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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...
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(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."
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SOURCE: "A Discordant Queen," in New York Review of Books, November 6, 1969, pp. 40-42.
[In the following review, Kenyon presents an informed account of the history of Mary Queen of Scots and the political environment of the time, while commenting on Fraser's Mary Queen of Scots and comparing it to the work of other historians.]
Lady Antonia Fraser is young, beautiful, and rich, an earl's daughter married to a busy and successful politician, the mother of a large family; yet she has surmounted all these handicaps to authorship to produce a first-rate historical biography. I do not mean to sound sarcastic or patronizing. Only a practicing historian knows the hours of boring and backbreaking labor that go into a book like this; and in a well-trampled field like the life of Mary Stuart the burden of such labor is not lightened by the hope of some exciting find.
It is the defect of most "amateur" historians that they evade this drudgery, or abandon it halfway through. They pad out their bibliographies and cut back their footnotes (blandly announcing that this is to humor their illiterate readers, the poor dears), they hopefully cram their prefaces with acknowledgments to Professor X and Doctor Y, and in the last resort they pretend that a book to which they have devoted years of effort, of one kind or another, is only an interim report. It is easy for any biographer, trained or otherwise, to put the emotional stress in the wrong place, and to forget in the agonies of her heroine the agonies she created, and there is always the temptation to "stretch" sources which are always inadequate and often ambiguous. From conjecturing that Queen Mary may have thought such-and-such it is a short step to saying that she thought it. (The final step, of making her say it, is one that some authors do not shrink from.) Finally, there is a special kind of martyred sentimentality that afflicts female historians writing about women, paralleled by the jovial locker-room camaraderie which infects many male historians writing about men.
I approached Lady Antonia's book [Mary Queen of Scots] expecting to find some, if not all of these faults, and my confidence was not bolstered by the fact that most of the reviewers who greeted it so rapturously in England were also women, and women innocent hitherto of any historical knowledge or expertise. To my relief it is a beautifully written book, thoroughly but unostentatiously researched. Lady Antonia avoids the temptation to romanticize an inherently romantic and tragic story, and her tense, muscular narrative generates a flow which carries the reader on unwearying to the end. It is as definitive a life as we shall get of a woman whom her cousin Elizabeth called "the daughter of debate that eke discord doth sow," who has sown discord among historians to this day.
The first task is to strip away the layers of varnish plastered on Queen Mary's portrait, and here the Scots are the sinners, not the English. It was the English who imprisoned her for the last nineteen years of her life, but it was the Scots who gave them the excuse, it was the Scots who denounced her as the murderer of her husband, and even turned her own son decisively against her.
Mary was to all intents and purposes a Frenchwoman. Born of a French mother, she never knew her father, and she was sent to Paris at the age of five, and remained there until she was nineteen. In the interval she married Francis, eldest son of Henry II of France, and on Henry's premature death in 1559 she was even raised to the French throne. A future spread before her in which she would rule Scotland jointly with her husband, and no doubt through deputies, making only occasional visits to a country she can scarcely have remembered with any clarity. Beyond that lay the throne of England, for Elizabeth, who succeeded her sister Mary in 1558, was the last of the Tudors in the direct line and was still officially illegitimate in the eyes of the Roman Church.
But King Francis's death in December 1560 left Mary a widow at the age of eighteen. All her life she would be a daughter of France, but, most unexpectedly, her future now lay in Scotland. Moreover, that year Scotland had risen in revolt against popery and the French connection. With timely assistance from Elizabeth the rebels forced on the government the Treaty of Edinburgh, which recognized the reformed kirk and barred Mary from the English throne. The English succession always had the most powerful hold on Mary's imagination, so much so that in 1558 she had quartered the arms of England with her own, and laid claim to the throne itself, not just the succession. Her obstinate refusal to withdraw this claim, or ratify the Treaty of Edinburgh, prejudiced her relations with Elizabeth from the outset.
Mary left for Edinburgh in 1561, but it is not surprising that she regarded her stay there as "a wearisome interlude between the France of her memories and the England of her dreams." It was not just the weather which gave sixteenth-century Scotland the reputation of being "the arse of the world." It was a poor country, thinly populated; its natural resources meager and inefficiently exploited. It is questionable whether it could even support a monarchy as monarchy was then understood in western Europe. Its kings were feudal overlords, still living mainly on the income from their estates, their power based on their ability to control a nobility which existed in a state of fractiousness and indiscipline not seen in England or France for nearly a hundred years, and then only as a temporary phenomenon. A middle class was only just emerging, and the Scottish Universities, despite their antiquity and comparative abundance, had failed to train that bureaucracy which was taken for granted in most European countries. Maitland of Lethington, Mary's Secretary of State, was the only servant she had who could possibly have taken a similar post in England, France, or Spain.
For the rest, the aristocracy was as irresponsible as it was contentious, and the Reformation had given it yet another bone of contention. Only the fact that no nobleman could trust another for more than six weeks prevented the country from falling completely to pieces. Much of the sheer inanity of Scottish politics is summed up in the name and fact of the "Chaseabout Raid" in 1565, in which Mary's wisest councillor, her half-brother, James Stewart, Earl of Moray, made a sickening reversion to type. Fearing loss of influence at court, he could think of no more sensible way of settling the matter than a demonstration rebellion, which ended with his flight to England, having accomplished nothing. Yet the position of chief minister was a dangerous one, as the assassination of Cardinal Beaton (1546), the Earl of Moray (1569), and the Earl of Morton (1580) showed.
In such conditions there could be no tradition of administration or even government. Analyzing Queen Elizabeth's first Privy Council, a recent historian notes that the Marquess of Winchester should be classified as a bureaucrat rather than as a great magnate, since he was still engaged in a major program of administrative reform at the Treasury which extended back into the previous reign. The whole concept behind this casual remark is so alien to contemporary Scottish conditions that it might well refer to events in another universe. Scots government was at about the same stage of development as English government under Edward the Confessor.
Mary's initial success in these conditions is astonishing, and even Lady Antonia does not give it its full value. This finely bred girl survived for four years virtually unscathed. She not only survived, in some ways she flourished. For a brief period she imposed law and order on the jungle of Scottish politics. Moreover, she insisted on choosing her own husband, in Henry, Lord Darnley, and beat down considerable opposition to it; and since Darnley, like her, had a claim to the throne of England as well as Scotland, dynastically it was an astute move. (Time was to show that it was perhaps too astute, but no matter.) Above all, her willingness to accept the fact of the Scottish Reformation, and her refusal to make her own sincere Catholic beliefs a matter of state or to build up a Catholic party among the nobility—in fact, one of her most decisive and successful acts was the suppression of the Earl of Huntly, a powerful and troublesome co-religionist—won her a degree of general acceptance which no one had expected.
Lady Antonia seems surprised at this; Catholic historians are more accustomed to explaining away the intolerance and bigotry of their heroes. But Gordon Donaldson has recently shown that the Scottish Reformation was far from being the swift, conclusive, and total event which its leader John Knox tried to pretend. Reversal was unthinkable, of course, but there was plenty of room for compromise or maneuver within an accepted Protestant framework. Moreover, the European Reformation was far from complete, and the lines between Protestant and Catholic were not yet firmly drawn. In the early 1560s the Council of Trent was still deliberating and Queen Elizabeth was invited to send representatives. Two generations later the dream entertained by Mary's son James, of reuniting Christendom by a Council under the joint chairmanship of himself and the Pope, was not quite the visionary nonsense it appears to be. With the exception of Phillip II of Spain most contemporary monarchs were willing to trim their religious sails according to political or personal expediency, and it is ironic that the true age of bigotry, when monarchs like James II and Louis XIV sanctimoniously persisted in their religious beliefs to their grave disadvantage, immediately preceded the Age of Reason.
In the sixteenth century, on the other hand, many French and German Protestant leaders were suspected, with good reason, of adopting the new religion for political ends, and the greatest of them, Henry IV, thought Paris well worth a mass, a decision unthinkable a century later. Soon after her arrival in England Mary Queen of Scots showed a disposition to flirt with Anglicanism which Lady Antonia cannot credit; but it was perfectly natural. William the Silent began life as a Roman Catholic; Elizabeth's personal beliefs are unfathomable, but almost certainly they did not coincide with the state Anglicanism she sponsored; and so on. In this context it is not strange that Mary found no difficulty in accommodating herself to her Scottish subjects, and John Knox's diatribes, though eminently quotable, are not typical of public opinion. His hatred for Mary was largely motivated by fear, which is significant in itself.
Yet Mary's effective reign ended in a bloody melodrama which not only besmirched her reputation as a woman but decisively undermined her position as a ruler. Donaldson, the leading Marian scholar, has paid tribute to her achievements in Scotland, but he is almost alone. General opinion is summed up in the words of another professor, who dismisses her as "a vain, artful, bewitching creature," ("bewitching" clearly used pejoratively), who "played at being queen as she played at nearly everything"—in other words, an oversexed, irresponsible scatterbrain, who got no worse than she deserved.
True, she was betrayed by sexual passion. But this is surprising in itself. Contrary to general belief, very few rulers have ever been seriously inconvenienced by the scandal of their private lives, let alone ruined by it. In Mary's case, no breath of scandal touched her in France, and it is extremely doubtful whether her marriage with the sickly Francis II was ever consummated. In Scotland, though she was surrounded by men of voracious appetites, their sexual lives in scandalous disorder, and though she was subject to the unwearying scrutiny of many ill-wishers, for nearly four years she remained completely unscathed.
Then came the eruption. Maddened by Elizabeth's attempts to block any negotiations for marriage except with her own cast-off lover, the Earl of Leicester (an insulting and ludicrous proposal), she hit upon young Darnley. It was a slap in the face to Elizabeth, personal as well as political, and her subsequent pregnancy secured her position further. She was carrying the undoubted heir to the throne of England as well as of Scotland; as it proved. Unfortunately she fell in love with Darnley, and as a king, or even a consort, he proved worthless. He objected to the favor enjoyed by her hunchback Italian secretary, Riccio, in terms which put another indelible slur on her reputation, and had him dragged from her dinner table one evening and brutally murdered in the next room. Her revulsion against her husband was as passionate as her previous love for him, and when a group of bloodthirsty Scots noblemen, in an orgy of violence, blew up his house and strangled him in the garden afterwards, it was in circumstances which deeply implicated her.
On the whole, historians have agreed that Mary had no direct responsibility for this tragedy of Kirk O'Fields, but contemporaries were less kind. Even Lady Antonia likens her role to that of Henry II in the assassination of Becket. Paralyzed by shock (to be kind), she made no effort to pursue the murderers, though they were well-enough known, and when she married their leader, James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, only a few months later there was only one conclusion to be drawn. Her general popularity in Scotland, which had been her only weapon, disappeared overnight. With the quite unaccustomed support of public opinion, a gang of nobles led by her brother Moray deposed her, replaced her by her infant son, then drove her across the Border into England, in 1568.
The new government of Scotland, led by Moray as Regent, affirmed its solemn belief in Mary's guilt, and to prove it produced the famous Casket Letters, purporting to be written by her and Bothwell. As Lady Antonia points out, contemporaries did not treat these letters with much seriousness; they were forgeries, and perhaps recognized as such at the time. The commissioners who viewed them on Elizabeth's behalf delivered no verdict. But Mary remained a prisoner in England, and the young James VI, as he grew to manhood, was schooled to regard his mother as a murderess and a whore.
Lady Antonia pursues the course of a sympathetic but responsible biographer. She explains what she can and deplores what she cannot. The most bitter pill for any admirer of Mary is her marriage to this undistinguished thug, Bothwell. Lady Antonia disposes, I think, of any idea that she was pregnant by him before marriage—an idea still current in most austere circles—but this only makes the marriage less, not more, explicable. She suggests that he raped her, making marriage imperative, but surely this is not so, since the rape was never publicized (and raping the queen was a prominent though little invoked element in the law of treason). Did she like being forced? Certainly all the evidence put before us here suggests a normally frigid woman; even Darnley was unable to engage her physical passions for more than a few months, perhaps only a few weeks, which is why he feared that he had been supplanted by Riccio. During her long periods of self-denial she showed no apparent strain.
All this is speculation. Mary is one of those characters who encourages prurient speculation, and this may be why she is unloved by prudent and sober historians. Her death was tragic, and her influence upon England, France, and Scotland was negligible; she was dam to a dynasty of kings whose name is a byword for failure.
When the over-busy Dean Stanley opened her vault in Westminster Abbey in 1867 it was found that she shared her resting place with more than thirty princes and princesses of the Stuart line. Lady Antonia finds an appropriate text in the Marian motto, In my end is my beginning. But who were these princes and princesses? The ten children of James II, dead in infancy, eighteen children of Queen Anne dead at birth, plus Rupert of the Rhine, the most spectacular failure of them all, and two princes whose premature death had closed off whole chapters of English history; Henry, Prince of Wales, James I's eldest son, who would have displaced Charles I if he had lived, and William, Duke of Gloucester, who stood between England and the Hanoverians, and died in 1700 at the age of eleven. Her company in death expresses the futility of Mary Stuart's life.
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SOURCE: "James Made Even Stronger," in National Review, May 23, 1975, pp. 571-72.
[In the following review, Yoder comments on Fraser's portrayal of her subject in King James: VI of Scotland, I of England.]
Having bracketed the fascinating figure of James I in previous biographies of his mother, the Queen of Scots, and of Cromwell, the nemesis and executioner of his son, Antonia Fraser seemed destined to write about him. And this she has done [in King James: VI of Scotland, I of England]—but strangely. She finds James an abler king than is commonly portrayed—Trevelyan, who is typical, calls him "comic." But she has written a cameo, a sketch, which in its elegant way features the unusual and has the perverse effect of rendering James a stranger figure than he was. And he was quite strange.
James, while in some ways sympathetic, lacked qualities usually deemed essential to a prince. He was a coward, a physical wreck, and a man of unorthodox sexual predilections. At the age of 13 he fell madly in love with a male French cousin, Esmé Stuart, sent to his court as emissary of the Guise family. Years later, by now Queen Elizabeth's successor on the English throne, his unseemly mooning over the royal favorite, Buckingham, stirred the ridicule of the court. But he could always explain—he had a penchant for explanations: "Jesus Christ," he told the Privy Council one day in 1617, "did the same and therefore I cannot be blamed. Christ had his John and I have my George." Lady Antonia believes, in fact, that James's aberrations stemmed, like those of his descendant George III, from porphyria. But contemporary glimpses were not so sympathetic. According to one, written by Anthony Weldon, his tongue was too big for his mouth; his skin "as soft as taffeta sarsnet"; he never washed his hands, and he walked only with the support of others, "his fingers ever in that walk fiddling about his codpiece."
James's eldest son, the doomed Prince Henry, found him professorial. And indeed, crammed with learning from childhood, he took an eager (but often self-defeating) scholarly interest in almost everything, from the nature of kingship to tobacco and witchcraft (which he resoundingly denounced in royal pamphlets). For a king, he had a strange sense of humor. Told that the English people would like to see more of him, he blurted: "God's wounds, I will pull down my breeches and they shall also see my arse."
The circumstances of his birth (hard) and youth (harrowing) make him seem, all told, a specimen barely snatched from oblivion. Scotland was a nest of feudal intrigue when he was born there in June 1566. By the time of his baptism, his father, the doomed intriguer Lord Darnley, had vanished. And since his mother insisted on the Catholic rite, Queen-Elizabeth, though she was the royal godmother, bade her representative "lurk … outside the chapel … like a bad fairy to signify the firm protestantism of her mistress."
Scotland's extreme instability was perhaps the result of generations of child-kings and child-queens. There had been no adult successor to the Scottish throne since the fourteenth century. Mary had become queen when six days old; James himself was only 14 months of age when turbulent courtiers forced Mary's abdication in his favor. And with the high assassination rate, the kingdom ran through regents like tissue. James "grew to manhood wearing a padded doublet against the steel of assassination" and "his neurotic fears concerning his safety were the talking point of his generation." The start was not auspicious.
