probably non-existent. There are many sorts of history, on the other hand, and it may come more instinctively to women, denizens of the narrow intense aquarium of the family, to see it as a conflict of individual wills and destinies rather than of mass forces and movements. What we are given is a many-sided account of Mary and her court, her few friends and many enemies, rather than of Scotland in the time of Mary….

A great deal in Mary's story is, in the ordinary Elizabethan's understanding of the word, tragic. It abounds in violent reversals of fate, crime and punishment, the fall of princes, battle and death…. What this book will convince many readers of is that somehow the story remains tragic for us too, in our altered world and with our altered minds….

Mary 'thoroughly enjoyed the business of ruling'. Whether her political endowment went much beyond a taste for power and a love of intrigue emerges less clearly. A comparison with Isabella of Castile, that young woman who not long before had succeeded in taming another faction-torn...

(This entire section contains 509 words.)

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country, might have been instructive….

[Mary] is given credit, repeatedly, for a virtuous disposition, a 'profound disgust of immorality in sexual matters'. What can at any rate be agreed is that she was not, in the modern cant sense, much given to romance; she had the royal virtue of being prepared, for political advantage, to marry anyone, young or old, handsome or hideous. (p. 616)

To set out to narrate events often narrated before, and by writers from Walter Scott downward, is to face an exceptionally severe test. Lady Antonia comes through it with remarkable success, neither giving way to the temptation of sewing purple patches nor relapsing into the pedestrian. Episodes like Rizzio's murder, and then Darnley's, or the escape from Loch Leven, are told with careful detail, and with a working up of dramatic tension never allowed to topple into melodrama…. The style is always fresh and sensitive, with an occasional touch of wit, and there is a quick eye for history's graphic minutiae…. There is an eye too for its incongruities. Few of these could be more striking than the spectacle of Mary, the dethroned prisoner, and her warder Lord Shrewsbury's wife Bess of Hardwicke,… sitting together embroidering. On its own lines, it is hard to see how this book could be bettered.

V. G. Kiernan, "Exquisite Princess," in The Listener, Vol. LXXXI, No. 2092, May 1, 1969, pp. 616-17.

A. S. Byatt

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Antonia Fraser's new biography [Mary Queen of Scots] corrects many myths, endorses a few, and satisfies our double curiosity about Mary, both as a queen and as a real woman. Lady Antonia sees history as an art, not as an impersonal science, which does not mean that she is not thorough….

Her book is very long but consistently gripping, and much of its success depends on the creation of a real world of physical and emotional detail…. But the dramatic highlights—Darnley's murder, Mary's flight to England—have the narrative sweep and flow, and appeal to the imagination in the way they should.

Elizabeth appears little; she is presented, deliberately, largely as the shadowy queen and cousin of Mary's own dangerous fantasy of the friend over the border who would help and understand. But the inevitable contrast of fates and symbolic roles is illuminating…. Lady Antonia's impressive indictment of Mary's Scottish lords, measured and understood though it is, makes it clear that it was impossible for Mary to represent in any meaningful way a Scotland divided by faction amongst nobles brutal, violent, practising witches, and—even by the standards of the time—greedy, short-sighted and inconstant…. Honour seemed to mean nothing more than primitive clan loyalty, itself easily blurred by political intermarriage. Mary tried to govern: she made sensible steps towards religious tolerance, including talking to Knox, who reduced her to hysterical 'owling'. But Elizabeth became the incarnation of the Just Virgin, the immortal Astraea, whose return to earth after the bloodshed of the Iron Age indicated a new Golden Age. Mary could not sustain the representation of justice without a man. And that had its difficulties.

It was Mary who wished 'that one of the two were a man, to make an end of all debates' and then she and Elizabeth might marry. I used to believe that Elizabeth's sexual isolation, her use of cold-blooded political flirtation and genuine loyal friendship for her advisers, contrasted beautifully with Mary's passionate subjection to Bothwell…. Lady Antonia's careful analysis of her feelings and behaviour makes it clear that this stereotype was very much a political myth….

[Mary's] captivity increased the nervous illness she suffered from when action was impossible, and Lady Antonia exposes tactfully the 'attrition in her powers of judgment' that increased with her distance in time from the real world. Lady Antonia concentrates attention on Mary's desperate situation in the years of imprisonment and sees her inefficient plotting as a captive's legitimate attempts to free herself.

This inevitably produces an image of Elizabeth as the secure and powerful persecutor, murdering her cousin for political reasons. But Elizabeth was afraid, and with reason, of assassination; as she told Mary herself, she had known what it was to be the innocent focus of religious rebellion under Mary Tudor, and had had the sense to keep her hands clean. It is ironic that it was Elizabeth who learned early to live with the fear of execution, and Elizabeth who had learned in her own early imprisonment what Mary had not needed to know—to control herself, her thoughts, her servants, in silence, so as to survive. (p. 693)

Sympathetic historians have simplified [Mary's] character—not a complex one—for iconographical purposes, and made a saint of her, which she was not; she was more courageous than devoted, and I should like more evidence before I quite accept Lady Antonia's view that her character showed greatness by changing and deepening in adversity. That other symbolic role—the Scarlet Woman—does, however, seem to have been very much a deliberate creation of the lords, to back up their dethronement and imprisonment of her…. Throughout this book I kept turning back to Shakespeare's powerful political images too…. The strongest impression left after reading Mary Queen of Scots is of the unexpected literal truth of that Scottish play about butchery, blackness, greed, witchcraft, political chaos and the slaughter of innocents: Macbeth. (pp. 693-94)

A. S. Byatt, "Daughter of Debate," in New Statesman, Vol. 77, No. 1992, May 16, 1969, pp. 693-94.

Roy Strong

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It is a long time since we had a fully fledged biography of Mary Queen of Scots, and this splendid new one by Antonia Fraser (Mary Queen of Scots) … is full of surprises….

[It reveals] the one thing about the Queen which had never occurred to me: not that she was a cunning Jezebel, a Catholic saint or even a romantic heroine, rather that she was in truth a dim and stupid woman, caught up in a drift of events she was incapable of understanding, let alone controlling.

