Antonia Fraser Fraser, Lady Antonia - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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."

Major Works

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."

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A History of Toys (history) 1966
Mary Queen of Scots (biography) 1969
Cromwell: Our Chief of Men (biography) 1973
King James: VI of Scotland, I of England (biography) 1974
The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England [editor] (nonfiction) 1975
Quiet as a Nun (novel) 1977
King Charles II (biography) 1979
The Weaker Vessel (history) 1984
Boadicea's Chariot: The Warrior Queens (history) 1988
The Cavalier Case (novel) 1990
The Six Wives of Henry VIII (history) 1992
Jemima Shore at the Sunny Grave and Other Stories (shorts stories) 1993
Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot (history) 1996

∗Published in the U.S. as The Warrior Queens.

†Published in the U.S. as The Wives of Henry VIII.

J. P. Kenyon (review date 6 November 1969)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Discordant Queen," in New York Review of Books, November 6, 1969, pp. 40-42.

[In the following review, Kenyon presents an informed account of the history of Mary Queen of Scots and the political environment of the time, while commenting on Fraser's Mary Queen of Scots and comparing it to the work of other historians.]

Lady Antonia Fraser is young, beautiful, and rich, an earl's daughter married to a busy and successful politician, the mother of a large family; yet she has surmounted all these handicaps to authorship to produce a first-rate historical biography. I do not mean to sound sarcastic or patronizing. Only a practicing historian knows the...

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Edwin M. Yoder (review date 23 May 1975)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "James Made Even Stronger," in National Review, May 23, 1975, pp. 571-72.

[In the following review, Yoder comments on Fraser's portrayal of her subject in King James: VI of Scotland, I of England.]

Having bracketed the fascinating figure of James I in previous biographies of his mother, the Queen of Scots, and of Cromwell, the nemesis and executioner of his son, Antonia Fraser seemed destined to write about him. And this she has done [in King James: VI of Scotland, I of England]—but strangely. She finds James an abler king than is commonly portrayed—Trevelyan, who is typical, calls him "comic." But she has written a cameo, a sketch, which in its...

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Roger Fulford (review date 11 August 1975)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Chronicles of the Monarchy," in Times Literary Supplement, August 11, 1975, p. 893.

[In the following review, Fulford outlines the contents of The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England, a work edited by Fraser.]

[The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England] is a businesslike and readable account of our kings and queens from William I to Elizabeth II. The authors are not, as the Victorians used to say, "viewy", and they spare their readers too much of those personal stories by which kings and queens are particularly afflicted. Antonia Fraser opens with a spirited defence of royal biography which, she trenchantly argues, gives us a theory of...

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P. D. James (review date 27 May 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Nunnery Whodunnery," in Times Literary Supplement, May 27, 1977, p. 644.

[In the following review of Quiet as a Nun, James comments on Fraser's handling of the elements of crime fiction.]

Antonia Fraser is the latest recruit to the ranks of established writers who have turned their hands to crime fiction. "And when are you going to write a serious work?" crime novelists are always being asked; it would be nice to think that the question may now be reversed. Lady Antonia has chosen to describe Quiet as a Nun, a judicious mixture of puzzle, excitement and terror, as a thriller, and the setting has, indeed, all the Gothic horrors reminiscent of much...

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Mel Gussow (essay date 9 September 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Antonia Fraser: The Lady as a Writer," in New York Times Magazine, September 9, 1984, pp. 60-62, 75-78.

[The following essay provides a portrait of Fraser's personal life as background to her work.]

Antonia Fraser lives on a quiet, tree-shaded square in the Kensington section of London in a large, airy house that she shares with her second husband, the playwright Harold Pinter. With them live the four youngest of her six children by her first marriage, to the late Sir Hugh Fraser. Sitting in her garden on a recent afternoon, Lady Antonia looked softly feminine, a portrait of gentility. A large white picture hat shielded her face from the sun. A wasp buzzed her...

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Maureen Quilligan (review date 22 September 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Women at Large," The Nation, Volume 239, No. 8, September 22, 1984, pp. 244-46.

[In the following review, Quilligan contemplates the ideas on women and society that arise from Fraser's Weaker Vessel.]

The Weaker Vessel, Lady Antonia Fraser's study of women in seventeenth-century England, opens with a personal anecdote. Fraser described the topic of her new book to a distinguished (male) friend; before vanishing into his club, he turned and asked, "Were there any women in seventeenth-century England?" The Weaker Vessel is her attempt "in part at least" to answer that question. The answer, more than 500 pages long, is armed with a host of...

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Lawrence Stone (review date 11 April 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Only Women," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXII, No. 6, April 11, 1985, pp. 21-22.