Yet if English monarchs were measured by the state of literature in their reigns—and under the eye of eternity perhaps there is no better measure—this curious cripple would surpass all others. Every schoolboy knows that "the most high and mighty Prince James" after succeeding Elizabeth in 1603 presided over the richest burst of genius in our literature—not only the translation of the great King James Bible, which he encouraged, but the great tragedies and later comedies of Shakespeare (Macbeth, Lady Antonia suggests, was a nod at James's fascination with witches, while The Tempest was partly a pièce d'occasion for the marriage of his daughter, Elizabeth). And there was the sublime prose and poetry of Dr. John Donne, James's favorite preacher, whom he made royal chaplain and then dean of St. Paul's.
Lady Antonia also tries to make the case, however, that James I was a reasonably good administrator. If so, Scotland, where order was a thin crust indeed and where contention over church governance was murderous, was no school for monarchs. It was Robert Cecil who decided that James would be king of England, although his claim was not "incontrovertible." Had the crown not fallen to him, was it in his character to fight or intrigue for it? One doubts it. Yet his theoretical views on monarchy were extreme. His advocacy of divine right was of a piece with his dogmatism on religion (at once Calvinist and Arminian, an odd combination). A king was God's anointed; and if he were a bad king? "Even a bad king, he argued, had his inalienable rights over the people, on the grounds that he had been sent by God to punish the people …"
Given that James, like all the Stuarts, was a free spender this was not congenial doctrine to lay before an English Parliament increasingly Puritan, self-assertive, and affected by Coke's queer notion that kings—even kings—were under common law. These political tensions, as we know, were to reach a snapping point only after James's death. But James, pedantic and doctrinaire, brought to England the fatal virus of princely prerogative that was to be his second son's undoing. Its psychological sources, in the misty realm of feudal Scotland, seem obvious: where government is strong and settled there is far less theorizing from first principles about right than where it is shaky. And in Scotland it was very shaky.
Conceivably, a larger and more leisurely portrait of James VI and I would also be a soberer one. Lady Antonia, his new-found friend, focuses not only on the warts but on all the tics, infirmities, complaints, and neuroses—her narrative constantly threatening to ignore all else for what is bizarre, arresting, diverting, and faintly scandalous. Had such a profile appeared in the press of James's day—had such a press, indeed, existed—it would qualify as yellow journalism. Since it is obvious that James I stirs the author's sympathy, she must plan to redeem him with a longer, more considered biography. Otherwise, it would be a mercy to leave James to his familiar enemies, the old Whig historians.
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A History of Toys (history) 1966Mary Queen of Scots (biography) 1969Cromwell: Our Chief of Men (biography) 1973King James: VI of Scotland, I of England (biography) 1974The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England [editor] (nonfiction) 1975Quiet as a Nun (novel) 1977King Charles II (biography) 1979The Weaker Vessel (history) 1984 ∗Boadicea's Chariot: The Warrior Queens (history) 1988The Cavalier Case (novel) 1990 †The Six Wives of Henry VIII (history) 1992Jemima Shore at the Sunny Grave and Other Stories (shorts stories) 1993Faith 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.
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SOURCE: "Chronicles of the Monarchy," in Times Literary Supplement, August 11, 1975, p. 893.
[In the following review, Fulford outlines the contents of The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England, a work edited by Fraser.]
[The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England] is a businesslike and readable account of our kings and queens from William I to Elizabeth II. The authors are not, as the Victorians used to say, "viewy", and they spare their readers too much of those personal stories by which kings and queens are particularly afflicted. Antonia Fraser opens with a spirited defence of royal biography which, she trenchantly argues, gives us a theory of history. Certainly no one would dispute her emphasis on the popularity of royal biography, and she even calls in aid that industrious spinster Agnes Strickland, who seems to be the first serious royal biographer to cause offence at Windsor. Her life of Queen Victoria in 1840 was fiercely annotated by the Queen.
Whether everyone would agree that the lives of our monarchs provide us with a theory of history is perhaps open to question, but they certainly give us a sensible boundary to the past within which an individual can deviate according to fancy. While it may not always have been by positive action, what our monarchs did or did not do has affected our lives for nearly a thousand years. Would cabinet government have progressed as it has if George I had the beautiful command of English enjoyed by his mother? This is borne out by John Clarke's excellent chapter on the Hanoverians, though King George's remark about hating pots and painters suggests some command of English and the capacity to express himself with unexpected originality and force.
It is certainly true that through studying the lives of our sovereigns we are able to catch some glimpse of the inner feelings of the nation. Lord Salisbury, in a public tribute to Queen Victoria, said that she had an extraordinary power of divining what the middle classes would think, and that was the moment when middle-class opinion was becoming all-powerful.
The difficulties of King Edward VIII reveal the strength of that opinion before it began to decline. Going back in history we can see that Henry II was largely absorbed by the struggles of family politics. The feelings of the English people were probably neither with Angevin or Capet but were much more concerned with the emergence of administrative government, about which public opinion probably felt far more strongly than about all the battles in the Dordogne. The experiences of James II clearly show the strength and almost morbid feelings of English people against Roman Catholicism. Maurice Ashley, in his chapter on the Stuarts, does well to remind us of the affinity with Europe which marked that unlucky dynasty—at least until the reign of its last member.
There is an especially good chapter on Edward II by Peter Earle, who says what may be said for that unhappy man, but rounds off his comment by saying that Edward II is a standing indictment of hereditary monarchy. Lord Eldon, emphasizing the prerogative of birth, observed that a king of England is always king. "King in the helplessness of infancy, king in the decrepitude of age." Though protected by regency, sovereignty belongs to primogeniture sanctioned by time and by popular opinion. Indeed we might argue that when primogeniture threw up a weakling—Edward II, Henry VI or possibly Charles I—the horrible convulsions of the time were to lead to valuable shifts of power.
The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England is well written and terse, and a particular word of gratitude and commendation is due for the illustrations and explanations of the various arms of the sovereigns supplied by J. P. Brooke-Little, the Richmond Herald of Arms.
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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.
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SOURCE: "Nunnery Whodunnery," in Times Literary Supplement, May 27, 1977, p. 644.
[In the following review of Quiet as a Nun, James comments on Fraser's handling of the elements of crime fiction.]
Antonia Fraser is the latest recruit to the ranks of established writers who have turned their hands to crime fiction. "And when are you going to write a serious work?" crime novelists are always being asked; it would be nice to think that the question may now be reversed. Lady Antonia has chosen to describe Quiet as a Nun, a judicious mixture of puzzle, excitement and terror, as a thriller, and the setting has, indeed, all the Gothic horrors reminiscent of much earlier excursions in the genre: Catherine Morland would have relished it.
"And is it horrid, are you sure that it is horrid?" Yes, indeed, very satisfyingly horrid, but with a modern heroine well equipped to cope, with its perils, rational if not spiritual, both above and under ground. Every detective writer knows the advantage of a closed community for the convenient containment of victim, villain and suspects—and what more closed than a convent? Lady Antonia is not the first crime writer to make use of it as a setting—Gladys Mitchell, in particular, has done so twice with conspicuous success—but she moves with confidence in what to most of us is an alien and vaguely disquieting world. Her nuns may all look like black crows, but their characters are nicely differentiated: the formidable Mother Ancilla who apparently believes that God is chiefly preoccupied with preserving the lineage of ancient Catholic families; Sister Elizabeth who thanks Our Blessed Lord on her knees for making Wordsworth write The Prelude at such length.
Lady Antonia's detective, Jemima Shore, is, as her name suggests, a contemporary heroine, a successful television investigator, liberated, prosperous, unencumbered with husband or child, and with all the fashionable accoutrements of success including a married lover. It is when his activities as an MP cause the postponement of the holiday they had planned to take together that she decides to respond to a call for help from Mother Ancilla Curtis, Superior of Blessed Eleanor's Convent in Sussex where Jemima was a pupil during the war. One of the nuns, Sister Miriam, has been found dead in a tower on the edge of the convent grounds. The coroner has been critical; the country folk are suspicious; antipopery is raising its head. Sister Miriam (then the very rich Rosabelle Powerstock) was at school with Jemima and thought of her as a friend. But Mother Ancilla has a particular reason, apart from this briefly shared girlhood, for calling in Jemima, vaguely Protestant unbeliever though she is. And as her investigation into Sister Miriam's death proceeds, Jemima realizes that the old convent world of her schooldays and the new brash world of Megalith Television are dangerously linked.
The crime writer with a nonprofessional investigator must circumvent that awkward moment when the reader is liable to ask why the police were not called in. There was one such moment in Quiet as a Nun—but I may be partisanly overoptimistic about the ability of the Sussex Constabulary to stand up to Mother Ancilla. Quiet as a Nun is written with humour and sympathy and has a heroine of whom happily it is promised that we shall know more.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5890
SOURCE: "Antonia Fraser: The Lady as a Writer," in New York Times Magazine, September 9, 1984, pp. 60-62, 75-78.
[The following essay provides a portrait of Fraser's personal life as background to her work.]
Antonia Fraser lives on a quiet, tree-shaded square in the Kensington section of London in a large, airy house that she shares with her second husband, the playwright Harold Pinter. With them live the four youngest of her six children by her first marriage, to the late Sir Hugh Fraser. Sitting in her garden on a recent afternoon, Lady Antonia looked softly feminine, a portrait of gentility. A large white picture hat shielded her face from the sun. A wasp buzzed her ear, and she seemed unperturbed. "I prefer to believe that nature's on my side," she said, "but Harold gets worried," and she indicated, high overhead, his response to nature's sting—an electric bug catcher.
Lady Antonia is a serious gardener, growing amaryllis from bulbs and bringing them indoors in winter. Her fig tree was soon to be joined by an olive tree, a gift from her husband for her coming 52d birthday. But Lady Antonia at home—as wife, mother and gardener—represents only one aspect of a woman who seems to lead a dozen lives. She is a best-selling historian and biographer, as the author of Mary Queen of Scots, Cromwell, Royal Charles and her 14th book, The Weaker Vessel, published in America this month, a pioneering study of the suppression of women in 17th-century England. In recent years she has also become a writer of popular mystery novels (the Jemima Shore series, beginning with Quiet as a Nun), which have been adapted to television. In England, her television and radio appearances have added to her celebrity.
Because she synthesizes beauty, intelligence and artistic talent, she is a kind of heroine to other women, provoking simultaneous feelings of admiration and envy. As one friend says, "She's a formidable woman. She has a rather regal quality. Sometimes I think she's really the Queen, and the present Queen is the usurper. London would be a very much duller place without her."
One might say that Lady Antonia is not so much prolific as generative—in her personal as well as in her professional life. She is devoted to her family and to her friends, and they return the devotion. As Lady Antonia suggests, were she to throw a stone from her garden she might strike any of three brothers, two sisters and several friends of 30 years' standing, all of whom live in the neighborhood.
Of course, she is not about to throw stones, even at those academics who criticize her books as popularizations. One London book critic says that she has a genuinely ambiguous literary reputation. Her work receives respectful reviews—for her impressive research and readability. Her primary strength is her sense of narrative. At the same time some professional historians consider her approach a storybook view of history. She is at her best when dealing with subjects with which she has the greatest personal commitment, such as in Mary Queen of Scots and her current The Weaker Vessel.
Though she is not a theoretician with opinions about the changing tides of world economics and politics—and does not pretend to be—she is zealous about her need to know as much as can be known about her chosen area and adamant about accuracy. "If I write that it was a cold day," she says, "you can be sure I know it was a cold day because Pepys told us." In America, reviewers have been more willing to meet her on her own terms, as a writer, she says, of "historical reconstruction."
Lady Antonia may be, at the moment, the most famous member of her family, popularly known in England as the "literary Longfords." In the Longford tradition, writing comes as naturally as good manners. The Longfords and their relatives have written more books and filled more shelves than the Churchills and the Mitfords combined—and there is no cessation in productivity. Lady Antonia's mother, Elizabeth Longford, 78, has written more than a dozen books, including Victoria: Born to Succeed, as well as biographies of Wellington, Byron and Queen Elizabeth II. Her father, Lord Longford, also 78 (Frank Pakenham before he received his hereditary title), has written some 15 volumes, including several memoirs. Her sister Rachel Billington has written eight novels, and another sister, Judith Kazantzis, is a feminist poet. Thomas Pakenham, the eldest Longford son, is an historian. When asked how many books he has written, he answers sheepishly, "Only three," although one is his massive study, The Boer War. Keeping the family torch aloft are Lady Antonia's eldest daughters: Rebecca Fraser is writing about the Brontes, and Flora Powell-Jones, who has already published a romance novel, is writing about Lady Hamilton.
Visit the reading room in the British Museum and one is almost guaranteed to find a Longford or a Fraser working diligently on research, or both a mother and a daughter, in some combination. As Rachel Billington says, "My mother and Antonia look so happy when they go off to the library."
Looking at the family tree, one finds other literary branches. Anthony Powell, the esteemed English novelist, is married to Lady Antonia's aunt Violet, and another artistic presence was Lord Dunsany, Lady Antonia's great-uncle, famous as an Irish playwright and man of letters. In this enormous family there are also successful barristers, bankers and foreign-service officers, and it was in politics that they made their first impression on their countrymen. But it is literature that is the family's primary mark of distinction, and it is largely literature produced by women.
Though each has roamed freely in choice of subjects, a chief concern of Lady Antonia and her mother has been with heroines. In Lady Antonia's case, "heroine" is an especially appropriate word, not only to describe Mary Queen of Scots, but also the untitled, un-dowried sisters of the 17th century, who were forced to make their way as courtesans, midwives, warriors in men's clothing and actresses. These stalwart characters throng the pages of The Weaker Vessel, underscoring the intended irony of the title. Among the legion is Betty Mordaunt, who saved the life of her husband when he was condemned to death for conspiring against Oliver Cromwell. She did it by seducing the man who had the power to pardon her husband. For her selfless deed, she was remembered on her husband's tombstone as "lectissima Heroina," or "most excellent heroine." Lady Antonia savored the compliment and used it in her dedication to describe her mother, "lectissima Heroina Elizabeth Longford."
It is her mother who has been Lady Antonia's principal inspiration—as mentor in her childhood, as role model in her apprenticeship and as colleague and critic in her maturity. From the vantage point of a third generation, Rebecca Fraser says her mother and grandmother have "wills of iron," which they use "in harmony." Each continues as the other's first and most painstaking reader.
In the 1940's, when the Pakenham children were growing up, the family was upper-middle class and academic. As Frank Pakenham, Antonia's father was an Oxford don. It was not until 1960, when his older brother died, that Pakenham became the Earl of Longford, his wife became a Countess and his daughters, Ladies. The family lived in a large house that seemed to shrink as more children were, born. First came Antonia on Aug. 27, 1932, followed within a year by her brother Thomas, and then by three other brothers and three sisters.
In common with her husband, Lady Longford was educated at Oxford. As Anthony Powell wrote in his memoirs, she "had been a celebrated belle of the undergraduate generation following my own." Despite her incipient literary talent, she put aside art and devoted herself to bringing up her family. Among other things, she read to "groups" of her children, beginning with the two oldest. Antonia was an early, quick reader and was soon sneaking downstairs to finish a book by Dickens or Sir Walter Scott (still her favorites) that her mother had begun. To this day, she remains a speed reader, finishing a novel in an afternoon and astounding strangers on planes or trains who cannot believe that such swift page turning actually constitutes reading.