She remains, of course, a legendary beauty…. She was, as Antonia Fraser points out, the Mannerist ideal of feminine perfection in the flesh, tall and willowy with reddish fair hair. This ravishing loveliness had gone by her mid-twenties, and she rapidly degenerated into a sad, matronly figure with sharp features topped by false hair…. Throughout her life she was a person who, in Cecil's words, could give 'winning and sugared entertainment of all men.' This fatal wayward charm explains much about her, as indeed—a point excellently stressed in this biography—does her bad health, probably caused by porphyria. Mary had two miscarriages, one of twins, and was continuously prone to sickness, swooning and the aches and pains connected with dropsy and rheumatism…. But these sad physical aspects of the Queen were not compensated by an intellect of any great power.

Mary seems to have had no eye for human character at all. Her career is littered with appalling blunders….

Well educated in the renaissance tradition, Mary was little more than a Guise puppet, a pretty court débutante who found herself Queen of France on the sudden death of her father-in-law in a tournament. Antonia Fraser points out that the usual belief that she was at loggerheads with her mother-in-law, Catherine de Medici, is incorrect. The reason for this is clear enough. Mary was not nor ever would be of the same calibre as Catherine…. Even her own cousin, Mary Tudor—another failure and someone with whom she shared moody melancholy, emotional fixations and swooning—was far more politically capable. (p. 648)

This book is … a compelling exposé of the dangers of power in the hands of the intellectually feeble and emotionally uncontrolled. Antonia Fraser tells us about the years of exile in England when, even cut off in isolation at Chatsworth, Tutbury or Sheffield, Mary continued her political bungling. Some of the endless plots are so crazy that they read like a compilation manufactured by a cross between W. S. Gilbert and Edgar Allan Poe. When, eventually, Secretary Walsingham rigged a plot against her with the most blatant crudity, it characteristically never crossed her mind that this was happening…. Festooned with rosaries, she faced the executioner convinced that she was dying a Catholic martyr. The last hours were played out with a moving splendour—proud grand gestures to her foes, tender embraces for her grief-stricken attendants, admirable composure on the scaffold, a wonderful climax when she divested herself of black to reveal herself in the liturgical crimson of the martyrs. All these unforgettable moments of high drama and emotion, however, must not obscure the fact that she died not because she was a Jezebel, a monument to Catholic sanctity, or the object of her cousin's vindictiveness, but as a victim of her own stupidity. (pp. 648-49)

Roy Strong, "Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary," in The Spectator, Vol. 222, No. 7351, May 16, 1969, pp. 648-49.

C. V. Wedgwood

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[In Mary Queen of Scots], Antonia Fraser has diligently compiled and sifted everything that is known of [Mary], trying to reach the truth behind contemporary slanders and later legends. She has given particular attention to Mary's medical history, and is able to show that she was subject to periods of nervous collapse under stress, in which her vitality and her judgment forsook her and she fell into a kind of apathy. One such collapse (naturally enough) followed the shock of Darnley's murder. Antonia Fraser interprets her marriage to Bothwell … as being performed in a state of almost tranced acquiescence….

Antonia Fraser sees Mary as essentially of a maternal disposition. She loved the sickly little Dauphin with a motherly solicitude. Darnley, too, was younger than she was, and she fell in love with him when nursing him through an illness. Furthermore, though she remained to the end an attractive woman able to inspire love in others, her own love life was over by the time she was twenty-five. This is hardly the story of a grande amoureuse. (p. 70)

All in all this is a compassionate and often illuminating account of Mary as a woman. The happiness of her sheltered youth at the French Court, when she seemed almost a spoiled child of fortune, makes a tenderly sunny prelude—and an effective contrast—to the hardships and problems of her brief years as ruling Queen in Scotland, while the effect of her long imprisonment in bringing out the greater depth and seriousness of her character is sensitively indicated.

Had Mary been a private individual the book would be wholly convincing. But Mary's life was engulfed by political forces which neither she, nor for that matter any of her contemporaries, had the power to dominate, although other rulers were on the whole more successful in their efforts. Mary's tragedy lay in her inability to meet the stresses and demands of the world in which she was unavoidably destined to play an important part.

In describing the upheavals of western Europe in this epoch of violent religious conflict and economic change Antonia Fraser is notably less successful than she is in drawing the personal portrait of the Queen. Her account of events … is brief and superficial—enough to make the sequence comprehensible but never deep enough to explain the significance of the forces with which Mary had to contend. Ultimately this is a weakness in the biography of a woman who, in spite of many qualities and a good intelligence, so tragically failed as a ruler. Yet it seems churlish to complain that something is missing in a book which is so full of interesting detail and so rich in human interest. (pp. 70-1)

C. V. Wedgwood, "The Real Mary Was a Woman," in The New York Times Book Review, November 23, 1969, pp. 4, 70-1.

Keith Thomas

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Cromwell's career is traced in great detail [in Cromwell: Our Chief of Men; published in the United States as Cromwell: The Lord Protector]: from the first dishevelled appearance of the rough Huntingdonshire squire in the House of Commons, with blood specks on his neckband, through his victories at Marston Moor Naseby and Preston, to his apotheosis as Lord Protector. At all points the author reveals a transparent desire to be accurate and fair. [Antonia Fraser] deals scrupulously with those aspects of Cromwell's life which still arouse deep passion, notably the execution of Charles I and the massacres at Drogheda and Wexford. She also emphasises dimensions of the man which centuries of royalist propaganda have tended to efface….

Antonia Fraser has an eye for picturesque detail and likes a good story. She devotes a lot of space to the numerous legends which still surround Cromwell's career, some of which she regards as possessing poetic truth, however false otherwise. She picks over all the old chestnuts: Cromwell's Jewish ancestry; his coloured descendants; his mistresses; his pact with the Devil; the ruins he knocked about…. This posthumous mythology is so wide-ranging because Cromwell touched so many aspects of our national life. (p. 760)

The serious student of the period may … find it less rewarding than he had hoped. This is not because of its minor inaccuracies or its numerous misprints. Antonia Fraser is not equally at home with all aspects of the period. On economic matters, on political ideas and on radical movements she is often uncertain and sometimes confused. But factual mistakes are inevitable in a book of this size, and the real reason for one's misgivings lies elsewhere.

