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."