The importance of education was instilled in the children: As a young girl, Antonia was already fascinated by history, creating genealogical charts, including one that began with Mary Queen of Scots and ended, naturally, with Antonia Pakenham. "All the children turned out clever," says Lady Longford, "but Antonia was the most precocious of them all." Looking back, Lady Longford suggests that her children picked up writing "as a kind of virus." In trying to explain the family's collective literary impulse, the "hothouse" atmosphere of his youth, Thomas Pakenham wrote: "We are talkers disguised as writers. Ten talkers in one family and no listeners; it was inevitable that half at best—the weaker half, perhaps—should be driven to take refuge in authorship in order to try to find an audience."
Next door to the family house in Oxford was a boy's school, ominously named the Dragon School, which admitted a limited number of girls, all siblings of enrolled boys. Both Antonia and Thomas attended. From this mostly male environment, she went to the cloistered all-female world of a convent school, St. Mary's, Ascot, many years later the setting of her first Jemima Shore mystery. Just as she was a minority at the boy's school, here she was a Protestant among Catholics. While at St. Mary's, following her parents' lead, she' converted to Catholicism.
Here it must be noted that Antonia's father underwent two significant conversions, both of which had dramatic effects on his family. A Conservative, he switched to socialism and joined the Labor Party. He ran unsuccessfully for the House of Commons, as did his wife, twice. Later he occupied several high positions in the cabinet of Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Born a Protestant, he converted to Catholicism. The combination of socialism and Catholicism made him a kind of born again crusader; leading him to take public positions against pornography (he became known as "Lord Porn") and for prison reform, his major concern in recent years. He has led a campaign to improve the lot of such condemned killers as the infamous Moors murderers. He is a minister without portfolio to, in his words, "the outcasts" in his society. His daughter thinks of him as "a philanthropist." Were a pornographer also a murderer, undoubtedly he would strike up a correspondence and visit him in prison.
During World War II, with, as Thomas Pakenham recalls, their "Old Mother Hubbard house bursting with children," he and his sister were packed off on holidays to visit their legendary great-uncle Lord Dunsany in Ireland. "It was in all respects a memorable experience," says Thomas Pakenham. "He lived in a medieval castle, filled with trophies—lions, tigers and bison. He was like a Renaissance prince, a big game hunter buffoon, eccentric, playwright and poet. He had a long white beard and wrote with a quill pen. Every day he would read us a new poem. There he was with a rifle in one hand and a quill pen in the other. Suddenly he would say, 'Throw up that window.' Rather frightened, you would lift the sash, and, bang, he'd fire a bullet straight under one's arm and shoot a rabbit out in the park. He was an extraordinary person; it was like staying with Yeats. If you wanted to infect somebody with the idea of writing as a dramatic theatrical profession, there was the man."
Antonia was very much the big sister, larger physically than her brother, and, when she had a mind to, able to dominate a situation. "When I was 14," she says, "I decided I was going to do whatever I wanted to do, whatever that happened to be."
Family tradition led her to Oxford, followed by her brother, and she was swept up by popularity. As V.S. Naipaul, a classmate at Oxford and later a good friend, observed, if he were "submerged" at Oxford, Antonia was "emerged." Too late she made a run for a "first" or honors and missed.
Her sister Rachel, then 10, remembers her at 20 in London as "a beautiful goddess figure, very glamorous and existing outside of the family. I would be allowed to dress her, to try on her earrings. She was a wonderful creature who went out and brought back dashing boyfriends."
Lady Antonia started work at George Weldenfeld's publishing house as an all-purpose assistant. Her first assignment was to extract the expletives from Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augle March, censored for British publication. Lord Weidenfeld, a family friend, soon became not only her employer but also her publisher (beginning with children's books and histories of toys and dolls). He still is, and he performs the same role for Lady Longford. With her children grown or growing up, Lady Longford, in her 50's, shifted her attention from her family to the Royal Family and wrote her biography of Queen Victoria, which solidly established her reputation.
At 23, Lady Antonia married Sir Hugh Fraser. He was 15 years older, a handsome and charming Scottish nobleman, a war hero along with his famous brother, Lord Lovat. As her mother had done before her, she subordinated her own creative instincts and became a wife and mother, while also taking time to campaign for her husband for Parliament. The family lived in London and spent summers at the Fraser retreat on an island in Inverness-shire in Scotland, later used as a setting in Lady Antonia's mystery, The Wild Island.
When it was suggested to Lady Longford that she write a book about Mary Queen of Scots, Lady Antonia claimed the queen as her subject. After all, she had studied and admired her since she was a young girl. With her siblings as her court. Antonia had acted out scenes from Mary's life and death—and in emulation of her had even worn a heart-shape tiara on her own wedding day. With the fifth of her six children on the way. Lady Antonia walked into her study and began working. As she says. "I can remember literally rocking a pram as I wrote." Mary Queen of Scots won the James Tait Black Prize for Biography and was a major best seller.
Says her mother about Mary: "It had one of the best beginnings of any biography. I always remember Mary's birth on a savage night, and Antonia's choice of that adjective." Lady Longford moved on to the Duke of Wellington, and between them mother and daughter split up English history, Lady Antonia assuming rights to the 17th century, Lady Longford choosing the 19th. When their books on Mary and Wellington came out, as Lady Antonia remembers, "we were constantly bracketed as an amazing phenomenon." "I asked her—I don't know why—what meant more to her, her own success or mine? She said, Darling, nothing I've ever done has given me more pleasure than your success with Mary Queen of Scots. I believed her: she's very, very truthful. I was rather surprised, but I must say when my own children had grown up, and when they had successes, I felt the same way."
In bringing up her children, she followed her mother's prescription, offering guidance along with encouragement. On her own, she had kept a diary since childhood and suggested that her children do the same, especially on vacations. The inducement was "heavy cash prizes." She paid, she said, a pound a page (her children remember a smaller sum, a pound a diary), and she would read and grade the results as if they were term papers. Eventually, diaries became habitual. When her daughter Flora went to Venice on her honeymoon, she told her husband that she had to keep her diary. Amazed, he informed her, "You don't have to now. You're married!"
While achieving international celebrity for her books, Lady Antonia continued to play a supportive role in her husband's life. In their house in London, she became known as a gracious hostess, giving elegant dinner parties for politicians, writers and others of their circle. Naipaul remembers most of all her "generosity." He once told her that, as a guest he liked to feel "cherished," which he did at her house. In response, Lady Antonia wrote an article entitled "Cherishing the Guest." As he said recently, "I'm devoted to Antonia and to those years."
At some point (approaching 40?), Antonia Fraser began making drastic changes in her life. Her romances became the staple of gossip columns. Nine years ago, while still married to Sir Hugh, she began living with Harold Pinter, whose own equally long marriage to the actress Vivien Merchant was ending. The romance between the Lady and the playwright brought the paparazzi and the moralists out of the woodwork. Lady Antonia said, "When I left my first husband and went off with Harold, people said, 'How could you do such a thing?' and I said, 'I've done it!'" She has steadfastly refused to offer further comment on the breakup of her marriage. Trying to explain it, one friend says that both Sir Hugh and Harold Pinter were the right people for her at the right—but different—time, and that it was Pinter who was insistent about making it a permanent relationship.
When the Pinters were married in a civil ceremony in 1980, the registrar had to record the profession of each party on the marriage form. Pinter, of course, was listed as a playwright, but in the space for his wife's profession, the word "lady" was accidentally entered. She was dismayed, and the registrar responded by placing a comma after "lady" and inserting the word "writer." In her marriage certificate, Antonia Fraser is therefore immortalized as "lady writer," which one could consider as a progressive and apt description.
The marriage is an amalgam of opposites. Lady Antonia herself characterizes the couple as Jack Sprat and his wife, a comparison that has a validity in creative as well as personal terms. She is a warm, giving person. In her elegant Jean Muir clothes, she radiates femininity and has a kind of intuitive glamour. Her expansiveness is reflected in her books, which are abundant with flavorful detail. In contrast, Pinter is reserved, some would say, cool, an intensely private individual who can seem intimidating. In conversation he can be terse to the point of curtness, and his plays mirror his manner, distilling life to essences, separated by Pinter pauses. At the same time, he can be quite outgoing with friends and genuinely amusing.
When she is asked what makes her angry. Lady Antonia says, "All forms of racism." What about small things, such as burnt toast? She laughs. "That's the carve-up of our marriage. Harold has the burnt-toast slot."
You have world prejudice, he has burnt toast?
"Not quite," she corrects herself. "He has burnt toast and world prejudice. When we first lived together, Harold was accustomed to starting the day very silently, and I was accustomed to starting the day with the newspaper sorting out Zimbabwe. Over nine years, he's become very concerned about Zimbabwe, so it's surprising the country is not in better shape."
One key to the apparent richness of their relationship is that they allow each other breathing space. They each have a study (his is in a mews house adjoining their garden) a secretary, a telephone and a car. Each respects the other's time and work. When she said about Naipaul, "To have known him is to have known at least one genius." I asked her if she knew any other geniuses. She responded. "I married the second." There is a great closeness about the couple and about the entire extended family. This summer the combined Pinter-Fraser-Longford clan went on holiday together to Portugal—Lady Antonia, Pinter, two daughters (one with a husband, one with a friend) one son (with two friends) and Lady Longford.
Lady Antonia has many friends of longstanding, including some, such as the novelist Emma Tennant, the designer Diana Phipps and the foundation director Marigold Johnson, who go back with her several decades. Many of her current friends, however, came with the marriage. There is a definite theatrical cast to the Pinter-Fraser circle, including at least three playwrights, Simon Gray, Ronald Harwood and Tom Stoppard, all of whom are members of Pinter's cricket team, which meets for an annual all-day match.
Whenever the Pinters are in Paris, they see Samuel Beckett. Lady Antonia recalled the most recent meeting: "Harold was talking about nuclear disarmament, about which he feels very strongly. He stopped and said, 'Sam, I'm sorry to sound so gloomy.' Sam said, 'My dear Harold, you couldn't be gloomier than I am. I thought this was the most wonderful bit of dialogue between Pinter and Beckett. It's exactly what people think they say to each other."
While continuing to write histories, Lady Antonia created a diversion for herself by writing mysteries. For her protagonist she invented the character of Jemima Shore, a television investigative reporter, who becomes involved in solving crimes. For the author, as for her readers, the free-spirited Jemima is a kind of fantasy figure.
The Jemima Shore books gave birth to a television series and what her creator calls a "cultette" of enthusiasts. The fifth Jemima Shore will take her to Lady Antonia's childhood home, Oxford. Among her many activities, the author is now vice chairman of both the Crime Writers Association and the British PEN. Analyzing her reasons for taking up the mystery sideline, she says, "It would be very strange if I said it had nothing to do with my going to live with Harold. If you have a great change in your life at the age of 42, it's not surprising that a new form emerges."
She writes her books in her small, neat study upstairs in their home—the former Fraser family house. The room is lined with books, including a complete collection about Mary Queen of Scots. Mary is on the wall, along with Cromwell and Charles II. In a bookcase next to her desk are notebooks cataloging her histories. They are uniform clothbound volumes, the kind of dainty diarylike journals that might have been kept by an Edwardian lady. The volumes are densely packed with notes quotes and cross-references. In the room there is also a Jemima Shore file. She types her histories on an electric portable but writes her mysteries in longhand; the bulk of the history work is done at home, but mysteries are often written in hotel rooms and on vacation. "When I'm writing history," she says, "I've got to be in my shell." Wearing her dressing gown, she writes from 9 to 12:30 and then dresses for lunch. In contrast, her husband writes very late at night.
Twelve years ago, when she was researching Cromwell, she came across stories about women of the 17th century. In preparation for writing The Weaker Vessel, she read every diary and autobiography by women of the period, which, she says were not abundant. When she finished the book, it was read by her husband, her mother and Emma Tennant, among others.
As Miss Tennant remembers: "I have to admit to a sinking heart when she arrived with three and a half carrier bags of manuscript. I thought, a friend's a friend, but oh Christ. My books are very short. She finishes reading them in 10 minutes. It's like the tortoise and the hare. But I could not put her book down. I thought it was absolutely brilliant. It had such a strong feeling of what this alien, distant culture was like."
In common with her mother, Lady Antonia loves reading long books as well as writing them. After talking to Lady Longford, I noticed on the coffee table a copy of The Perspective of the World, the third volume of Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-16th Century, by the eminent French historian Fernand Braudel a mighty tome if there ever was one. I remarked that her daughter was reading the same tome and had told me how difficult (and stimulating) it was "Has she gotten as far as I have?" asked Lady Longford inquisitively and with a fair sense of competition. Then she explained that she was reading the history in order to review it. In contrast, her daughter was reading it for pleasure.
Recently, Lady Antonia taped a television show in which celebrities select "My Favorite Things." Her choices—being in a box for the opera at Covent Garden; working in her garden; visiting a favorite hotel, such as the Carlyle in New York or the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne in England, and looking through her photograph albums. The director of the show concluded, about her, choices that she was "always trying to have a series of little homes."
One afternoon over tea, we shared a favorite thing. She took down a few of her several dozen albums and we browsed through them. They were filled with photographs, newspaper clippings and mentos, with occasional comments in the margin. Under a picture of her 50th birthday celebration there was a caption that read, "The prime of life."
In an album from her youth, we saw Pakenhams galore. Almost every photograph seemed crowded with smiling people. Are all happy family photographs alike? She admitted that the pictures were somewhat misleading. There were, for example, pictures of her youngest sister, Catherine, but no mention that she had been killed in an automobile accident in 1969 at the age of 23. That death is a lingering family tragedy, and every year on the anniversary, Lady Antonia ritualistically calls her mother.
One day we had lunch at her favorite restaurant, a festive French bistro. At one point I left the table and suggested that she might want to say something privately into the tape recorder. In my absence, she said into the recorder, "I never wrote a word of my own books. I'll tell you who wrote them." Pause, and then the repeated words, "It was … It was … It was … It was …" The playful message was a variation on the scene from the movie of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock, in which the hero leaves a message denying his love. But the record is cracked, and what she hears is, "You think I'm going to say I love you, I love you, I love you."
Lady Antonia's cleverness was further in evidence that evening at a taping of "My Word," a BBC radio show that has had a life almost as long as the play The Mousetrap. For six years, Lady Antonia has been a regular panelist on this lexiconic equivalent of America's "Information Please," with four pundits taking turns and winning points by defining obscure words and tracing quotations to their source. Lady Antonia fielded her questions with philological finesse. Her first word was "nugatory." Without a pause, she said, "'My Word' is not nugatory," and the moderator immediately gave her full marks. Nugatory, she explained, means worthless. She was just as speedy with "stithy" and "baker's dozen," and carefully culled Keats from Shelley and Shakespeare from Marlowe.
After the broadcast, we all met backstage for a drink, and Pinter arrived to escort his Lady to dinner. She had informed me that he was composing a brief statement about her and suggested that I telephone him the next day.
When I called, he said, "She's terrific." Pause. I said, "That's it?" Even for him, the comment was cryptic. "She's terrific in every way," he elaborated and added, with finality, "I'm very happy where I am without having to tell the world."
With his natural expansiveness, Tom Stoppard had more to say. He described the scene at their annual cricket day. As usual, Pinter invited his team and wives and children to their house for lunch before the match. During the match, there were few spectators, and fewer still as the day lengthened. By the end, Stoppard said, "Antonia was the only faithful supporter left and served a conciliatory drink to those who did not score. She has a loyalty about Harold's weekend interest." And, he said, "They're a super couple." He added, "She's a person without malice."
As Emma Tennant says: "The point of Antonia is that she has always enjoyed herself without neglecting any duty as a child or parent. She's incapable of taking offense—the least touchy person I know. This has enabled her to give out this very constant affection to all the people she's fond of, and particularly the children. She was somebody who refused to be miserable at a time when a Jean Rhys atmosphere was building up among women, when practically everybody felt they had something to complain about. When she's angry, she rises above it and passes on to something more constructive. Her family is so important to her. She's sort of like an African woman with her neck hung around by huge pots and pans—buried up to here with all her attachments and devotions."