The weakness of Cromwell stems from two doubtful assumptions on which the book is constructed. The first is that it is possible to write biography without getting involved in history. Antonia Fraser tells us that she has no intention of competing with 'the living giants of 17th-century research who stalk the land'. Her aim is to rescue Cromwell the man. But one cannot appraise Cromwell the man without committing oneself to a clearer view of the relationship in which he stood to the heroic events of the time: one has to consider how far he was the representative of forces larger than himself, whether he controlled events or was controlled by them. This she never tries to do. The second assumption is that the best way of re-creating Cromwell the man is to pile up as much detail as possible about all his actions and behaviour, and to add everything which can be found out about the world in which he lived, in the hope that the resulting compilation will speak for itself. But of course it does not. Antonia Fraser offers no overall analysis of Cromwell's psychological make-up and development, no systematic discussion of his objectives. Any underlying view of the man is concealed by the welter of irrelevant detail. The brief summary with which she concludes her long narrative does not reveal the 'totally unexpected Cromwell' promised us by the publisher's blurb. Instead, it merely restates the familiar paradoxes of Cromwell's temperament: his mixture of decisiveness and inaction, of physical violence and spiritual interlocution, of cataclysmic rage and cheerful insouciance. Had she lingered longer at the critical moments of decision and uncertainty in Cromwell's life she might have produced a more illuminating account. But by concerning herself only with his surface behaviour and by treating all events as of equal weight she leaves the reader no clearer about Cromwell's psychology than about his historical importance. She never probes into the underlying reasons for his decisions; and even the grounds for his refusal of the kingship are left unexplored.

The lack of penetrating analysis thus prevents the book from making an original contribution to the study of Cromwell, whether as a man or as a public figure…. [Readers] anxious to penetrate the man himself will do best to turn to the Protector's own words (of which Antonia Fraser makes disappointingly little use). Carlyle's edition of Cromwell's letters and speeches did more than any formal biography has ever done to alter popular views of this most perplexing figure (pp. 760-61)

Keith Thomas, "Everybody's Cromwell," in The Listener, Vol. 89, No. 2306, June 7, 1973, pp. 760-61.

G. R. Elton

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S. R. Gardiner called Cromwell the greatest of Englishmen, but when he came to write his little book on Oliver's place in English history the phrase acquired no substance. More recent studies also never achieve anything much better than adequacy…. Oliver, in the end, defeated [all his biographers]. He has now defeated Lady Antonia Fraser who, drowning in the morass, drags the reader after her.

[Cromwell, Our Chief of Men] is certainly the biggest book on Cromwell—well over 700 pages of it. It rests on honest and hard work; it embodies solid reading in printed materials and some acquaintance with unpublished manuscripts; its prose, never meretricious, varies from the competent to the unexciting. Reading this interminable book is made no easier by occasional lapses in grammatical structure and a cavalier attitude to commas. The author is not always certain of her words: 'unexceptional' for 'unexceptionable' contrasts with 'inimicable' for 'inimical.' We find Cromwell incurring the focus of public attention and settlers called upon to upstake themselves: both sound obscurely painful experiences.

The book's chief faults are two—poor organisation and a lack of psychological penetration. The first accounts for its inordinate length. This is not really a biography of Oliver Cromwell but a relentless history of his times written around him. Of course, we cannot understand Cromwell without understanding what happened in his lifetime, and a person so much the cause of action in himself and other calls for the inclusion of much general history. But in obeying these demands Lady Antonia keeps losing the thread: where she should summarise, allude or adumbrate, she recites, expounds and comments. Her book lacks intellectual discipline, and even its virtues of sense, modesty and care cannot in consequence make it readable.

The problem of psychological insight is never easy in historical biography, but in Oliver's case it is crucial because he has a way of appearing to each searching student as a reflection of his own bundle of predilections. The extraordinary difficulty of depicting a man so manifestly demonic is assuredly an excuse for ultimate failure in explaining him, but this biographer does worse than she need have done. She is much too honest to play about with dubious psychologising, though now and again she uses terms which she does not seem to grasp with any precision. An author who can say that a person suffered from what "in modern language" would be called a nervous breakdown, cannot at least be accused of modishness, but when a tiresome journey in Russia is called traumatic that taint begins to appear. 'Paranoiac' and 'psychosomatic' are flashed about a bit too readily. Lady Antonia is, of course, aware that Cromwell's personality was very unstable and she rightly draws attention to his frequent terrifying rages; but, despite talk of "the dark night of the soul," she never persuades me that, being evidently nice, sensible and a bit downright, she comprehends the violence and frustration at the heart of the man which, failing too frequently, he strove to control. As for his religion, the conscious core of him, we get a valiant attempt to expound it, but the understanding of puritanism here displayed is from the outside—and is that of an earnest and not very perceptive student…. Lady Antonia makes no attempt to exculpate the man and especially permits a combination of sympathy for the Irish and a critical attitude to the sources unusual in her to dominate the most repulsive phase of the great man's public life; but with all her piling of detail and painting of shadows she still fails to lay bare his inner reality….

In the end it remains uncertain whether Cromwell possessed greatness, intellectual power, insight and foresight, the ability to define tasks precisely—or whether he really rose so high because he did not know where he was going and never matched inner force to the situation into which events and the animal drive of his being catapulted him. This biography brings us no nearer to solving the puzzle.

G. R. Elton, "Cromwell—Still Elusive," in The Spectator, Vol. 230, No. 7563, June 9, 1973, p. 715.

C. V. Wedgwood

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Antonia Fraser's richly detailed biography ["Cromwell: The Lord Protector"] does full justice to Cromwell's public career. She is particularly good on Ireland, excusing nothing that cannot be excused, but explaining the irrational fear and hatred of the "Popish Irish butchers," intensified by years of pamphlet propaganda, which lay behind his excesses. She is also perceptive in her study of his political doubts and changes of opinion in the critical middle years.

Though she treats his actions fully, Antonia Fraser's true interest lies elsewhere. She has sought, she says, "to rescue the personality" of Cromwell, to detach what he truly was from the almost overwhelming weight of 17th-century scholarship which now surrounds him and his epoch. To rescue his personality? It is the modern phrase. In Cromwell's time they might have substituted the word "soul," for this is very much what she means.

Let it be said at once that she has been as nearly successful in this difficult task as anyone can hope to be. The great quality of her "Mary Queen of Scots" was her sympathetic elucidation of personality. But Mary Stuart is easy compared to Cromwell. In the first place, as Cromwell was not born in a royal family, no one at the time took much notice of his early and formative years. Material is scanty and of uncertain value for the whole of this period. In the second place, his particular brand of religion, what Antonia Fraser calls "the life-long dialogue he carried on with himself concerning the intentions of the Almighty," is unsympathetic and often incomprehensible to the 20th century. But she has read herself into a real understanding and sympathy with it.