[In the following review, historian Stone objects to several features of Fraser's Weaker Vessel and praises others.]

Before beginning a discussion of the books under review, I must first set out the ten commandments which should, in my opinion, govern the writing of women's history at any time and in any place:

1. Thou shalt not write about women except in relation to men and children. Women are not a distinct caste, and their history is a story of complex interactions;

2. Thou shalt strive not to distort the evidence and the...

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Reed Browning (review date Spring 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Name of Frailty," in The Kenyon Review, Vol. VII, No. 2, Spring, 1985, pp. 130-33.

[In the following review, Browning scrutinizes The Weaker Vessel and comments on its strengths and failings.]

[The Weaker Vessel] teems with entertaining stories: Ann Fanshaw braves the turbulent seas; Joan Flower dons the identity of a witch; Mary Ward fights for educational reform; Lady Eleanor Davies scans the future; Jane Whorwood plots to spring Charles I; Joan Dant becomes the queen of pedlars. Whatever else may be said of these women, they were not weak. And that is the burden of Lady Antonia Fraser's examination of the lot of English womankind from the...

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Susanne Woods (review date June 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Bad Old Days," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. II, No. 9, June, 1985, pp. 17-18.

[In the following review, Woods compares The Weaker Vessel with another work on the cultural history of women.]

Anyone who investigates the social of cultural history of women is painfully aware of how little of our past is accessible, even the relatively well-documented past of the English speaking culture. Some things are retrievable, including the expressed attitudes of men toward women and the legal and social restrictions imposed by men or women; less well understood are the motives and conditions of men's writing about the nature and position of women, and the...

(The entire section is 2565 words.)

Lady Antonia Fraser with Rosemary Herbert (interview date 19 June 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Lady Antonia Fraser," in Publisher's Weekly, Vol. 231, No. 24, pp. 104-105.

[In the following interview, Fraser discusses her writing life and her crime fiction.]

During an early spring evening in London, when the daffodils in the square across the way are just beginning to blossom, Lady Antonia Fraser opens the door of her Kensington home to PW. On the occasion of the U.S. publication of her short story anthology, Jemima Shore's First Case … and of her new Jemima Shore novel Your Royal Hostage in England, the author talks about her varied writing career, as well as her life as wife, daughter and mother in a celebrated literary family....

(The entire section is 1919 words.)

Mary Beard (review date 11-17 November 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Manifestations of a Myth," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4467, November 11-17, 1988, p. 1248.

[In the following review of Boadicea's Chariot: The Warrior Queens, Beard assesses Fraser's version of Boadicea's story in relation to several other available accounts.]

Boadicea is myth. She was already a part of mythology for the Romans who first wrote about her and about her hopelessly doomed rebellion against the forces of occupation in Britain. At the time her story, retold and embellished, evoked both admiration and fear. For some Romans she was the noble savage, who at least for a few days jolted the complacency of an imperial power, effete and...

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Naomi Bliven (review date 24 April 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Women at Arms," in The New Yorker, April 24, 1989, pp. 108-111.

[In the following review, Bliven examines the characteristics of the historical figures outlined by Fraser in The Warrior Queens and comments on their significance.]

Antonia Fraser's The Warrior Queens is an intelligent and artful study of women rulers who commanded in battle. The book begins in prehistory—practically every pagan pantheon featured a warrior goddess—and comes down to the present; its heroines lived in Europe, Asia, and Africa. (The New World has produced no warrior queens known to history.) The author's ground rules exclude the West's most famous woman warrior,...

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S. J. Tirrell (review date 7 June 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A History of Women at the Helm," in The Christian Science Monitor, June 7, 1989, p. 12.

[In the following review of The Warrior Queens, Tirrell objects to some of the methods and assumptions in Fraser's study.]

Within a pride of lions, it has always been the female of the species that hunted and killed. By contract humankind has traditionally relegated women to the home and family circle, often in an inferior status, and certainly far from the amphitheaters of battle.

Still, throughout history there have been women who have defied convention and risen to meet the exigencies of war, often leading their peoples to victory. This idea is...

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Bonnie Angelo (essay date 15 January 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Not Quite Your Usual Historian," in Time, Vol. 135, No. 3, January 15, 1990, pp. 66, 68.

[In the following essay Angelo presents details of Fraser's life and records comments on Fraser's crime fiction and historical work.]

She is the kind of woman Maureen O'Hara used to play in big-budget costume movies: Lady Antonia Fraser, beautiful, hot-blooded, titled daughter of a noble line, turreted castles in her background and the whiff of scandal in her past. But the portrait of a romance-novel heroine slips out of focus with a closer look, for that same Lady Antonia is an internationally established historian, the author of best-selling biographies and a social...