The portrait that one receives from talking to Lady Antonia, her family and friends is of a person totally in command of herself. She appears to have it all, doing exactly what she wants and exuding contentment without ever suggesting complacency. Naturally one starts to look for chinks in the armor. One friend mentions that she is absolutely unable to cook. Another comments on her "frou-frou" taste in decorating—minor issues. There is of course, the major matter of her romantic life—leaving a husband of 20 years, the father of their six children.
One story can serve as an illustration of how this remarkable woman manages the balancing act of her full life. Before she and Pinter were married, they went off to Paris together for a holiday. They were in their room at l'Hôtel when they heard a voice in the courtyard below, shouting, "Hello, Mummy." Emma Tennant analyzes the incident, "It's sort of the opposite of the scarlet woman who's gone off with her lover and her children don't know where she is. She's given her address to every one of them." Pinter says it is the story of her life—there is always someone shouting "Hello, Mummy."
Naturally her life is not without emotional scars. She suffers from migraines and knows that they are stress-related. A "small one" she can think away—mind over migraine—as long as no one "asks after it," but a major headache fills her with pain and sends her into depression. Such was the case last February when her first husband was dying of cancer. She visited him frequently in the hospital, visits, she said, that "were punctuated by migraines."
She said, however, that she never gets a migraine when she is working. "Work is the opposite of stress. When I'm depressed, it cheers me up. I consider my work the greatest piece of good fortune," she said. "When Jemima Shore gets blocked, I can do historical research, and it always unblocks me." Asked if she considered herself a positive person, she said, "I think I'm quite pleasure-loving. Someone once asked Elizabeth Taylor, a person who interests me, how she stayed so lovely, and she said, 'I take a sensual pleasure in eating and drinking,' and I thought. 'That's my girl. How sensible.'"
At one point in her new book she lists what were considered to be the feminine virtues—fidelity, modesty, meekness, patience and humility. I wondered how she would measure up in her own eyes. "Not too well." she said. "Well, maybe I would give myself a point for patience. I think all writers are a bit arrogant and should be. They must think that no one else can do it as they do. I would have thought that modesty was more of a danger." Then, relating her feeling to that of the 17th century, she said that there was "a gap between what was expected of a woman and what she actually was." The most admirable women were not "modest, meek and humble."
She agreed that she would have had a difficult time if she lived in that century. "And that bit of me that is strongly nonconformist—I'm going to do what I'm going to do—would have assured that I would have done very badly. The people who did well intuitively understood the system and made their way around it. Hence, they were courtesans. I don't think I would have had the patience to be a courtesan, though I might have enjoyed my work." About her favorite century, she said, "This is not the fashionable view, but I think the 17th is the century. It has our revolution in it. In 1688 our course was set. I found the people, particularly the women, easier to relate to than the more languid ladies of the 18th and 19th centuries. I love the 17th, but I don't want to be in it. I like to come home at the end of the day in my time capsule."
In several senses, The Weaker Vessel ìs a breakthrough for her. It is her first collective biography, the first time she has dealt foursquare with feminist issues and the first time that she has felt a kind of missionary zeal. She pointed to two chapters, one about childbirth, the other about midwives, as being essential parts of the book. "The suffering in childbirth!" she said. "What would strike a time traveler is that everyone between 15 and 50 would be permanently pregnant. There was no birth control as we understand it, and there was such high infant mortality. Women would regularly have 19 pregnancies and end up with four or five children."
When it was pointed out that she was herself the mother of six and the sister of seven, she said "Women's expectations have risen. I'm sure it won't go on in the next generation." Her motherhood, she said, gave her a "built-in interest in gynecology," and she read a great number of books on the subject and then wrote about it in graphic detail. "When I read my first draft, there was a small part that was perhaps a bit strong. My secretary, a married woman with two children, said when she typed it she nearly fainted. I said, 'Nonsense.' Then Harold read it and gasped. I thought, 'Really' Then my mother said, 'I must say, I cried a bit.' And she had eight children! So I toned it down. You may think of it as rather mealy-mouthed."
The book dutifully holds to its century, but in an epilogue she plants a message, quietly and forcefully, as if it were an amaryllis in her garden. After talking about the rise and dip of the "status of the so-called weaker vessel," she places a parenthesis and inside these words appear:
This cyclical pattern, whatever the special favors which brought it about in the 17th century, is perhaps worth bearing in mind, 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.
Antonia Fraser, lady, writer, remains on her guard.
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SOURCE: "Women at Large," The Nation, Volume 239, No. 8, September 22, 1984, pp. 244-46.
[In the following review, Quilligan contemplates the ideas on women and society that arise from Fraser's Weaker Vessel.]
The Weaker Vessel, Lady Antonia Fraser's study of women in seventeenth-century England, opens with a personal anecdote. Fraser described the topic of her new book to a distinguished (male) friend; before vanishing into his club, he turned and asked, "Were there any women in seventeenth-century England?" The Weaker Vessel is her attempt "in part at least" to answer that question. The answer, more than 500 pages long, is armed with a host of anecdotes as telling as the one about the jesting clubman. As any modern historian might have told the fellow, it requires a significant degree of perversity to persist in thinking that history has been a masculine enterprise. Obviously there were women in seventeenth-century England. The question for us, heirs and heiresses of that pivotal moment in early modern England, is: What kinds, and what were they doing?
Fraser's unofficial subtitle gives us a preview of her findings and approach: "Women in 17th-century England—heiresses and dairymaids, holy women and prostitutes, criminals and educators, widows and witches, midwives and mothers, heroines, courtesans, prophetesses, businesswomen, ladies of the court, and that new breed, the actress." That generous list illustrates the book's virtue—its teeming fullness and diversity—and its vice, if such profligacy can be termed a vice—its crowded particularity. Reading The Weaker Vessel is rather like looking at Brueghel's "Children's Games," where each inch of canvas is crammed with life: some groups of figures salacious, some edifying, some enigmatic. Insofar as Fraser gives this picture a unifying theme, it is the powerful impediment posed by the definition of woman as "the weaker vessel." Supported by theological, social, legal and political edicts and backed up by the nearly perpetual pregnancy that seventeenth-century women endured (with fifteen to twenty a not unusual number), this definition shaped a woman's life.
The most obvious counter to this description of seventeenth-century women can be found in the behavior of a great many women during England's civil war, nine years of martial mayhem that preoccupied and disrupted much of the population during the middle years of the century. Fraser tells us that she was first attracted to her topic by the numerous stories she encountered of valiant women who fought in that war. They are the "heroines" of Fraser's subtitle, and include such notable viragos as Mary Lady Bankes, intransigent defender of (royalist) Corfe Castle, who during a siege took command of the castle's upper ward and, aided by her daughters, her women servants and five soldiers, defeated the enemy by heaving stones and hot embers over the walls onto their scaling ladders. By way of contrast, Fraser recounts the tactics of a more "modest" heroine, Brilliana Lady Harley, whose defense of Brampton Bryan Castle relied on manipulations of the attacking (royalist) army's chivalrous reluctance to assault a "weaker vessel." The castle surrendered only after Lady Harley had died and its defenders could no longer rely on the protection due her "sex and honour."
These generally highborn Boadiceas provide the most predictable stories Fraser tells. Far more compelling are the anecdotes that reveal the extensive range of female activity in less traumatic, if no less political, contexts during the revolutionary century between the death of Queen Elizabeth and the accession of Queen Anne. We meet, for example, Mrs. Constance Pley, an indefatigable and successful businesswoman who ran her family's marine supply company, boldly dunning her King for payments constantly in arrears. We meet Cromwell's eccentric granddaughter, Bridget Bendish, at work all day beside male laborers in the salt mines she inherited from her husband and, in the evenings, a brilliant presence splendidly dressed for social occasions. We meet Joan Dant, who began as a penniless widow and died at the age of 84 worth more than £9,000, with business connections in Paris and Brussels.
Fraser's guess as to why seventeenth-century women were permitted to engage in business activities when female authorship, for instance, was a serious social transgression is an example of the acute commentary that accompanies her stories: "After all, business practice in a woman could be seen as an extension of her role as the mainstay of her household, whereas learning and authorship were dangerously unfeminine pursuits." (Just now, when the politics surrounding Geraldine Ferraro have made domestic expertise in its largest sense a qualification for high office, such reasoning seems quite apt.) Fraser is always aware of how the grid that overlay women's opportunities decreed the form of whatever achievements were made. But she does not pause to suggest that the businesswoman may also have been an acceptable and honored figure because no one realized (or would admit) that business was in great part what the civil war had been about: the revolution and the subsequent Restoration had an economic impact as profound as, and more pervasive than, the political and theological upheavals. As for the prejudice against women authors, I suggest that it descended from Renaissance Humanism, which made knowledge of the classical languages, especially Latin, a prerequisite for membership in the ruling elite. It was worth censuring female authorship because it seemed close to laying claim to such membership, just as it was worth omitting classical training from female education (a lack Fraser passionately laments). Very much later, when literature had dwindled into social omament, divorced from the real business of society—business itself—petticoat authors were allowed more freedom, and petticoat entrepreneurs far less.
This is not to suggest that all radical developments in the seventeenth century were unconscious—although a midcentury confusion over what privileges property ownership conferred allowed a temporary accident of local female suffrage, a freedom soon squelched. In the personal history of Elizabeth Lilburne, wife to the famous Leveller John Lilburne, Fraser analyzes the transformation of the "petitioning women" of the 1640s—women who claimed for themselves a "proportionate share in the freedom of this Commonwealth"—into the "despairing—but still soliciting—wife of the 1650s."
One of the most absorbing sets of stories Fraser tells concerns women from the independent religious sects that arose during the period Christopher Hill described as the moment "the world turned upside down." While these women did not float to the top on the breath of sacred inspiration, they could make political claims for themselves that had not been possible before, and Fraser traces the effects of religious experimentation on their lives.
The extraordinary travels and travails of some Quaker women, preaching both in England and New England, do indeed "compel one's awe." One Elizabeth Hooton, although she had petitioned and won from King Charles a certificate empowering her to settle in New England, was hounded wherever she went. She was tied to a Cambridge, Massachusetts, whipping post and "lashed ten times with a three-stringed whip, three knots in each string." Subsequently, "at Watertown, willow-rods were used; at Dedham … she received ten lashes at the cart-tail." Beaten and torn, she refused to give up, persisting in her ministry for five years in Massachusetts before returning to England. Mary Fisher went even further: having suffered her share of flogging in New England, she was later received hospitably by the Sultan and Vizier of Turkey: "There was a certain irony in the fact that the low position of women in the Moslem world enabled the Turks … to appreciate … how remarkable an individual Mary Fisher must be."
Fraser traces a general arc of opportunity for English women that rises to its high point with "The Petition of Women" (for government reforms and the release of imprisoned Levellers) in 1649 and moves toward its nadir as the century draws to a close and the monarchy returns. It is regrettable that there is no considered discussion here of the impact of the Restoration on women's position. Doubtless Fraser's attention to such analysis was diverted by her interest in an intriguing creation of the Restoration: the actress, spectacular star of the new and wittily decadent stage. No women had, of course, played on English stages before Charles II brought back with him a continental taste for seeing pretty women perform—and a concomitant taste for pretty women as mistresses. One of the intriguing bits of information Fraser lavishly dispenses is that the forms of address "Mrs." and "Miss" did not distinguish women in terms of their marital status but in terms of moral categories: "Mrs." was used for respectable women and "Miss" for the other kind. Many of the "Mrs. Johnsons" and "Mrs. Uphills" listed in Restoration dramatis personae bore honorifics which granted respectability where few expected—and many wanted—to find it. "Mrs." was pronounced "Mistress"—which with these actresses was often (and often royally) the case.
In a sense, Fraser can't help but portray the age as a reflection of its monarch or, in the case of Cromwell, its Protector. It is almost as if the undeniably attractive and charming personality of Charies II (a personality Fraser has chronicled in her engaging Royal Charles) was the pivot that turned his glittering world. (Perhaps the character of the King does have an impact equal to the muter political forces of the economy at large.) Oliver Cromwell, another of Fraser's earlier subjects, was not without gallantry himself, and in one of the stranger developments described in The Weaker Vessel, the Protector's own weakness for pleading ladies led to long lines of royalist women asking for mercy (and certificates of sequestration) at the hands of the Committee for Compounding after the civil war. As the imprisoned Thomas Knyvett wrote to his wife in 1644, "Women solicitors are observed to have better Audience than masculine malignants."
Fraser has written lengthy and masterful biographies of three English rulers, James I, Charles II and Cromwell, and is, of course, the author of the immensely and deservedly popular Mary Queen of Scots. That she has chosen not to devote an entire book to any one of the intriguing commoners in her latest work does not mean that for this biographer it takes the lives of innumerable ordinary women to equal in historical importance the life of a single ruler. Her interests here differ, and thus her procedures begin to move her from the study of personality to demographics and social history. For the need to chronicle so specifically the deeds of so many stretches the biographer's art—almost to the breaking point. Because Fraser wishes to exemplify different arguments, she often breaks up an individual woman's story into widely separated chapters. This necessitates many references back ward and forward in the book, which impedes her narrative and blurs the impact of any single figure. If she has felt compelled to sacrifice pace and analysis to inclusiveness, she has done so in order to persuade us that the real experience of seventeenth-century women was in the heterogeneous lives of individuals. Other historians and theoreticians may choose to neaten her picture by other kinds of analysis or feel the need to make her points more precise and explanatory. But it will be hard for anyone to paint a fuller, more vivid or more abundantly detailed portrait of women in seventeenth-century England.
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SOURCE: "Only Women," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXII, No. 6, April 11, 1985, pp. 21-22.
[In the following review, historian Stone objects to several features of Fraser's Weaker Vessel and praises others.]
Before beginning a discussion of the books under review, I must first set out the ten commandments which should, in my opinion, govern the writing of women's history at any time and in any place:
1. Thou shalt not write about women except in relation to men and children. Women are not a distinct caste, and their history is a story of complex interactions;
2. Thou shalt strive not to distort the evidence and the conclusions to support modern feminist ideology: social change is by no means always the product of an activist minority, and all change is relative not absolute;
3. Thou shalt not forget that in the past nearly all women paid at least lip service to the idea that they were in all respects inferior to men, as ordained by God. The only area in which they were thought to be clearly stronger was in their sexual voracity, their capacity to have multiple orgasms, but this was more a source of shame and temptation than of pride;
4. Thou shalt not confuse prescriptive norms with social reality;
5. Thou shalt exercise subtlety in recognizing diversity, ambivalence, and ambiguity concerning the relative strength of love, sex, money, birth, parental authority, and brute force in determining the choice of a spouse;
6. Thou shalt not assume the ubiquity in the past of modern emotional patterns—neither premarital love, nor conjugal affection, nor maternal devotion to infants. Circumstances and culture are often stronger than natural instincts;
7. Thou shalt not exaggerate the importance in the past of gender over that of power, status, and wealth, even if all women experienced the same biological destiny;
8. Thou shalt not use the biographies of a handful of exceptional (usually upper-class) ladies to describe the experience of the majority of (necessarily lower-class) women;
9. Thou shalt be clear about what constitutes real change in the experience and treatment of women;
10. Thou shalt not omit to analyze with care the structural constraints on women created by values, religion, customs, laws, and the nature of the economy.
Antonia Fraser has already carved out for herself a distinguished place as the author of four royal, or quasi-royal (i.e., Cromwell), biographies in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, which have achieved the unusual feat of earning both popular acclaim and the respect of professional historians. Her work has been thorough and carefully researched, using all the available printed documents. It is also very well written and shows good judgment and a subtle appreciation of human psychology. Her high reputation as a biographer is well deserved.