Little by little, with careful elucidation and quotation, she lets us follow the development of this troubled, neurotic man who experienced a conversion (preceded by a near nervous breakdown, she suggests) in his thirties, and thereafter, convinced that by strenuous prayer he could tap the sources of the Almighty's will, was enabled to lead armies, to take fearful decisions (though often only after torments of prayer and doubt) and to steer a distracted nation out of the wilderness. It is an extraordinary story and she unfolds it with true understanding.

To end on a lighter note, she is a delight to read on the more homely side of his family life and on the minor triumphs and tribulations of the Cromwell family as their unexpected greatness was forced upon them.

C. V. Wedgwood, in a review of "Cromwell; The Lord Protector," in The New York Times Book Review, October 28, 1973, p. 7.

Blair Worden

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Antonia Fraser's enormous biography [Cromwell: The Lord Protector] succeeds in what I take to be its aim: it can be read with pleasure and profit by almost anyone who can afford it, however well or ill acquainted with Cromwell's period. The pleasure might have been doubled, and the profit scarcely diminished, if the length had been halved; but even the most knowledgeable of seventeenth-century historians may feel awed by the thoroughness of Lady Antonia's research….

There are, as one might expect, no startling discoveries, for the challenge to Cromwell's modern biographers is less to unearth new evidence than to make fresh sense of the old; and none of Lady Antonia's perceptions can be said to be very original. Nevertheless, the book is distinguished by narrative skill (especially marked in the accounts of military campaigns) and by unerring good sense. No biographer has dealt so sensitively or so persuasively with Cromwell's friendships and family relationships, a theme which illuminates the public as well as the private man. The factual errors are mostly trivial. There is an occasional tendency to lean on unreliable sources, but otherwise Lady Antonia's judgments command respect even where one dissents from them.

These are admirable qualities. They are, indeed, qualities that reviewers always seem to find themselves describing as admirable. The trouble is that Oliver Cromwell was a great man, and this book, for all its merits, does not begin to convey the measure of his greatness. Why not?

To answer that the limitations of any book reflect the limitations of its author would be as inadequate as it would be ungallant. A writer capable of a book as good as this is capable of a better one. It is true that Lady Antonia does not seem to be abreast of the more esoteric of academic controversies, and that there are those who will imagine that this matters….

Other deficiencies, perhaps, are more serious. Lady Antonia, more at home with Cromwell the soldier than with Cromwell the statesman, shows little grasp of the way politics works or of the political circumstances in which Cromwell operated. Consequently, like many of his other biographers, she is weaker on the 1650s than on the 1640s. A general criticism of the book is that the background of the story is notably less impressive than the foreground. In this respect Cromwell is a much tougher biographical challenge than Mary Queen of Scots, the subject of Lady Antonia's previous book, and at times one senses that she feels out of her depth. When her confidence wilts, her prose tends to wilt too.

These are disconcerting weaknesses, of the kind reviewers always call disconcerting. But they do not answer our question. Similar criticisms could be made, with far more force, of the one indisputably great work to have been published on Cromwell: Thomas Carlyle's edition, first printed in 1845, of Cromwell's letters and speeches….

No one would wish Lady Antonia to have imitated Carlyle's histrionics. He made appalling mistakes, as editor, as historian, and as biographer. But somewhere in the recesses of his mind—that sulphurous mixture of rigid Scottish Calvinism and woolly German Romanticism—a bond was forged between Carlyle and his subject; and from that bond came a depth of inspiration missing from all biographies of Cromwell before and since. (p. 24)

Of course, [Lady Antonia] could not pretend to Carlyle's genius; but she can pretend to talent. Need she imprison it in so nerveless a literary genre? No safe biography of Cromwell could be a satisfying one. The question to which Lady Antonia really addresses herself is not whether Cromwell was a great man, but whether he was a nice man: the kind of man, in fact, whom the general reader could safely invite to dinner. We know the answer from the start. There are black marks, it is true; but the judicial murder of Charles I and the massacres at Drogheda and Wexford, events for which Oliver is severely rebuked (and in her treatment of these Lady Antonia is at her most perceptive), are the only large blemishes on what otherwise, as the almost headmistressish concluding paragraphs make clear, has been a most satisfactory semester.

Yet the fact—from which Lady Antonia is not the only modern historian to avert her gaze—is that in many respects Cromwell was not a nice man at all. (pp. 24-5)

The springs of greatness are often elemental, and hence morally neutral. Cromwell's greatest feats owed as much to his vices as to his virtues. The virtues were, in fact, quite extraordinary, but we cannot grasp their stature if we doctor Cromwell's whole personality for the benefit of those who, as George Eliot put it, "are incapable of assimilating ideas unless they are administered in a highly diluted form." We need always to set them against what Lady Antonia euphemistically calls "the darker side to his nature." Cromwell's virtues were not born in him: they were earned. His achievement was to tame himself, and to appreciate the magnitude of the process we have to know the beast he tamed. (p. 25)

Blair Worden, "Rugged Outcast," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XX, No. 18, November 15, 1973, pp. 24-6.∗

David Underdown

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Antonia Fraser's massive biography, "Cromwell: The Lord Protector," attempts, she tells us, to rescue the personality of Oliver Cromwell from the obscurity into which … it had fallen." The author draws heavily on, and pays generous tribute to, the mass of recent, more analytical scholarship on the English Revolution of 1640–1660…. It is fluently, but not vividly written, with an integrity that spurns shortcuts and oversimplifications, and is based on careful research in the sources, including a few relatively unfamiliar ones. Biographies of Cromwell—good, bad, and indifferent—abound, but there is in fact no earlier one which provides a straightforward, detailed narrative of the man's career on anything like this scale.

Cromwell's ambivalences have always fascinated historians…. The tension between the man of action and "the man of introspection" is at the center of Lady Antonia's character-analysis. She brings together a good deal of evidence about Oliver's medical history, noting the frequent bouts of depression and psychosomatic illness during periods of indecision, often followed by spells of manic activity. Perhaps over-cautiously, she shies away from anything like a full-scale psychological interpretation. But if this is no trendy piece of psycho-history, it is still a convincing portrait of a complex human being: the family man who loved music, country sports, and sometimes crude practical jokes, as well as the pious Puritan general, the devious politician, and the sometimes brutal fanatic of the Irish campaign.