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Anne Tolstoi Wallach (review date 6 January 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "All the Best Houses Have Ghosts," in New York Times Book Review, January 6, 1991, p. 18.

[In the following review of The Cavalier Case, Wallach considers Fraser's contribution to crime fiction.]

It's hard to fathom, but there are authors who relax from writing books by writing different books. Larry McMurtry took six weeks off from Lonesome Dove to write Desert Rose, one of his best novels. Agatha Christie, in among 60 full-length mysteries, 19 short-story collections and 14 plays, wrote romance novels as Mary Westmacott. William Buckley seems to relax, if at all, by writing thrillers; Anne Rice writes erotic novels as A. N....

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Blair Worden (review date 29 August 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Return of the Monarch," in The Spectator, Vol. 269, No. 8564, August 29, 1992, pp. 25-26.

[In the following review, Worden comments on Fraser's previous work and examines the style and content of The Six Wives of Henry VIII.]

It is a surprise to realise that Antonia Fraser has not written about Henry VIII's wives already. She has written so many books on monarchs and women. There are her long biographies of Mary Queen of Scots and Oliver Cromwell and Charles II. There is The Weaker Vessel, a long study of 17th-century women. There is The Warrior Queens, an account of women leaders from Boadicea to Margaret Thatcher which, exceptionally among her...

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Lady Antonia Fraser with Polly Samson (interview date November 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "My Fair Lady," in Harper's, No. 3371, November, 1992, pp. 58, 60.

[In the following interview, Samson and Fraser discuss The Wives of Henry VIII.]

When her friend and erstwhile New Yorker editor Bob Gottlieb suggested she write her next book on the wives of Henry VIII, Lady Antonia Fraser remembers thinking that it was the book she was born to write. "I felt like rushing around the streets of New York, accosting people and telling them what I was going to do," she says.

The idea was a natural for a writer who had long since earned her place as a major historian. At 27, Lady Antonia wrote the definitive biography Mary, Queen of...

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Connolly Cole (review date 20 December 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Betrothals and Beheadings," in Chicago Tribune, December 20, 1992, p. 7.

[In the following review of The Wives of Henry VIII, Cole examines the intricate individual stories that make up the work.]

In this new study of King Henry VIII and his wives [entitled The Wives of Henry VIII], Antonia Fraser sets out to dispel the historical perception that stereotypes those six women—Catherine of Aragon as the Abandoned Wife, Anne Boleyn as the Temptress, Jane Seymour as the Good Woman, Anna of Cleves as the Flanders Mule, Katherine Howard as the Bad Girl and Catherine Parr as the Mother Figure. Fraser points out that those images, while true in some...

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Angeline Goreau (review date 20 December 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Wives of Henry VIII, in The New York Times Book Review, December 20, 1992, p. 11.

[In the following review, Goreau considers Fraser's perspective on Henry VIII and his wives.]

"Who does not tremble when he considers how to deal with a wife?" asked Henry VIII in 1521.

That the King was writing on behalf of marriage, emphasizing the precious and sacred charge involved in such a union, must surely be one of the odder ironies of history. Odder still, given subsequent events, was that his motive in writing "The Defence of the Seven Sacraments" was to refute Martin Luther's heretical challenge to Pope and church. For Henry's...

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Eric Ives (review date November 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Good Crumb," in History Today, Vol. 44, No. 11, November, 1994, p. 60.

[In the following review, Ives assesses the strengths and failings of Fraser's approach to writing history as evidenced in The Wives of Henry VIII.]

That Antonia Fraser's Six Wives of Henry VIII is available in paperback as well as on library shelves should guarantee circulation to the only current account of Henry VIII's wives and by far the best of its kind. It has all the Fraser virtues: liveliness, enough but not too much detail, a grasp of up-to-date scholarship and an eye for the memorable—I shall treasure St Bernadino of Siena's remark that the mother who fails to tell her...

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Mel Gussow (review date 4 December 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Playing Modern Detective In the Gunpowder Plot," in The New York Times, December 4, 1996, pp. C3, C7.

[In the following review, Gussow investigates Fraser's ideas on the research she conducted for Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot.]

While writers as diverse as John le Carré and V. S. Naipaul journey to exotic places in search of material, Antonia Fraser habitually goes to the reading room of the British Museum, where she is surrounded by her research (and sometimes by her mother, daughter or other members of her family of writers, the literary Longfords). For Lady Antonia there is also a sense of adventure, despite the quietude and the...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Review of Mary Queen of Scots, by Antonia Fraser. Times Literary Supplement No. 3514 (July 3, 1969): 729-30.

Juxtaposes details and perspectives on Mary from other sources with Fraser's biographical portrait.

(The entire section is 64 words.)