[With The Weaker Vessel] she has now embarked on a social history of the lives of women in seventeenth-century England—"a study of woman's lot." This is a subject that demands a different methodology, not biography but close analysis, and a different subject matter, not elite, like queens, but ordinary women. But Antonia Fraser has made no such radical adjustments to her usual methods of work. Noting that her book is not intended as a "dictionary of female biography" and that she has "selected those characters who interested me," she has produced a long and fascinating series of biographical vignettes of a number of exceptional, or exceptionally well-documented, women, almost all of them upper class and most of them aristocratic. Her subject matter is largely the tiny world of the court and its gossip mongers, and her approach is to tell a lot of potted biographies, ranging from two to ten pages each.
Her book therefore raises in an acute form questions about the value of, and appropriate methodology for, the newly developing genre of microhistory. The intensive exploration of individual case studies—a practice borrowed by historians from anthropology—has already produced a few works of exceptional power, each of which has thrown a brilliant search-light on a narrow sector of the generally dark and foggy landscape of the past. When handled by historians who are deeply immersed in the cultural, religious, social, political, and economic background of the time and place, the results can be stunning. Notable examples are Jonathan Spence's The Death of Woman Wang, set in seventeenth-century China, Carlo Ginzburg's The Cheese and the Worms, set in early sixteenth-century northern Italy, and Natalie Zemon Davis's The Return of Martin Guerre, set in mid-sixteenth-century France.
But the extraordinary power of these case studies derives only partly from the intrinsic interest of the stories themselves or the rhetorical skill with which they are told, although both are important. The critical ingredient is the accumulated scholarly experience of the authors, which enables them to evaluate their material, set it in context, and tell us what it means. Antonia Fraser lacks this profound immersion in all aspects of seventeenth-century English history, and 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.
The result makes absorbing but disjointed and episodic reading. Of my ten commandments, she has faithfully followed the first six, but almost entirely violated the last four. Antonia Fraser's technique for examining women's lot is to offer the reader twenty-two short chapters, each devoted to what some, mostly upper-class, women achieved or suffered in various roles: as rich young girls, the mercenary arranged marriages; as wives, the pains and perils of repeated childbirth; as rich widows, the pursuit by rapacious fortune-hunters; as poor old women, the accusations of witchcraft; as young girls, the denial of the scholarly education given to their brothers; as spinsters, a life almost outside the social system—Antonia Fraser thinks that life as a Catholic nun was probably preferable to that of a Protestant spinster.
The topics, all illuminated by a series of striking anecdotes of unusually fortunate or unfortunate women, take us up to 1640 and the outbreak of the revolution. There follow exciting chapters about heroic aristocratic ladies leading the defense of castles; women serving in the army as nurses or as transvestite male soldiers; rich ladies negotiating with the revolutionary government on behalf of their husbands; London women arranging political protests; and sectarian women preaching. For the period from 1660 to 1700, Antonia Fraser tells us about forced marriage for money; divorce; and education; then about female authors, high-class courtesans, actresses as sex objects, and midwives. The one chapter on women in business tells stories about peculiar upper-class women, like the Countess of Bristol, who received a royal license to import and sell wine; or Mrs. Pley, who supplied the Navy with canvas; or Cromwell's granddaughter, Bridget Bendish, who operated a profitable saltworks—hardly typical of the lives of working women.
In the epilogue Antonia Fraser tells us sadly that in 1700 a woman's lot was still very much what it was in 1600—"always the same." Many of these vignettes are very revealing, especially of the way women took charge of troops and business affairs while their husbands were away at the wars. They performed—as usual—with great efficiency, only to retire once more to the drawing room and the bedroom when the men came home again.
But it has to be said, with regret, that despite her great descriptive talents, and despite her remarkable knowledge of the printed sources, Antonia Fraser has written a lively and very readable but fundamentally unsatisfactory book, distorted and intellectually rather shallow. In the first place, Lady Antonia's preoccupation with the elite leads her to omit almost entirely the lives of the great majority of women who did not belong to the top 1 percent. She virtually ignores the lives of the middle class and the poor, and their deep involvement in productive labor for the family economy, although we already know that getting a living was their dominant preoccupation. As Joan Thirsk points out in her foreword to Women in English Society, in the country they were deeply involved in spinning, lace making, and other by-industries, as well as looking after the poultry, milking the cows, making and marketing butter and cheese, in addition to running the household. In towns, they served in the shop while their husbands were collecting their stock in trade, and they helped to supervise the apprentices as an extension of their household duties. They also, like their husbands, spent long hours in the alehouse, where there is no sign of sexual segregation in seventeenth-century England. This social mixing of the sexes shows up in English legal cases, even if for visual evidence we have to look at Dutch genre paintings of the period.
The daily round of hard work and exuberant relaxation of the average woman leaves hardly a trace on the pages of Antonia Fraser's book. Even more troubling is her lack of interest in the structural constraints upon women. It is only at page 291 that the ignorant reader discovers that full divorce with remarriage was legally forbidden in England, alone among all Protestant countries, and even then he is not told why. What occurred, however, which Lady Antonia does not examine except in passing, was a huge number of desertions or private separations among the poor. These were followed by the formation of new households, either by the adoption of a mistress posing as a wife, or by a bigamous second marriage which was almost certain to pass undetected.
Another feature altogether peculiar to English life was the persistence of the medieval law by which a verbal marriage contract in the present tense before witnesses was legally binding, and enforceable in the courts. This greatly facilitated the abduction of heiresses and also the seduction of women on the basis of promises of marriage which, for lack of hard proof or unambiguous wording, turned out to be unenforceable. Antonia Fraser pays only passing attention to the loss of legal economic independence by most women upon marriage, so that years after separation their earnings and furniture were still the legal property of their husbands. In practice things did not usually work out as badly as this suggests, but if a marriage turned sour, the wife's economic dependence upon her husband could be catastrophic. These are aspects of middle-class and low life which Antonia Fraser hardly mentions, absorbed as she is in dramatic stories of the abduction of heiresses and the pragmatic negotiations between greedy aristocratic parents over the financial details of a marriage settlement. Even there, she never clearly explains exactly what was a portion and what a jointure, or why the ratio between the two altered over time and with what consequences.
Finally, there is the question whether the book's dismal conclusion—"always the same"—is really true. The answer is yes and no. Obviously nothing fundamental could change in women's biological experience before the development of contraceptives, antibiotics, and anesthetics, and nothing in their power relations with men before a radical change in patriarchal values and laws. But to answer this question at a more sophisticated level we first have to break down the female population into at least three socio-economic categories, the elite of the rich and wellborn, the middling sort, and the mass of the poor, who still made up at least two-thirds of the population.
For the first group, things undoubtedly improved in some important ways. By 1700, unlike 1600, the brutality and ruthlessness with which parents disposed of daughters in marriage, in the exclusive interest of kin solidarity and aggrandizement, were no longer the norm. The Court of Wards, which had sold female orphans to the highest bidder had been abolished. Antonia Fraser tells the story of Sir Edward Coke, who was said to have tied his daughter to a bedpost and whipped her into agreeing to marry an insane brother of the all-powerful Duke of Buckingham. Such episodes, however, had become a shocking rarity by 1700. Most wealthy parents by then had conceded the right of veto to their children, inspired by Protestant ideology about "holy matrimony" and the need for marital affection. The same ideology had penetrated the middling sort at least as early and possibly earlier, and freedom of choice based on affection and married love were being vigorously propounded by influential propagandists like Daniel Defoe in the 1690s. In the lower, propertyless, classes, young women had always been free to choose their own spouses. But the growing sexual freedom following the decline of Puritan morality not only led to a sharp rise in prenuptial pregnancies, but also to a rise of bastardy, with tragic consequences for the many abandoned mothers. Without contraception, sexual liberation was a positive disaster for some women.
Upper-class women were no longer encouraged to study the classics, and the learned lady became a figure of fun. To that extent there was perhaps a loss. But the level of articulate literacy continued to grow among upper-class women, as displayed in their spelling, grammar, and
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SOURCE: "The Name of Frailty," in The Kenyon Review, Vol. VII, No. 2, Spring, 1985, pp. 130-33.
[In the following review, Browning scrutinizes The Weaker Vessel and comments on its strengths and failings.]
[The Weaker Vessel] teems with entertaining stories: Ann Fanshaw braves the turbulent seas; Joan Flower dons the identity of a witch; Mary Ward fights for educational reform; Lady Eleanor Davies scans the future; Jane Whorwood plots to spring Charles I; Joan Dant becomes the queen of pedlars. Whatever else may be said of these women, they were not weak. And that is the burden of Lady Antonia Fraser's examination of the lot of English womankind from the final years of Elizabeth I to the reign of Queen Anne: despite the attention given to Saint Peter's dictum about women being "the weaker vessel," women were in fact strong—in spirit, in resourcefulness, in resolve, in devotion, in enterprise, and even at times in physical prowess.
The work falls into three broad sections: in the first, Lady Antonia treats the enduring matrimonial matrix which, above all other factors, determined a woman's status during the course of the entire seventeenth century. Through a series of vignettes, she canvasses attitudes toward affection and spinsterhood, addresses the realities of pregnancy and widowhood, and reminds us that in the hierarchical world of the Stuarts women held an unmistakably subordinate position. It was man's right to command, woman's duty to obey. The second section focuses on the tumultuous years from 1640 to 1660, the only period during the century when voices spoke out against the verities of subordination and dependence. The dislocations of war and the convulsions of ideological disputations opened avenues for women or forced novel opportunities on them. Some preached, some pleaded, some plundered, and Lady Antonia chronicles their exploits. The final section deals with the recrudescence of custom in the decades after 1660. Lady Antonia discerns a few signs that not all of the achievements of the years of revolution perished, but she argues that in general Charles II's accession marked the beginning of the ebbing phase of a dreary cycle. Her examples do not invariably bear out this pessimistic reading of the latter part of the century, but neither do they give grounds for truly challenging it. After this sprawling and elaborate tapestry of engaging tales, the conclusion of the work is brief and anticlimactic. "Where the status of the so-called weaker vessel was concerned," she declares, "the seventeenth century saw very little improvement in real terms" (p. 464).
Drawing from the richness of the self-revelatory writings of the seventeenth century and especially on the diaries and epistles of literate and usually well-born women, Lady Antonia has culled her collection of edifying and illuminating tales. She has sorted these tales into their fitting topical slots. She has piled account on account, displaying that sheer joy in gossip that, to bare a secret, energizes so many historians. What has emerged is an excursion into collective biography: lives are set forth for the reader's moral instruction. Considered as a whole, her achievement brings to mind Lord Bolingbroke's famous definition of history—that it is philosophy, teaching by examples. Lady Antonia is, of course, no novice to the art of biography. With well-received lives of Oliver Cromwell and Charles II to her credit, she has shown that she understands the demands of the narrative, the importance of pacing, and the uses to which the arresting event can be put. Though this is her first venture into multiple biography, she is tilling ground which, beneath other plows, has often proved fertile. But for collective biography to succeed—for it to serve as a model of inductive social science—the examples must be exemplary. Lady Antonia's are not. And on that discrepancy hangs the first of several problems.
Consider, for example, the age at which women married. Lady Antonia begins her study with the apt reminder that young heiresses were coveted for their wealth. She proceeds with the striking datum that the age of consent for a female was 12. She presents extended examples of three girls who were married for their money, all 14 or younger. Then, relying on Peter Laslett (The World We Have Lost, p. 83) to point up a contrast, she states that women below the propertied classes—that is, essentially the poorer women of England—married "really quite late" (p. 39), at an average age in excess of 23. All of this suggests, I believe, that females from the gentry or the aristocracy were often married by their mid-teens. But in fact, as the same table from Laslett would show, gentry brides were (on average) close to 22 when first married, and aristocratic brides were 19 in the first quarter of the century and over 20 by the second quarter. Child brides were clearly the exception, not the rule.
Consider next the survival rate for children. Lady Antonia tells of Sir William and Elizabeth Brownlow, who endured the loss of thirteen of their nineteen offspring. The percentage that survived, she generalizes (citing Lawrence Stone), "was something like the average survival rate for upper- and middle-class families of the time" (p. 74). That is an astonishing assertion. Lady Antonia characterizes six of nineteen as one-third, though it is of course an even smaller proportion. Stone's own graph (The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800, p. 69) shows a survival rate (through age 15) that never dips below 60 percent in the seventeenth century and occasionally rises above 70 percent. Thus the unfortunate Brownlows, rather than being representative, suffered losses at almost twice the national rate. Even a minimal degree of statistical sophistication is sufficient to understand how cavalierly Lady Antonia produces her demographic generalizations.
To this carelessness about figures must be added a peculiar confidence in interpreting seventeenth-century documents. On several occasions Lady Antonia treats the formulaic as revelatory, when, precisely because it is formulaic, it could as easily be a mask as a mirror, as easily a sign of inattention as of thoughtfulness. Viscountess Mordaunt's prayer for being delivered of a male child (p. 119) is an example of the former; Lady Russell's reminder (p. 398) that life is hard, of the latter. At one point Lady Antonia infers from the frequent reiteration of the need for choosing wet nurses who have milk that they were often dry. Perhaps. But it seems equally likely that because the advice comes from handbooks, it is precisely the kind of crystallization of the obvious that passes for wisdom in written guides. All these points are uncertain. But it is one of the responsibilities of the historian to respect uncertainty.
Historiographical innocence produces flaws of a different order. Though her bibliography fairly bursts with studies old and new, certain salient issues are strangely neglected. Lady Antonia begins the book by referring to her long-standing interest in the condition of women during the Civil War; the middle section of the book is presumably the most tangible fruit of that interest. It is odd then that she ignores the relevant contribution of Christopher Hill, the doyen of Stuart scholars in our day, whose chapter on women's campaign for sexual liberation during the Civil War (The World Turned Upside Down, pp. 247-60) touches several themes central to her own study. She seems similarly unaware of the efforts by recent historians to plot the changing structure of the family. By Lawrence Stone's account, the seventeenth century stands at the epicenter of a tectonic shift in the nature of familial relations. Older notions, grounded in commitments to lineage and honor and devoid of concerns with affection, were passing through a powerfully patriarchal stage toward the modern sensibility that elevates personal autonomy, privatism, romantic love, and sexual expression. Each of the stages of Stone's tripartite model was presumptively present in the seventeenth century. And yet Lady Antonia writes of families as if size alone, or the attitude of the husband, differentiated them. Despite her considerable learning, she thus makes no deliberate contribution to this lively scholarly issue.
Works on the history of women have proliferated in recent years, and the author notes that she shares an interest that many scholars are professionally committed to. But The Weaker Vessel stands apart from the dominant trends of feminist historiography. Lady Antonia is not interested in minimizing gender differences. She thinks, for example, that women are instinctively maternal, obeying a natural prompting foreign to the male experience. Yet neither is she interested in celebrating, except tangentially, the domestic virtues often ascribed to women. The book is, among other things, a brief for recognizing that women are as capable as men of displaying the courage that convention treated as the preserve of the male sex. Lady Antonia writes with a firm grounding in the older ways. Her subject matter may be new, but her assumptions are traditional.
Fortunately for Lady Antonia, Clio's house has many mansions. Because she writes fluently, spins her yarns with verve, and knows the secret of the significant fact, there is an honorable niche for this book. But The Weaker Vessel displays the flaws of—the word cannot be avoided—the dilettante. Anecdotes are chosen not for their representativeness but for their entertainment value. The world of conceptualization is ignored. Text is divorced from context. The result is a book that passes more readily as a diversion than as an analysis. It is difficult to believe that The Weaker Vessel advances our understanding of the seventeenth century.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2565
SOURCE: "The Bad Old Days," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. II, No. 9, June, 1985, pp. 17-18.
[In the following review, Woods compares The Weaker Vessel with another work on the cultural history of women.]