The other central paradox which runs through the book is a political one: the paradox of the revolutionary in power. This raises perhaps the crucial question about Cromwell: was he a revolutionary who aged into conservatism, or was there always a basic dualism in his political nature, between the traditionalist country squire and the committed Puritan reformer? Lady Antonia inclines to the former solution, holding that Cromwell traveled the long road from radical opposition to Charles I in the 1640's to the conservatism of the Protectorate. (pp. 317-19)

Yet there is a case for the other alternative, and in some ways it offers a better insight into the apparent contradictions of the revolution, contradictions which Cromwell himself personified. On Lady Antonia's own showing, much of Cromwell's record before 1653 is consistent with the conservatism of the Protectorate. She is not altogether happy in her handling of the intricacies of parliamentary politics, but she recognizes that at no time was Oliver in the same camp as republican firebrands like Marten and Ludlow. In the tortuous negotiations with Charles I in 1647 she notes Cromwell's "honest endeavours to preserve the middle ground," and her account of his hesitations over the King's trial (followed by one of those characteristic surges of determined action) is excellent. Swayed though he might often be by flashes of intoxicating godly exaltation, even in the 1640's Cromwell retained the values of the Huntingdon gentleman…. (p. 319)

Readers of [Lady Antonia's] earlier "Mary Queen of Scots" will be aware that she is an accomplished biographer, and "Cromwell" exhibits no diminution of her skill. In what she intended she is eminently successful. The biography that would completely integrate Cromwell the person with Cromwell the statesman, however, still remains to be written. Given the endless complexity of the man and his times, perhaps it never will be. (p. 320)

David Underdown, "Fraser's Cromwell," in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 50, No. 2 (Spring, 1974), pp. 317-20.

C. G. Thayer

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This unpretentiously splendid study [King James VI of Scotland, I of England] is beyond praise, but deserves it anyhow. It is a different sort of book from Lady Antonia's earlier studies of Mary Stuart and Cromwell in that it relies for the most part on secondary sources and original documents more or less readily available. That is to say, it is modestly introduced as not being a work of original scholarship and research. But having written so brilliantly about the mother, Lady Antonia can hardly be expected to write amateurishly about the unfortunate son. She has used her knowledge and resources with extraordinary shrewdness to produce a book every bit as sympathetic as the long out-of-print biography by Charles Williams, and a good deal more professional, in the best sense.

Rather than aiming to present new facts about James (and perhaps there are not many to be unearthed), she has offered a modest reassessment of the old ones, and, more important, she has done much to undermine the ludicrous lack of understanding of her subject that began in his own time….

Inevitably, many readers will find Lady Antonia's account of James's years in Scotland the most interesting part of the book; and with some justification, since Scottish affairs from 1567 to 1603 are on all levels something to boggle the mind. (p. 122)

But what is most important about this book is the extremely persuasive argument that James I was in fact a far better monarch than he has been credited with being. With all his grotesque self-indulgence …, he was a fundamentally decent and generous man whose passion for peace, anathema to his more violently fire-breathing subjects, can be readily appreciated without recourse to psychoanalysis. James's foreign policy … was perfectly rational and intelligent, if finally unsuccessful. Not Solomon himself, armed with all the weapons of authority and divine kingship could have prevented the outbreak of that disgusting tragedy, The Thirty Years' War. James tried and was for a time successful. He deserves the moving praise of his present and best biographer. (p. 123)

C. G. Thayer, in a review of "King James VI of Scotland, I of England," in The Ohio Review, Vol. XVI, No. 2, Winter, 1975, pp. 122-23.

Shirley Strum Kenny

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Antonia Fraser's King James VI of Scotland, I of England is a tribute to the king and to the age. At political matters, however, James was not adept, and Fraser's attempt to arouse "greater understanding and therefore greater sympathy" for a king she finds worthy of the "great position" of first monarch of Great Britain consequently falters. His political successes, such as they were, resulted, according to Fraser, from his indecision and inability to act. When he did act it was to embroil himself in scandal or intrigue…. As statesman James displayed none of the judgment or even taste that characterized his literary and intellectual pursuits. On the basis of his political maneuvers, it is difficult to agree with Fraser that his subjects "were not so badly served by him after all."

The brevity of the "biographical essay," as Fraser calls it, a text that runs scarcely more than 100 pages in all, makes it impossible for her to give a three-dimensional portrait of James—she had no intention of supplanting the full-length studies….

Shirley Strum Kenny, "Great Position," in The New Republic, Vol. 172, No. 12, March 22, 1975, p. 25.

Alden Whitman

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The first King of Great Britain (self-proclaimed until Parliament agreed), James Stuart has had a deservedly unenviable reputation owing to his family background, his bisexuality, his unsettled religious allegiances and his "juggle-and-rule" politics. This view of James is only slightly ameliorated by Lady Antonia Fraser [in her King James VI of Scotland, I of England]….

It would be difficult to be entirely partisan to James, and Lady Antonia stops short of adulation; but she clearly seeks to put the best gloss possible on him and on his son Charles I, to whom she refers as "the Martyr King."…

Skirting the basic conflicts in British life, Lady Antonia has produced a rather hollow essay—gorgeous on the outside, lavish in illustrations, felicitous in presentation, yet withal lacking in essential understanding of James's reigns. On superficial levels, nonetheless, she has cleared away some of the unjust accusations leveled against James that have persisted over the years….

Lady Antonia writes about … James's personal life with insight and understanding. She is properly sympathetic, I think, in delineating the forces that shaped his character and in showing that he was not hard-hearted in agreeing, in effect, to his mother's execution…. James, even in his teens, was quite aware of survival….

Although Lady Antonia's essay is not infused with profound political insights, it is thoroughly readable as a character study….

Alden Whitman, in a review of "King James VI of Scotland, I of England," in The New York Times Book Review, March 30, 1975, p. 16.

Susannah Clapp

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Antonia Fraser's tale of convent capers [Quiet as a Nun, is] a heavily propertied but lightly written thriller. The proceedings are presided over by one Jemima Shore, television interviewer and one-time convent girl who has an eager eye for nunnish delights and deprivations, and remains relatively cool when confronted with kidnapped schoolgirls, candleless chapels and whispered warnings. Since the novel's villains turn out to be almost poignantly recognisable for what they are, her no-non-sense attitude is eminently justified, and carries the novel calmly over the wilder sensationalisms suggested by its title. But a certain amount of more vigorous action, and rather fewer general reflections ('How quickly autumn passed! Like every pleasure, it seemed momentary'), might have made a pleasant book more exciting.

