Antonia Fraser Fraser, Antonia (Pakenham) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 509 words.)

A. S. Byatt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 669 words.)

Roy Strong

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 570 words.)

C. V. Wedgwood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 469 words.)

Keith Thomas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 708 words.)

G. R. Elton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 682 words.)

C. V. Wedgwood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 427 words.)

Blair Worden

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 861 words.)

David Underdown

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 550 words.)

C. G. Thayer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 364 words.)

Shirley Strum Kenny

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 186 words.)

Alden Whitman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 247 words.)

Susannah Clapp

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 132 words.)

Daniel Coogan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 312 words.)

Peter Stansky

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 411 words.)

J. H. Plumb

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 254 words.)

W. D. Blackmon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 197 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 899 words.)

Harriet Waugh

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 295 words.)

Lois Potter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 413 words.)

Blair Worden

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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,...

(The entire section is 914 words.)