Anyone who investigates the social of cultural history of women is painfully aware of how little of our past is accessible, even the relatively well-documented past of the English speaking culture. Some things are retrievable, including the expressed attitudes of men toward women and the legal and social restrictions imposed by men or women; less well understood are the motives and conditions of men's writing about the nature and position of women, and the actual lives of women themselves. For the England of the Renaissance and seventeenth century, two new complementary studies shed welcome light.
Linda Woodbridge, a literary scholar, uses literary and historical evidence to analyze the sense of threat that men in the Renaissance apparently experienced from women—especially from aggressive and vocal women, from female dominance in love and marriage, and from female, friendships—and investigates the cultural expression of and reaction to men's fears, particularly through a study of the stock literary figure of the "woman-hater." [In The Weaker Vessel] Antonia Fraser, biographer and historian, depicts the general condition of women in seventeenth-century England through an account of the economics of marriage, the role of love (negligible for the most part), the wifely virtues (chastity, silence and obedience), widowhood, attitudes to the old and ugly (always in danger of charges of witchcraft), and women's education.
Fraser finds one moment, during the Civil War of the mid-seventeenth century, when women's institutionalized inferiority briefly diminished. During the Civil War women were often less restricted: the Puritan women of Lyme, for example, joined the men in attacking the Royalist forces, and destroyed their complex fortifications. Several women, both Puritan and Royalist, commanded castles and withstood sieges while their husbands were away. Wives of dissidents, such as Leveller John Lilburne's Elizabeth, heroically held together homes while their husbands were imprisoned, and spent years in the complex (male) legal world, petitioning for the release of their husbands and relief of family financial distress.
But like the short-lived intellectual liberalism of the Jacobean stage, the freedom and authority of Civil War women faded quickly; with the Restoration in 1660 all the brave women, the "Rosie the Riveters" of their day, gave back their independence in the name of stability and right order. From then through the reign of Queen Anne with which her book concludes, Fraser describes a situation that grew, if anything, to be more confining than it had been in 1600.
Both Woodbridge and Fraser hunt for examples of self-directed women in the chokingly repressive atmosphere of the period. Neither lingers long at the accommodationist fountain of Maybe It Wasn't So Bad, though Fraser looks harder than Woodbridge for mitigating attitudes and personal heroisms. What both authors inevitably encounter are the undeniable longings of women for full (meaning, in this period, largely manlike) dignity in the face of institutionalized and internalized oppression. Their work serves to underscore the extent of that oppression even as it searches for the challenges.
By the seventeenth century, as both writers make clear, the arguments for or against woman's character were already cliches. Aristotle had called her an imperfect man; Tertullian and Jerome had blasted her as the cause of the fall and there-fore of Christ's terrible suffering and death; her representatives were traitorous Delilah, destructive Helen of Troy, murderous Medea, and (under an assortment of names) the shrewish scolding wife and the lustful widow out to capture yet another unsuspecting husband to dominate and cuckold.
Women's self-appointed champions were not much more helpful. They argued that woman was God's last and therefore best creation, made from the flesh of Adam's rib rather than the baser earth of which Adam himself was made, and given as a helpmate to Adam so that man would not be alone. The mutual virtues of man and woman are what make civilization possible. In the first important handbook of Renaissance humanist education, Thomas Elyot's Book Named the Governor (1531), the virtues women contribute are fairly typically outlined: "The good nature of woman is to be mild, timorous, tractable, of sure remembrance, and shamefast." In his 1540 Defence of Good Women Elyot again assumes conventional virtues and relationships between men and women:
To men nature hath given puissance in members, braveness hard and consolidate, the skin thick, and perchance more bones … to sustain outward labours…. To women she hath given the contrary … that her debility should make her more circumspect, in the keeping at home such things as her husband, by his puissance, hath gotten.
What do comments like these and the many others that Woodbridge cites from the "woman controversy" of the age have to do with life as it was lived? Woodbridge rightly claims that in The Defence of Good Women Elyot is offering a "piece of literature, written out of a long literary tradition which it modifies but whose conventions it nonetheless observes," and she emphasizes the need for great care in reading any reference to actual historical incidents or people into such literary exercises. The Renaissance was a bookish age, and the display of wit through the use of conventional materials was indeed a common entertainment. But Woodbridge is in fact wrong to disconnect Elyot's book from historical events. Elyot dedicated it to Queen Anne of Cleves, the fourth wife of Henry VIII, on the occasion of her wedding. For whatever intellectual enjoyment The Defence of Good Women was intended, it was also a politic wedding gift from one of the king's resident humanists. It is hardly far-fetched to suggest that its conventional praise of obedience to one's husband was well-meant advice to the new wife of a king who had already divorced one queen and buried two more.
Woodbridge does agree that literature inevitably bears a relation to life (the dichotomy itself is a tricky one), though that relation may be complex. Seldom are correspondences between book and event so simple, or readily identifiable as Elyot's gift to Anne. More often, as Woodbridge stresses, such treatises and their fictive counterparts in romance, poetry, and drama are motivated by society's fears about the groups to whom they are directly or indirectly addressed. Their admonitions and instructions have a discernible, if unspecific, impact on human attitudes and behavior.
One of Woodbridge's most effective analyses reveals the relation of misogynistic humor to female oppression. Noting that most of the attacks on women seem mainly to be opportunities for misogynist jesting, and that it was (ironically) the defenses of women, built as they were on a continuing assumption of male supremacy, that were in fact more dangerous, Woodbridge nonetheless argues that "literary jest has not been without its effect on real women." Jokes about women's shrewishness, weakness or timidity allow men to dismiss women's legitimate complaints or potential:
The spirit of … genial misogyny hovers over everything a woman says and does: a woman cannot debate an issue without fearing criticism of female illogically, cannot take a moral stand without suspecting that her auditors consider her a scold, cannot hold a simple conversation without wondering whether she is talking too much. Women have internalized all the old jokes: was that the jokes' purpose all along? Beginning by paying her the insidious compliment that she is magnanimous enough to laugh at herself, the jester ends by inducing in a woman through his jokes the same contempt for herself that he feels for her. (pp. 31-32)
And she adds wryly that, "An anthology of antimasculist humor would be among the world's shortest books."
This sort of deft reading, analysis and observation is the strongest element of Woodbridge's book. Her treatment of the wider historical context is less convincing: for example, she notes the decline of the jest tradition in the first two decades of the seventeenth century, and suggests that "one might ascribe Jacobean suspicion of jest to the humorlessness of advancing Puritanism or the gloom of impending civil war." Puritanism in this period was by no means always humorless, and it is doubtful if anyone felt an impending civil war in the Jacobean period. James died in 1625; hostilities did not break out until 1642.
Or again, in explaining Jacobean distress at women who dressed in fashionable imitation of men (broad-brimmed hats with feathers, French doublets, bobbed hair, and swords), Woodbridge probably errs in attributing James I's own documented irritation to his open homosexuality and fear that women in man's clothing touched too closely on his and his male courtiers' effeminacy. James' misogyny was no worse than the norm for his day, and effeminacy was by no means associated with homosexuality in this period. Woodbridge herself cites Sidney's Arcadia, where Pyrocles dresses as an Amazon to be near his adored Philoclea and is admonished by his friend Musidorus: "This effeminate love of a woman doth so womanish a man that, if you yield to it, it will not only make you a famous Amazon, but a launder, a distaff spinner." Effeminacy was associated with being too much under the sway of women, not too little.
Woodbridge's point, however, is that art is more liberal than life; her astute reading of subversions inherent in the literature is put to good advantage. Strong women appear commonly in English plays of 1610-20, "exactly contemporary with the height of the controversy over women in male attire." Unlike James and the preachers who railed against such women, literature in the same period "rejoices in assertive women."
Fraser is unsurprisingly stronger than Woodbridge in historical matters, though more credulous in interpreting literary materials and even a shade conciliatory about the misogyny inherent in the entrenched doctrines of masculine superiority. Her lack of literary sophistication leads her to treat, or at least appear to treat, conventional literary materials as historically literal, precisely the pitfall Woodbridge so carefully avoids. Fraser takes as a useful biographical source John Batchiler's The Virgin's Pattern (1661), for example, though it is actually a Protestant hagiography romanticizing the story of Susanna Perwick, who died at 24 without ever having married. It is likely that Batchiler's book has not much more to do with the real Susanna Perwick than John Donne's Anniversaries have to do with the real Elizabeth Drury (which is to say, some, but related as didactic treatise to exemplar, not as biography to subject).
Fraser does remind us of the historical conditions which militated against any kind of feminist action. Not only were women bound by the cultural and literary conventions that condemned them to second-class status; most adult women were physically bound down for much of the time by pregnancy:
If we try to envisage the appearance of the women of the seventeenth century in relation to our own, we should allow of course for the evil effects of diseases now vanished such as smallpox, or dental decay before competent dentistry. Both of these depredations, taken for granted at the time, might come as a shock to the curious time-traveller. But the fact that most of the leading female characters of the seventeenth century were in a state of virtually perpetual pregnancy would probably come as a far greater surprise. (p. 59)
Those who endured this common aspect of woman's lot ranged from Charles I's Queen Henrietta Maria ("pregnant almost without intermission from the autumn of 1628 until January 1639") and Barbara, Duchess of Cleveland (who "produced five children in as many years during the very height of her ascendancy" over Charles II) to those whom Fraser calls the "humbler sisters" of these eminent ladies.
Fraser vividly illustrates much of what we vaguely know, and some of what we may never have considered, about the actual situation of women of that age. While Woodbridge delineates the image of women in theory and literature, Fraser focuses firmly on the rules of the culture, and on how specific women lived with them or transgressed them. Her survey of such professions or extramarital activities as writing, religion, courtesanship and the theatre illustrates what we would expect: clever, beautiful or determined women did find ways, though not easily or always happily, to survive or even transcend oppression and dependency.
Fraser and Woodbridge not only offer the differing skills of historian and literary analyst; they are also on somewhat different theoretical wavelengths. Fraser, while clearly the champion of strong women and women's rights, remains what we tend to think of as male-identified. Her women, even the bravest, are often described in relation to their men. Men's occupations, especially war, are taken to be essential for defining women's strength, and much emphasis is placed on the perils and pitfalls of romantic love. One could argue that these were the concerns and values of the seventeenth century itself, but I would have preferred a more critical twentieth-century eye to be cast on the assumption that women are defined in relation to men and male activities.
Woodbridge, on the other hand, is explicitly a feminist looking for evidence of some nascent feminism in the controversies of the Renaissance. To the credit of her fair and careful reading, she finds very little; what she does find is interesting and mostly persuasive. But she also tends to demand that Renaissance writers ask analytical questions they could scarcely have though of. If, as Suzanne Langer among others has argued, a culture is defined by the questions it asks rather than by the answers it gives, Woodbridge's drawing attention to the questions not asked may be a legitimate modernist critique of Renaissance culture. Sometimes, though, it simply feels anachronistic:
The very effort in deciding whether talkativeness is good or bad, as well as the rhetorical habit that reduced all questions to good versus bad, prevented analytic examination. For example: are women really more talkative than men, or do their speeches loom larger because men assume that women have nothing worthwhile to say? If it is true that women talk more than men, why is it true? Does a woman inundate her husband with words when he comes home simply because she has had no adult company all day? (pp. 131-132)
This last question may be appropriate for the housewife in the nuclear family of the present day, but it is unlikely to have much relevance to the very unsolitary life of her Renaissance counterpart.
Certain topics escape the notice of Fraser and Woodbridge alike. The situation of lower-class women remains hazy at best, no doubt in part because of the lack of evidence. If information on aristocratic and gentle women is scarce, it is much the more so for the working and lower classes. Unmarried women, too, appear only briefly, though Fraser makes a particular attempt to consider them. The possibility of lesbian relationships is completely ignored, even though both Woodbridge and Fraser write at length about "martial" women and women dressing as men, and the sainted Susanna Perwick, as Fraser observes, "was buried in the Hackney church, in the same grave as … Anne Carew, a school-friend."
Yet there is far more to enjoy than criticize in these two books. However sophisticated feminist theory becomes, it will not be informed and effective unless we slog through the foggy and uneven trenches of the past. Woodbridge and Fraser have done some of that slogging for us, and we should be abundantly grateful both for the information and for the wit and clarity that infuse both books.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1919
SOURCE: "Lady Antonia Fraser," in Publisher's Weekly, Vol. 231, No. 24, pp. 104-105.
[In the following interview, Fraser discusses her writing life and her crime fiction.]
During an early spring evening in London, when the daffodils in the square across the way are just beginning to blossom, Lady Antonia Fraser opens the door of her Kensington home to PW. On the occasion of the U.S. publication of her short story anthology, Jemima Shore's First Case … and of her new Jemima Shore novel Your Royal Hostage in England, the author talks about her varied writing career, as well as her life as wife, daughter and mother in a celebrated literary family.
While pouring tea from a silver service in her graciously furnished sitting room, Fraser tells us that writing came naturally to the eldest daughter in the family known fondly in Britain as "the literary Longfords." Her father, Lord Longford, was an Oxford don and a prolific writer (later a politician), and her mother, Elizabeth Longford, is the biographer of queens Victoria and Elizabeth II, as well as Byron, Wellington and others. Fraser's siblings, too, include writers: her sister Rachel Billington is a successful novelist; another sister, Judith Kanzantzis, is a poet; her brother Thomas Pakenham is a historian. Asked when she first began to write, Fraser replies modestly, "I just always wrote. And if I didn't write I wouldn't be able to do anything else. I'm not full of amazing talents."
Although writing was clearly "in the atmosphere" during Fraser's childhood, she doesn't recall it as being the chief preoccupation of her household. Politics were discussed more frequently by her "family of talkers." Her father changed from Conservative to Labour politics and then thrust another conversion upon family life by becoming a Catholic. At 14, Fraser chose to follow his lead and converted to Catholicism.
While today Fraser radiates upper-class graciousness, she is absolutely unpretentious. Perhaps this is largely due to the fact that she did not perceive herself, in growing up, as being a member of the upper class. Born Antonia Pakenham in 1932, she was "brought up as the daughter of a don—even if he was Lord Longford." She attended the famous Dragon School in Oxford where girls were admitted only if they were the siblings of enrolled boys, and then went on, initially as a Protestant, to an upper-crust convent school. She later used the convent's setting and gothic atmosphere to advantage in her first mystery novel, Quiet as a Nun, featuring her sleuth Jemima Shore.
After completing her education at Oxford, Fraser took an entry-level position at Weidenfeld publishers. They later published her first books, which were histories of dolls and toys, as well as her highly successful biography of Mary, Queen of Scots and those that followed. At 23, she married Sir Hugh Fraser, a dashing war hero. Like her mother, who delayed her writing career to bring up a large family, Fraser put off literary pursuits in favor of raising her six children and supporting her husband's political career.
When she did begin writing in earnest, her literary family proved invaluable to her. Her mother was a significant critic for her five historical volumes, which was a "tremendous advantage," Fraser says. As Fraser's children reached adulthood, and some—predictably—became writers, they too provided appreciated critiques, particularly regarding Fraser's fiction. "My oldest daughter, Rebecca, who has a biography of Charlotte Brontë coming out in the fall, has a very good eye, and it works well for me because she is absolutely frank. There's something about being frank to your mother that she enjoys," Fraser adds with a smile. (Fraser's second daughter, Flora, has just published a biography of Emma, Lady Hamilton.)
Fraser's second husband, the eminent playwright Harold Pinter, whom she married in 1980, is also "a terrific help" in making small, key suggestions, she says. Although their work is quite different, the Pinters are a congenial literary couple who entertain a wide circle of literary friends. They customarily work in separate studies but are capable of writing in the same room when the occasion demands. "Once we worked in the same room when we had a hotel suite by the sea," Fraser recalls. "I was very surprised. Harold never seemed to do anything at all. He'd read the Guardian, the cricket scores. He'd walk about, silently. He'd light a black Sobranie. And at the end of it, he'd written a play! I'd been typing away furiously, and at the end of it, I'd written half a chapter!"