Susannah Clapp, "Whirligig," in New Statesman, Vol. 93, No. 2410, May 27, 1977, p. 719.∗

Daniel Coogan

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[In Quiet As a Nun, Lady Antonia Fraser] has created a suspenseful story, though without much success at masking the outcome. Her private investigator, Jemima Shore, of whom we at no point get any real description, seems to be an alter ego of Antonia Fraser herself. Murder in a convent would seem to be a sure-fire recipe for a thriller, especially when combined with secret passages, ghostly walks and child-abduction. But the thrills (at least as felt by this reviewer) are at best only mild, and the potentially fascinating background is treated with such unfortunate superficiality as to be disturbing rather than contributive….

There is a strange incongruity between the personality of the ultra-modern narrator-heroine, a kind of British Barbara Walters, a nationally known TV personality, and the medieval ambience of the Convent of Blessed Eleanor, where she does her sleuthing.

The strength of the book lies in the little vignettes of characterization that dot its pages, such as that of the child Tessa Justin. The protagonists—Jemima and the murderers—emerge with much less clarity.

The solution to the mystery that troubles the good nuns, accomplished by the joint efforts of one of them (whom Jemima, for a while, suspects of complicity) and Jemima herself, has long been at least partially obvious to the reader. The neat device of killing off the culprits in a convenient automobile accident is too slick and comfortable and tidy for me. (p. 223)

To be fair, I must admit that I read Quiet as a Nun in one sitting, with great absorption. But, when I had finished, I was disappointed. The disappointment centered, I think, on dissatisfaction with the unprepossessing heroine, to whom, despite their circumstantial similarities, Lady Antonia has given none of her own undoubted charm. (pp. 223-24)

Daniel Coogan, in a review of "Quiet As a Nun," in America, Vol. 137, No. 10, October 8, 1977, pp. 223-24.

Peter Stansky

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There have been comparatively few biographies of Charles II, and Lady Antonia makes up for the lack [in Royal Charles: Charles II and the Restoration]. She is refreshingly unpretentious, as when she explains why she will keep her notes to a minimum: experts on the period already know the sources, and the general reader will not be interested. She makes no claim to have gone beyond the printed sources and secondary works—a huge bibliography in any case, including such splendid material as the diaries of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn. She has worked hard and thoroughly—in some senses almost too much so, in that she seems determined to tell us all she knows about Charles II.

In her evenhanded progress through his 55 years, there might have been somewhat more differentiation and selectivity. An old-fashioned biographer with a modern sensibility, she does not hesitate to linger over the glorious set pieces in the life and does them full justice…. (pp. 1, 30)

Lady Antonia is sympathetic to her subject: understandably, she sees nothing wrong in his time-consuming devotion to sex and sport. She provides vivid pictures of his various mistresses….

The difficulty, however, is that Charles is depicted as almost too good to be true….

It is not that Charles is claimed to be perfect, but whenever there is a choice of interpretations, the favorable one is almost invariably chosen. What has previously been recognized as a positive affection for vice, a triumph for debauchery, is now depicted as a rather charming laxity. A king whom others have seen as lazy and merry is now shown as sober and serious, even though he had a public mask of "cynicism, gaiety, indifference." Most of his behavior that might appear cruel and arbitrary is excused as normal in the context of the times….

What others have seen as political confusion or, in the older interpretation, a move toward arbitrary government, Lady Antonia depicts as a more conscious policy. She does a fine job in sorting out a potentially confusing story and tells it with admirable effect, despite a few misjudged attempts to be "with it," resorting to the latest slangy phrases and livening up things with contemporary comparisons that now seem apt enough but will serve to date the book. (p. 30)

But the general verdict, as one might expect of a "labour of love," is highly favorable. (p. 31)

Peter Stansky, "An Oddly Modern Figure," in The New York Times Book Review, December 9, 1979, pp. 1, 30-1.∗

J. H. Plumb

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[Charles II] was tender, kind, overwhelmingly generous, and totally disillusioned. On this aspect of his character Antonia Fraser is both fresh and original [in her Royal Charles: Charles II and the Restoration]. For her, rightly, he is no "Merrie Monarch" but a cynical, melancholy man, a lover of the flesh but always conscious of the fleeting nature of its satisfactions…. His character, as well as the events of his life, make him a splendid subject for a biography and Antonia Fraser's book does him justice.

This is a far better book than either her Mary Queen of Scots or Cromwell, good as they were: the narrative is stronger, tenser, better structured; her perceptions of character go deeper and carry conviction. As always, Antonia Fraser has done her scholarly homework…. The result is the best biography of Charles II yet available: indeed it is one of the best historical biographies for some years. (p. 43)

I think Antonia Fraser slightly misjudges Charles's long-term political aspirations and, indeed, she is often unsure when dealing with the intricate political conflicts of his reign, such as relations with the French and the City. But no other writer has been so convincing on the monarch himself. And I think that Antonia Fraser has never written better—her style is here freer, wittier; her judgments of men and women and their motives deeper. She is becoming a formidably good historian and biographer. (p. 44)

J. H. Plumb, "Un-Kinglike King," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXVI, No. 20, December 20, 1979, pp. 43-4.

W. D. Blackmon

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Antonia Fraser, undaunted by the overwhelming weight of historical opinion, sets out in her latest book [Royal Charles: Charles II and the Restoration] to do what Charles Stuart himself could not do: make Charles II of England a great king. Lady Fraser has an excellent reason for such an attempt—everything bad that could possibly be said about the King's dissipation and laziness has already been said, both by his contemporaries and later biographers. Fraser's attempt to restore Charles to favorable public opinion is a fascinating blend of painstaking (and interesting) historical research and a flamboyant writing style, but, in paying court to Charles, her research is often slanted and her prose, in the manner of an apologia, elaborate, tangled, and a bit embarrassed. (p. 122)

At Charles's death, Fraser's final advice to the reader is "Let his royal ashes lie soft upon King Charles II," and my final advice to Fraser's potential reader is that the book is, as was once said of the King, "of many virtues and many great imperfections." (p. 123)

W. D. Blackmon, in a review of "Royal Charles: Charles II and the Restoration," in The Denver Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. I, Spring, 1980, pp. 122-23.