Not only does Fraser find it easy to work in the company or at least the vicinity of another writer, she is able to keep her own two disparate areas of writing, "history and mystery, as I think of them," comfortably unmuddled. "I'm not particularly tidy outside of my mind. I live in a great, happy clutter, and I like it. But I think I have a very, very, tidy mind. I practically don't need a filing cabinet."
With or without the benefit of a filing cabinet, Fraser's historical work, which put her career on the map, has been acclaimed for its grounding in extensive and accurate research. She is credited with bringing a lively personal voice to the previously dry and donnish field of historical writing. This has made her books, however long, appeal to an audience stretching far beyond the usual academic sphere. Fraser humanizes her subjects by bringing in personal detail and character development. She is also a crusader for those who might otherwise be lost in history, particularly women. Her latest historical volume, The Weaker Vessel, celebrates the courage of women in 17th century England. She depicts a panoply of women from all classes facing life and death issues in childbirth, as well as crises in political, social and personal life.
Despite the fact that she was able to bring a personal style to the writing of history, in the mid-'70s Fraser "felt that there was something in myself that history didn't express." She gave in to the impulse to write fiction and created the TV commentator/sleuth Jemima Shore, a stylish, liberated woman who shares some of the author's characteristics. "I gave her all of my private tastes, such as white wine and flowers and Jean Muir clothes and [a] love of cats. On the other hand, she is in some ways very much unlike me. She drives fast cars, for instance, while I am a tortoise."
Fraser's crime novels are written in the tradition of Dorothy L. Sayers, Wilkie Collins and P. D. James, writers she admires enormously. She didn't consciously set out to update the traditional detective novel with a sleek, sophisticated female sleuth but she was concerned to "put a female presenter [commentator] in the television screen when no such woman existed in England. I go a lot to the States, and I had noticed the power of Barbara Walters and how everybody recognized her. I thought that having a sleuth in such a position would make it possible for people in all sorts of trouble to confide in her," Fraser comments.
Fraser "turned to crime" during a time of crisis in her own life. "I've asked myself why I did start writing crime at that time. I always used to parry this question because I didn't want to talk about my personal life. But now, looking back on it, I think to have a marriage of 20 years break up and begin a whole new life, and to start writing fiction for the first time—well, if I were an historian I would say 'These things have to be connected.' And I think perhaps I'd always wanted to write amusingly; perhaps there was that in me that could never be freed in my historical work." Indeed, Fraser's mysteries, several of which have been made into TV episodes, have been consistently hailed as entertaining. "I wrote Oxford Blood at a time when I was extremely depressed, for good reason. My former husband, the father of my children, had just died, young and painfully, so if ever I had a bad time…. And yet here comes a novel that everybody kindly describes as being very jolly."
Like many other crime writers, Fraser finds power over life and death within the murder mystery appealing. She adds, "I think crime writing is my link with trying to preserve a sort of order. I'm very interested in good and evil and the moral natures of my people. People in my books tend to get their just deserts, even if not at the hands of the police."
With Your Royal Hostage, to be published here in January 1988, Fraser makes her departure from Norton, the publisher which has published all of her crime fiction here to date. She has found Norton to be a very agreeable publisher but feels that a change to a house with a definite mystery list might help Jemima Shore reach a larger audience. "Atheneum and Scribners look to have a very exciting mystery list," she says of her future U.S. publisher, "and I wanted to be a part of it."
Fraser has always published her history here with Knopf, believing in the advice of her agent, Michael Shaw, of Curtis Brown, who counseled her to publish history and fiction with different publishers in the States. The arrangement has worked out well, and, unlike some British authors whose English houses strongly advise them where to "farm out" their work to American publishers, Fraser has always made her own decisions in this matter.
In both history and fiction, Fraser makes no particular changes in her writing for the American audience, relying on American editors to clarify necessary points for us. She strongly believes that American editing is superior to the English. "English publishers say that the Americans nit-pick, but I like that. I say, 'Better for the publisher to nit-pick than the reviewer.' There's a nun, you know, in Quiet as a Nun, who is always quoting Wordsworth. The American editor checked all the Wordsworth quotations and came up with some howlers. And you know, I thought I knew my Wordsworth."
For some time Fraser has taken an active and leading role in writers' organizations, campaigning for authors' rights and helping to win the successful battle for the Public Lending Right, which now brings money to authors based on the frequency with which their books are used in libraries. She is also determined that writers should have approval rights on jacket design, that they should receive a greater percentage of paperback earnings, and that they have the right to be informed of the print run on their books. "Here, if you know the print run, it's because your editor weakened or got drunk," she jokes. Presently, she devotes her efforts to another kind of authors' rights, civil liberties, as chairman of the English PEN Writers in Prison Committee. "That is my major concern: writers who are in prison for writing," she says.
Fraser has also recently begun reviewing crime fiction in a monthly column for the London Daily News. She believes crime writing attracts some of the best talent in writing today. Why? "Possibly, the novel became too experimental; but I think just as when Bjorn Borg from nowhere in Sweden became a tennis star, and everybody in Sweden took up tennis, in the same way, the success of P.D. James and Ruth Rendell attracts more writers of quality to crime fiction." Perhaps Fraser's success will inspire new writers too.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 843
SOURCE: "Manifestations of a Myth," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4467, November 11-17, 1988, p. 1248.
[In the following review of Boadicea's Chariot: The Warrior Queens, Beard assesses Fraser's version of Boadicea's story in relation to several other available accounts.]
Boadicea is myth. She was already a part of mythology for the Romans who first wrote about her and about her hopelessly doomed rebellion against the forces of occupation in Britain. At the time her story, retold and embellished, evoked both admiration and fear. For some Romans she was the noble savage, who at least for a few days jolted the complacency of an imperial power, effete and corrupt at its centre. For others she was the mad witch, who made real those dread male fantasies of female control. In Britain, at the margins of the civilized world, the Romans escaped from her only by the skin of their teeth. It was a useful reminder of woman's potential for destruction—and Roman writers made the most of it.
From the time of Boadicea's rediscovery in (significantly) Elizabethan England, she has been invented and re-invented as a symbol for a variety of quite incompatible causes. Feminism, not surprisingly, is one of these causes. She was a guest among the galaxy of female stars at Judy Chicago's installation "Dinner Party". And—no doubt with rather greater popular appeal—she has been heralded as a firm favourite of the feminist pop-star and actress Toyah Wilcox. "Boadicea is a character I greatly admire", she is reputed to have said, so following in the footsteps of Cicely Hamilton, who gave the queen a leading role in her Pageant of Great Women (1909). This Pageant optimistically enacted the defeat of (male) Prejudice, in the face of female talent and strength. The final scene showed the cowardly departure of Prejudice from the stage, sloping away at the mere sight of a posse of female warriors, led by Boadicea.
Those of us familiar with the Roman stories of Boadicea's habits in war (cutting off the breasts of her female enemies and then sewing the severed parts into their mouths, for example) cannot help but feel curious at what particular aspects of the royal character Toyah and Hamilton found so admirable. But even so, their enthusiasm is less unsettling than the outright misogyny of the seventeenth-century treatment of the story. Fletcher's play Bonduca turns Boadicea into a junior partner of the real hero Caratach (Caratacus), whose energy is devoted to keeping his unruly female allies in their place. His loyalty to his fellow men, rather than his fellow Britons, emerges clearly when he prevents Boadicea's daughters from harming the Roman soldiers who had raped them. "Ye should have kept your legs closed then" is his argument—almost enough by itself to justify the women's status as feminist heroines.
At first sight Thorneycroft's famous statue of Boadicea in her chariot (on the Embankment near Westminster) seems to evoke this same liberated woman. But the careful observer sees a surprisingly neatly groomed queen—despite her daringly eccentric, "no hands" control of her horses. And underneath the group run the lines of Cowper: "Regions Caesar never knew/Thy Posterity shall sway". This is the Boadicea of imperialism, not of feminism. It is the visual counterpart of Marie Trevelyan's biography of the queen, Britain's Greatness Foretold. Writing in the final years of Victoria's reign, Trevelyan found in Boadicea the well-springs of British power and patriotism, the ancient counterpart of Victoria herself. Of course, it is a paradox that a rebel against Roman imperial power should have become such a winning symbol of the British empire. But it is very much characteristic of myth that it can incorporate, and even parade, such paradoxes.
[In Boadicea's Chariot: The Warrior Queens] Antonia Fraser guides the reader deftly through the changing patterns of the myth of Boadicea, ending with the Boadicean image of Margaret Thatcher. By far the most successful parts of the book are those in which she analyses the mad passions of later ages for the British queen—smiling indulgently at the seventeenth-century antiquarians who claimed that Boadicea was buried under Stonehenge, and at the modern Americans who have speculated on her lesbianism. Surprisingly, though, Lady Antonia seems less aware of her own role in the myth-making process. For she offers us an eminently twentieth-century "historical" Boudicca, and an analysis which presents her (both in reality and legend) as representative of a whole class of warrior queens. In pursuit of this "history", she constructs four chapters on the "facts" of the Boudiccan story (where the more cautious historian might have restricted them to a few pages). And she offers a series of mini-biographies of the other warrior queens—Zenobia of Palmyra, Matilda, Maud, Tamara of Georgia and the rest. Their stories involve the reader in detailed accounts of the social and political background of regions as far apart as third-century Palmyra and the nineteenth-century Raj. And there is, predictably in the stories of warrior queens, a burden of military accounts that the more faint-hearted academic historian would have consigned to the footnotes.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1469
SOURCE: "Women at Arms," in The New Yorker, April 24, 1989, pp. 108-111.
[In the following review, Bliven examines the characteristics of the historical figures outlined by Fraser in The Warrior Queens and comments on their significance.]
Antonia Fraser's The Warrior Queens is an intelligent and artful study of women rulers who commanded in battle. The book begins in prehistory—practically every pagan pantheon featured a warrior goddess—and comes down to the present; its heroines lived in Europe, Asia, and Africa. (The New World has produced no warrior queens known to history.) The author's ground rules exclude the West's most famous woman warrior, Joan of Arc, because she did not wield political power, but Ms. Fraser finds a place for Margaret Thatcher, who, living at a time when a nation's political chief is no longer expected to appear on the battlefield, made the decision that sent British soldiers to fight for the Falkland Islands.
The book—inevitably, I think—leads to feminist conclusions, but it is not a feminist tract. I would call it an exploration, and what it explores is a repeated pattern that a woman biographer and historian cannot help noticing. Women have ordinarily been denied public authority, and women who have become rulers (in the past, usually through the workings of mortality in hereditary systems), and particularly women rulers who have been called upon to make war, have elicited either extravagant admiration or even more extravagant odium. Mother of her country and/or savage slut—both responses echo down the centuries. In juxtaposing the myths about women with the careers of some extraordinary women, Ms. Fraser at once clarifies history and suggests the many ways that myths betray history.
One way is that the myths are always the same, while the warrior queens demonstrated considerable individuality. The empire builders—for examples, Queen Tamara, who ruled Georgia from 1184 to 1212 and greatly enlarged her Caucasian Kingdom; and Isabella of Castile, who, with her husband, Ferdinand of Aragon, completed the reconquest of Spain in 1492—justified their aggressions very differently. They do not resemble each other or the numerous queens who became warriors by responding to aggression with arms instead of tears. In a common scenario, an aggressive male attacks a woman ruler because he assumes she is weak. Ms. Fraser recalls Tomyris, the Queen of the Massagetae, who, in Book I of Herodotus' "The Persian Wars," adjures the Persian Emperor Cyrus, "Rule your own people, and try to bear the sight of me ruling mine": Cyrus ignored her advice, invaded her kingdom, and was killed in battle.
The Celtic warrior queen Boadicea was less fortunate. She was a king's widow who ruled the Iceni, a rich tribe of East Anglia, as regent for her two daughters. Her husband had been a friend of Rome, and there is no suggestion that she planned to alter his policy. Nonetheless, the Roman financial officer in Britain, the procurator Catus Decianus, sent a force that invaded her kingdom, flogged the queen, raped her daughters, confiscated the royal treasure, and expropriated the fortunes of the Icenian nobility. Ms. Fraser remarks that, like Cesare Borgia's rape of Caterina Sforza after he captured her fortress of Ravaldino, in 1500, the rape of the Icenian princesses was a humiliation inflicted to demonstrate women's helplessness. In the case of Boadicea's daughters, the gesture was expensive: the revolt she led in 60-61 destroyed Colchester, London, and St. Albans. Sometimes history tells us just what we want to hear—for example, that bullies are cowards: when the Celtic tribes rebelled, the procurator fled Britain. However, the Roman governor, Suetonius Paulinus, who had no part in the wretched procurator's banditry, wiped out Boadicea's army. It is thought that she committed suicide after her defeat.
Boadicea reigns over this volume; Ms. Fraser not only recounts her career but follows her legend through some startling transformations. In the sixth century, the monk Gildas thought Boadicea a wicked rebel, but the sixteenth century saw her as a forerunner of Elizabeth I. Purcell's Boadicea is positively genteel, while Cowper's is a British imperialist: "Regions Caesar never knew Thy posterity shall sway," he wrote, justifying Great Britain's war to retain her North American colonies. Presently, Boadicea became an Eminent Victorian, and then, in the twentieth century, her memory was invoked in the cause of woman suffrage, although it is doubtful whether the original Boadicea would have given any commoner a vote.
Throughout history Ms. Fraser finds an obsessional interest in the sex lives of warrior queens, who must conform to one of two stereotypes: icily chaste or blazingly lascivious. One sentence tells all we really know about Sammu-ramat: she was the widow of an Assyrian king who died in 811 B.C., and she reigned for five years as regent for their son. Yet Ms. Fraser cites work after work concocted about lustful Semiramis. Among the chaste there is (maybe) Zenobia of Palmyra. In the two hundred-sixties, she tried to carve an empire for herself out of Rome's Middle Eastern provinces. Although no chronicler can tell us the names and ages of her sons, all assure us that she allowed her husband's embraces only for the purpose of conception. Historians' and biographers' mania about the sexuality of women rulers causes them to misunderstand the women as rulers; Ms. Fraser observes that historians fascinated by Cleopatra's love life often overlook sources that show her devotion to power politics.
Some commentaries that Ms. Fraser records seem remote or archaic, but, surprisingly, many of the concerns of antiquity survive. Ms. Fraser notes that historians have always taken care to tell us whether the voice of a woman commander was harsh, and points out that whenever Mrs. Thatcher raises her voice in Parliament the Opposition calls her a fishwife. The author also remarks that, while Mrs. Thatcher's toughness is considered unfeminine by her opponents, when Geraldine Ferraro ran for the Vice-Presidency she was challenged to prove herself sufficiently unfeminine—tough enough—for the job. Ms. Fraser finds a single universal agreement about women and conflict: everyone, at all times, has believed that it is natural, normal, and feminine for women to fight for their children.
Ms. Fraser has thought about all the ramifications of women commanders, and she writes so easily that her inclusiveness never feels merely dutiful. She holds our attention and she misses nothing. For example, in her discussion of Queen Louise of Prussia, who goaded and nagged her husband, Frederick William, and their intermittent ally, Czar Alexander I, into resisting Napoleon, Ms. Fraser cites Napoleon's insistence that women must be subordinate. He expressed this opinion so often, so forcefully, and so gratuitously that one suspects it was his way of coping with his powerful mother. In her last chapter Ms. Fraser cites feminist thinkers who suspect that many men resent female authority because it reduces them to children. In their eyes, whatever costume a woman wears—even a general's uniform—trails Mommy's apron strings.