PATRICIA CRAIG and MARY CADOGAN

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Debonair Jemima, a past pupil of the convent (though she's not a Catholic) and now a successful television interviewer and presenter of her own programme, is the heroine of two detective novels by Antonia Fraser. In Quiet as a Nun (1977) she is summoned to the school to investigate queer goings-on. A cry for help is sent out by her old headmistress Mother Ancilla, and soon Jemima is back in the world of bells, statues and rosary beads. It takes 'an outsider's eye to see clearly what perhaps we, so close to it all, have missed'. 'Jemima,' says Mother Ancilla, 'you've got to tell us. Why did she die?' 'She' is Rosabelle Powerstock, or Sister Miriam, who has starved to death in a ruined tower in the convent grounds (a prop straight out of the Schoolgirls' Weekly). There are political reasons for her death, as it turns out: she owns property, including the convent and its lands; and she has fallen under the influence of a person who holds fanatical views about the redistribution of wealth. The disrupter of the convent's peace is Alexander Skarbek who actually roams its corridors at night got up as the Black Nun, a legendary figure that proves convenient for his distorted purpose. At one point in the eventful narrative he traps Jemima in a crypt replete with the bones of nuns; it is a fearful spot, but the resolute investigator never loses heart. (p. 235)

[Eventually, the mystery is solved and] the property justly disposed (it remains with the convent). Jemima the Protestant, the modern heroine, the independent woman with a married lover, can admire the nuns for the qualities of faith, order, composure and kindness which she sees in them. It's a romantic view.

When Jemima visits the Northern Highlands (The Wild Island, 1978) she is soon writing to Mother Agnes (promoted after the death of Mother Ancilla): 'I find myself in a very odd situation here.' She's not exaggerating: her host Charles Beauregard has been found drowned shortly before she arrives, and she is surprised to hear him referred to as His Late Majesty King Charles Edward of Scotland; a crackpot royalist organization has the island in its grip. (pp. 235-36)

Jemima, in fact, has done very little practical detecting in this novel, and her plea ('I'm a television reporter, not a detective') is not much of a defence from the reader's point of view. As a character, she is meant to stand for a fairly uncommon type: the harassed celebrity, continually at the mercy of those who attribute mysterious powers of judgement and action to the television performer. The title of her programme, 'Jemima Shore—Investigator' (a parody of American 'private eye' jargon), is apt to be taken literally; though the subject of her weekly investigations is always a social question of great import. There is a double irony in the fact that the title has stuck to her, so that people always expect her to put their troubles right. She is willing to do her best; but the sheer magnitude and opacity of the mysteries facing an investigator on Eilean Fas (the Wild Island) are enough to stump anyone. In the end, nothing but curiosity, 'at once her best and her worst quality', drives Jemima on; and she fails to draw a logical conclusion from the facts as she observes them. (pp. 236-37)

The rules governing strict detective fiction have been relaxed, and increasing realism in one department is matched by increasing fantasy in another. The events described in both these novels are quite preposterous—convent life at its most unorthodox; Scottish nationalism gone haywire. Engagement with real social issues (schemes to provide housing for the poor and lunatic brands of nationalism do of course exist) actually lessens their credibility, since these are never treated seriously. But no miracles of elucidation are performed by the heroine; and in this respect at least she has moved closer to the plausible and unostentatious, qualities required of the modern, straight-forward character. Indeed, the concept of the heroine has shifted from the extraordinary to the ordinary, at least in middlebrow fiction. Apparent ordinariness, which we find in the Miss Silver type of sleuth, won't do. Jemima Shore is really just the focus of interest in the books, not the powerful outsider who has got everything under control, the behaviour of other people as well as her own. She is as startled as anyone when the truth comes out, though she is quick to see how it makes sense of everything that had seemed puzzling.

There is no room for complication in Jemima's nature when incessant adventures are taking place around her; but … her sanity is striking in the face of so much dottiness and criminal lunacy. The genre doesn't demand more than a clear outline for its central characters, about whom facts are presented plainly and without emotional fuss. Antonia Fraser has brought the Gothic mystery up to date, simply by transcribing its charnel atmosphere in very forthright terms. Her briskness, with its underlay of mild humour, works all the time to dispel the clouds of murk she's for ever summoning up, and the result is jolly and blithe in defiance of the subject…. (pp. 237-38)

Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan, "'A Curious Career for a Woman'?" in their The Lady Investigates: Women Detectives and Spies in Fiction, St. Martin's Press, 1981, pp. 223-46.∗

Harriet Waugh

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The first mystery in Antonia Fraser's detective novel, Cool Repentance, is why it is not set in Ireland. The characters give off such a strong whiff of decadent Anglo-Irish flesh that it seems perverse to have located them somewhere in rural-England-by-the-sea. Anyway, despite the eccentricity of the setting, it starts off excellently.

Christobel Herrick, whose fate is at the centre of the novel, is a prematurely retired famous actress about to be enticed back on stage by an ambitious, pseudish director…. She has recently returned to her husband's home after a protracted desertion of a humiliating kind: she had run off with the stable boy, the son of the domestic servants of the house. The stable boy had used her as a stepping-stone to becoming a pop star, ruined her career, then deserted her, only to die in a motorbicycle crash. Christobel has now returned to resume her role at the centre of the household as though she had never left it. Her husband, Julian, seems as adoring as ever, but is he?… What does their governess, the aunt of the stable boy, feel about having her place in the household usurped? And, most important of all, what do Mr and Mrs Blagge, the parents of the spoilt stable boy feel at having to serve the woman they blame for their son's death? These are the questions that intrigue Jemima Shore, Antonia Fraser's prissy detective….

As can be seen, this is an excellent recipe for murder and, until a badly described second death, is glorious fun. Unfortunately at this point the story loses some of its zest, and though the ending is genuinely surprising the psychology behind the first murder makes an unconvincing Molotov cocktail.

Harriet Waugh, "Thrillers," in The Spectator, Vol. 248, No. 8033, June 26, 1982, p. 28.∗

Lois Potter

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The Weaker Vessel is a celebration, not a lament. The women whose lives fill its crowded pages include not only royal mistresses, actresses, great heiresses, and the rare (mainly childless) creative artists and writers, but the ordinary maids, wives and widows whose quieter achievements can be deduced from the family papers of the period; fittingly, the final chapter is given over to the role of the midwife. Lady Antonia has avoided the lurid and often-told stories of the Essex divorce and the Castlehaven scandal (though the adventures of Lady Roos and the witty Lady Catherine Sedley make a good substitute); she has looked, on the whole, for the encouraging and heart-warming….

Unlike Lady Antonia's other works, The Weaker Vessel lacks the unifying element of a single central figure, though she is skilful in indicating the dynastic relationships which link characters in different parts of the book. Her arrangement of the material—partly thematic, partly chronological, with chapter titles that are decorative rather than informative—encourages the reader to treat it as a bedside book rather than to seek a sustained argument. Much of the material does speak perfectly well for itself, and the author's reluctance to argue a case is partly a matter of tact, though at times it also suggests the same kind of diffidence that she notes in female writers of the period.

In fact, this extremely enjoyable book does have a serious argument. Lady Antonia stresses the crucial role of education in improving woman's lot, shows considerable sympathy for the idea of a "lay convent" for Protestant women (perhaps a woman's college?), but also notes the dangerous contempt which clever women in this period often felt for their own sex. In her final chapter, she draws attention to the cyclical pattern of woman's history in the seventeenth century. The Civil War gave many of them an opportunity to discover hidden strengths and talents…. But the Restoration, like other post-war eras, reimposed traditional "female" values, and in some ways (the improvement of university education, the intrusion of men into the specifically female area of midwifery) actually widened the gap between the sexes. "As with all forms of liberation, of which the liberation of women is only one example, it is easy to suppose in a time of freedom that the darker days of repression can never come again." This warning, I think, is worth any amount of righteous indignation.

Lois Potter, "Breaking Silence," in The Times Educational Supplement, No. 3544, June 1, 1984, p. 22.

Blair Worden

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[In The Weaker Vessel] the varieties of social opportunity and experience in the Stuart age indicate the difficulties posed by Antonia Fraser's subtitle, 'Woman's Lot in 17th-Century England'. A better choice might have been 'Meetings with Remarkable Women', for her book has little place for the ordinary or for the silent. In some ways, it is true, 17th-century women did have a common lot. Whatever their class, they were held to be inferior to men, intellectually, morally and spiritually. Institutions and the law, as we would say, discriminated against them. Yet in society they shared little beyond their formal disadvantages. Historical inquiry which treats people as members of a class—a class, moreover, which constitutes a rather sizable proportion of the population—does not always make them more interesting.

We need a more elastic and less anachronistic vocabulary. We talk of 'attitudes to women'—and invite the phrase to cover not only abstract statements about female characteristics but the full range of unfathomable personal feeling. The 'attitudes' we identify prove often to belong to a broader mental context from which they cannot be separated without distortion. Thus Fraser says that the 17th century had 'a distinct feeling of guilt' about 'romantic love'. Women and men alike 'shuddered away from the concept of love'; 'ever with love came guilt.' But her examples are of people feeling guilty not about loving each other but about disobeying their fathers, to whose acknowledged authority over female and male alike there were few bounds. Fraser's evidence cannot tell us anything about attitudes to affection until we have established what it tells us about attitudes to patriarchalism. There is a confusion, too, in Fraser's identification of 'love' with 'romantic love' (compounded when she muddles 'romantic love' with the cult of 'platonic love'). What the 17th century 'shuddered away from' was not love, on which it set a high value, but the human inclination to mistake emotional intensity for depth. Fraser's examples are helpful only when we set them in the context of the period's mistrust of 'the passions', of which sexual passion was only one.

How do we give a history to sexuality, a subject which in our own lives is so continuously capable of confounding our reasoned certainties? Where self-knowledge is inevitably precarious, historical knowledge is unlikely to be secure. To learn about the formal status of past women is not necessarily to learn much about the operation or the balance of past sexual power. A major surprise of Fraser's book is her decision to draw so little on the imaginative literature of the time. Simple and obvious questions ask themselves. Why is there so large a gap between the depressed condition of women apparently prescribed by sermons and by social commentaries and the authority which women exert in Shakespearean or Restoration comedy? And why, if romantic love was so alien a sentiment, was there so large and avid a readership for romantic fiction?…

It is hard to see how the generalisations now sometimes advanced about the emotional limitations of 17th-century people could be made by any historian acquainted with the period's manifold expressions of the pain of enforced marital separation and of the grief of marital bereavement. Whatever the mistakes of Fraser's book, that scowling error is not among them….

Did the 17th century bring changed perceptions of womanhood? The expanding range of diaries, private letters, biographies and autobiographies—the material which makes Fraser's book possible—reflects a growing interest in human observation and in individual psychology. At the same time, the scientific revolution modified or modernised traditional opinions. By the end of the century it seemed harder to think of women as witches, easier to explain menstruation in medical than in Biblical terms. Yet on the subject of change Fraser offers curiously little help, even though she gives her book a chronological arrangement. Tentatively she suggests that parents became less strict in imposing marriages upon their children, and that marriages across the classes were on the increase: but her evidence seems decidedly thin….

Fraser has read widely: but her references to 'recent research' must be taken with a pinch of salt. She has absorbed little that has recently been written on 17th-century women, and for social history she is over-dependent on Peter Laslett's book of 1965, The World We Have Lost, whose warmest admirers would hardly call it authoritative. Even so, Fraser has succeeded strikingly in imposing order and clarity upon a mass of material. She gives us a rich and colourful gallery of portraits…. There is a series of real-life adventure stories, enlivened by a spot of whipping here and of wall-jumping there. She is especially interesting on the contrast between the closing of doors to women in activities which required formal education and the ease with which they could operate in the business community—above all, perhaps, in the printing and publishing trades. Here Fraser might have found room for the bookseller Abigail Baldwin, whose eventful life has been described by Eleanor Rostenberg.

But that would have made The Weaker Vessel even longer; and like most of Fraser's books, it is much too long already. It contains many points, but no argument. As one struggles through her 470 pages of text one begins to hunger for intellectual edge and shape. Still, if Fraser's prose is not incisive, it at least has qualities of lucidity and vigour. She writes better than the average academic.

Blair Worden, "Sexual Whiggery," in London Review of Books, June 7 to June 20, 1984, p. 16.∗

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