Ms. Fraser does not claim that any of her warrior queens ranks among the great commanders. Of all the battles in her book, I find only one among the twenty decisive battles of the world in Joseph Mitchell's 1964 revision of the Creasy classic: the defeat of the Spanish Armada, in 1588. Ms. Fraser recalls Queen Elizabeth's famous speech to her troops awaiting the Spanish invasion at Tilbury but considers the armor she wore on that occasion a sort of masquerade, and agrees with other historians and biographers that Elizabeth was almost neurotically peace-loving. On the other hand, it does not look as if the wars or battles that women lost would have been won by male commanders. No British chieftain of Boadicea's era could have enforced the discipline that her unruly host needed to defeat the Romans.
Though women warriors may not be important in the history of war, they are important in the history of women. Ms. Fraser recalls that, in her girlhood, reading about Boadicea helped her feel equal to her brothers. Here, I think, the author touches all her women readers. In my girlhood, I was taught that American women were the freest in the world, but the only heroine offered for my admiration was Betsy Ross, the patriotic seamstress. In a sense, Ms. Fraser's real subject is the childhood quest for heroes and heroines, which repeats itself in every generation. In recalling this quest, she raises a momentous and perplexing matter: shaping the imagination of the young. In the past, that activity has been allotted to unspectacular women, a contribution to history that is unmeasured but very likely measureless. It may be that humanity would be better off if both boys and girls learned to admire pacific, domestic attainments. It may also be that until we appreciate the dramatic achievements of a few women the humble talents of many women will be undervalued.
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SOURCE: "A History of Women at the Helm," in The Christian Science Monitor, June 7, 1989, p. 12.
[In the following review of The Warrior Queens, Tirrell objects to some of the methods and assumptions in Fraser's study.]
Within a pride of lions, it has always been the female of the species that hunted and killed. By contract humankind has traditionally relegated women to the home and family circle, often in an inferior status, and certainly far from the amphitheaters of battle.
Still, throughout history there have been women who have defied convention and risen to meet the exigencies of war, often leading their peoples to victory. This idea is the subject of Lady Antonia Fraser's newest work, The Warrior Queens, published earlier in Great Britain as Boadicea's Chariot.
Though it begins with a discussion of warrior queens from antiquity, such as Semiramis and Cleopatra, Part One of Fraser's book focuses on Boudica (as her name is spelled in early references). The author tries to unravel the twisted strand of fact and fiction that has become the legend of Boadicea.
Boudica, queen of the Celtic tribe Iceni, in AD 60 led a revolt against the occupying Romans. Under her leadership, the Celts sacked and burned Colchester, London, and St. Albans, until they were stopped and brutally slain by the Roman troops under the leadership of the then governor of Britain, Suetonius Paulinus.
Legend has not left Boudica where it found her. It has transmogrified her name into Boadicea and endowed her with, among other things, a chariot with knives attached to the wheels, and a cult status as defender of the British against alien invaders.
But this discussion of Boudica quickly degenerates into quasi-psychological babble as Fraser attempts to grapple with the few known facts of Boudica's life, and the mythical underpinnings of this warrior queen. In trying, the author fails to get a grip on either. She digresses constantly, and her text is littered with parenthetical asides.
The text is sprinkled with inaccuracies. She speaks of the samurai warriors of Japan and the warriors of Homer as ancient chivalric orders. (The samurai culture dates to the 10th century AD, and flourished well into the 18th century. As such, it can hardly be classified as ancient.)
Nor does Fraser ever question Tacitus, her main source of information on Boudica. It never seems to occur to her that, like Sir Thomas More and his famous blackening of Richard III—an ingenious means of whitewashing the reputation of his patrons, the Tudors—so Tacitus must have been at pains to paint the past in grim colors so that it might contrast favorably with the reign of his patron.
Part Two of The Warrior Queens deals with famous historical female leaders in the light of the revelations gleaned in Part One. Among the women Fraser investigates are Elizabeth I of England, Catherine the Great of Russia, Queen Louise of Prussia, and Prime Minister Thatcher of Britain. The chapter on Elizabeth I does indeed offer a great deal of insight into that queen's subtle and effective use of femininity and masculine strength. But, like Part One, the whole of Part Two is riddled with attempts to judge the people and events of the past by late 20th-century standards of behavior. Fraser seems not to know that life was cheap; that rape was considered an acceptable way for a man to gain a rich wife—the only shame was if the man failed to impregnate the lady.
Instead, Fraser concentrates on analyzing the various women as victims of the "Appendage Syndrome," by which she means women who come to power through their relationship to a man either as wife, daughter, or mother; the "Voracity Syndrome"; or the "Chastity Syndrome." And it is just this sort of quasi-historical feminist jargon that gives women such a dubious intellectual reputation.
One day, a thorough and unbiased assessment of these prodigious women will be written. When it is, I'd like to read it.
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SOURCE: "Not Quite Your Usual Historian," in Time, Vol. 135, No. 3, January 15, 1990, pp. 66, 68.
[In the following essay Angelo presents details of Fraser's life and records comments on Fraser's crime fiction and historical work.]
She is the kind of woman Maureen O'Hara used to play in big-budget costume movies: Lady Antonia Fraser, beautiful, hot-blooded, titled daughter of a noble line, turreted castles in her background and the whiff of scandal in her past. But the portrait of a romance-novel heroine slips out of focus with a closer look, for that same Lady Antonia is an internationally established historian, the author of best-selling biographies and a social activist. She is mother of six, protective wife of renowned playwright Harold Pinter, and also dashes off detective stories, wafts along the British TV celeb circuit, and displays an admirable tennis serve.
But forget Goody Two-Shoes. This paragon wades into controversy with brio. She has publicly criticized Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's policies and rallied British writers to think more politically. She marches for Soviet Jewry. She organizes petitions and badgers officials to help free dissident writers in jails across Europe and Africa. One of these has made history: playwright Vaclav Havel, the new Czech President. For years, from his prison cell, he exchanged letters with Pinter. The couple will visit Havel to share his triumph in February.
She speaks her mind. And Fleet Street's columnists speak theirs, making the high-profile Lady Antonia a high-priority target. A succinct explanation for this targeting is offered by the London Daily Mail's senior feature writer, Geoffrey Levy: "She's an aristocrat. She's beautiful. She's a celebrity. And she is a successful writer. She is an irresistible target." Her father, the seventh Earl of Longford, sums up Fleet Street's anti-Antoniasm in a word: "Jealousy!"
At home in London's fashionable Kensington, Antonia Pakenham Fraser Pinter is a composition by Gainsborough. Her English skin would make peaches weep in their cream. Blue eyes seem to savor a secret, shared but not revealed. She is tall, not willowy but womanly, and at 57 she is, by any standard, beautiful.
Harold Pinter looks in for a bit of householdish chat on his way to his studio in an adjacent mews house. Such an easy, conventional moment, but achieved, some ten years ago, at such a personal price.
Lady Antonia—"the title has cachet," notes her agent Michael Shaw—is dismissive of the personal attacks. "My father brought me up not to mind criticism or ridicule," she says. Lord Longford, a former Labour Cabinet minister, has endured both in his crusades against pornography and for prisoners' rights. The disparagement, in his family's view, stems from the fact that he, a nobleman who turned socialist, violated Britain's class order.
Antonia much admires this man with the courage of his convictions, the progenitor of Britain's fabled Literary Longfords, a family unmatched—possibly in history—for its eight esteemed writers in three generations publishing contemporaneously. They are prizewinning and prodigious: at last count their output topped 80 volumes, most of them digging deep into British and Irish history. Scholarly research is the family hallmark.
The brightest star in the family firmament is Antonia. Her mother recalls that this precocious firstborn "always wrote, even before she could write—poems, little stories. She could read before she had any idea of the meaning of the words. Frank and I called her the wonder child." Which is not to say she was candy-coated. Young Antonia was fiercely competitive, on the tennis courts with her brother Thomas and on the football team at a boys school that admitted a handful of girls on equal footing. The genesis, perhaps, of her view of woman-as-equal.
As a student at Oxford, Antonia Pakenham (the family name) was the centerpiece of an oh, so uppah-crusty circle. "She was already a bit of a star at Oxford," says her father. But even as swains queued eagerly for her attention, "all of the time there was a more profound, intellectual side."
At 22 she published her first book, on the mythical King Arthur. Her typewriter never cooled down, even after she married Hugh Fraser, a Conservative Member of Parliament, and produced three sons and three daughters. The result: 23 volumes.
All the while she was ubiquitous on the TV-radio "chat show" circuit, bright and quippy for Call My Bluff, articulate and opinionated on the weighty Question Time. Last month Americans tuned to a highbrow quiz program on National Public Radio could hear Lady Antonia deftly identify an arcane quotation: "It's Milton—Lycidas."
She gained her place as a major historian and writer in 1969 with her definitive biography of Mary, Queen of Scots, a best seller in eight languages. Then came Puritan ruler Oliver Cromwell and Charles II, the Restoration King.
Each famous subject, perhaps not coincidentally, had a personal tie to her family. Cromwell granted her Anglo-Irish forebears land in West Meath in the heart of Ireland. (The Longfords, originally Protestant, converted to Catholicism one by one in the 1940s, in individual decisions.) The family is directly descended from Charles II. "Most people in England are," she chuckles, "and I'm no exception." All, of course, from "the wrong side of the blanket." She likes the fact that her line stems from the classy Duchess of Cleveland rather than the King's more ordinary mistress, actress Nell Gwyn.
Some of the royal genes crop out now and then. Author Michael Holroyd, clearly a partisan, portrays Antonia entering a crowded room: "There's a stateliness about her. It's almost like a member of the royal family; people feel they should make a little bow. Some people are dazzled, some feel overawed. She can intimidate some and charm others. It's chemistry—and possibly height. But as soon as she laughs, the formality is completely dissolved." Adds playwright Arthur Miller, a frequent guest of the Pinters: "She has great elegance as a writer and as a person." Marigold Johnson, a devoted friend since Oxford days who is married to the sharply conservative writer and historian Paul Johnson, muses, "Men like her better than women."
For a change of pace and a piece of change, the prolific Antonia takes breaks between works of history, which eat up three to four years, to write mystery stories featuring female detective Jemima Shore, who has made the leap to TV. But when she first joined the Crime Writers' Association, she was snubbed. "This glittering butterfly was too much for them," says an observer. Eventually, her seriousness won them over and—what else?—she became chairman.
Beguiled by power, she writes of kings and queens. "And," she interjects, "the other side of the picture, the powerless. The powerful have such an extraordinary effect on the lives of people around them." This led to the work she found most demanding, The Weaker Vessel, her prize-winning tapestry of the harsh lot dealt to 17th century women. Her current project is the suggestion of old friend Robert Gottlieb, editor of the New Yorker: the six wives of Henry VIII, combining her three specialties, royalty, power and women.
Her fascination with women of power resulted in The Warrior Queens, her last book, an analysis of women rulers who led their people into battle, from British Queen Boadicea in 60 A.D. to Israel's Golda Meir, India's Indira Gandhi and Prime Minister Thatcher, triumphant in the Falklands. Fraser identified history's typecasting of women leaders: the appendages, those who gain power by virtue of being wives, widows or daughters of a male ruler; the honorary male who rejects her femininity; and the female chieftain who is either "supernaturally chaste or preternaturally lustful." Fraser observes that when a woman holds power, "her sexuality is always relevant. That fascinates me."
Assessing Thatcher, Fraser compares her to Queen Elizabeth I. "She's like a 16th century queen—not a modern one, powerless, gracious, noncontentious. Her handling of her femininity is astonishingly similar to that of Elizabeth I. She says, 'I'm feminine, don't you forget it. I'll dress as a woman, but at the same time, I'm as good as a man.' She's like Elizabeth: 'I've got the heart and stomach of a king!' She's old style, with courtiers and endless speculation about her favorites. Look at that photograph of her with her Cabinet—it says it all: she is the queen, among her dinner-jacketed knights. I think the fact that she has no woman in the Cabinet is extremely significant. Another woman would spoil the picture!"
As a strong feminist, she voted for Thatcher in her first election, but now is deeply troubled about the Prime Minister and "the socially divisive effects of her policies that make it increasingly difficult for the really poor, who are very often hopeless." When Fraser expressed these concerns, she sparked charges that she was a "chateau-bottled socialist" who has prospered under the Thatcherism she deplores. In rebuttal, championing the independence of writers, Antonia snaps, "In France they would have given me a medal." She readily acknowledges that personal attacks sting. "Yes. Absolutely. Fair criticism is hurtful; unfair criticism is doubly hurtful." But Lady Antonia is past her Perfect Woman stage. That ended in 1975, when Antonia Fraser and Harold Pinter discovered each other. Then came the gossip, the headlines, the charges in divorce court. Five turbulent years later they were married. (Both former spouses have since died.)
Through it all, her staunchly Catholic family stood by her. Says Lady Longford: "From the word go, Antonia wanted a literary life. Her first husband was a Conservative M.P. I could see that wasn't really the kind of life she was meant for. What she is doing now with Harold and on her own perfectly fits in with everything."
The gilded young aristocrat at Oxford and the Jewish lad from London's East End would never have intersected. "But it was our great good luck," Antonia says, "that by the time we met, we were both recognized." Opposites, fully formed, attracted.
How do two famous talents under the same roof manage the egos, the stresses? She replies with a laugh, "A lot of our sentences begin, 'I completely understand that you, too, are having a rotten time, but …' We read each other's things. We talk about them." A London critic comments that "living with Pinter has been a terrific influence for the better on her writing."
"He wins on some things. I win on some things, too," she says. She wins on opera, he on cricket. But Antonia casts herself as the junior talent. "I don't criticize Harold's work. I influence Harold, I contribute to his work by living with him, by talking to him." She contributes in another way repeatedly cited by friends: Pinter's manner is as angular and abrupt as his characters, but, observes a friend, "Antonia smooths over the offenses before the evening is out. She is quite good as stage manager."
Marigold Johnson pinpoints Pinter's greatest effect on Antonia: "She has become a lot more involved in public issues, a much more public figure." And she is planted distinctly to the left of her days as wife of a Tory M.P.
Activist Antonia is deeply committed to writers imprisoned for their written words. "I feel passionately about this," she declares, and she leads the cause for English PEN. Holroyd, former PEN president, sings her praises: "She knows when to press and when not to; she can let loose the dogs on them, or she can charm them. Pinter tends to blow his top; she's got a great deal of common sense." Arthur Miller, longtime advocate for imprisoned writers, concurs: "She is very effective."
She regularly writes to the prisoners: "We may never hear from them but we keep writing, for years." She rejoices that now for the first time Russian writers are in PEN and Czech writers are back in the fold. "It's a labor of Sisyphus," she sighs. "Just as they are let out in Russia, they've increased in Turkey and Kenya."
The kaleidoscopic Lady Antonia, a dishy blue-blood intellectual, seems tailor-made as the heroine of a romantic novel. Pity that Fraser the writer shuns that pop genre—it would make a lively autobiography.
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SOURCE: "All the Best Houses Have Ghosts," in New York Times Book Review, January 6, 1991, p. 18.
[In the following review of The Cavalier Case, Wallach considers Fraser's contribution to crime fiction.]
It's hard to fathom, but there are authors who relax from writing books by writing different books. Larry McMurtry took six weeks off from Lonesome Dove to write Desert Rose, one of his best novels. Agatha Christie, in among 60 full-length mysteries, 19 short-story collections and 14 plays, wrote romance novels as Mary Westmacott. William Buckley seems to relax, if at all, by writing thrillers; Anne Rice writes erotic novels as A. N. Roqueture. And we all know the Rev. Charles Dodgson, who relaxed from mathematical treatises by writing the best children's books of all as Lewis Carroll.
Lady Antonia Fraser is a star member of this industrious group. Her vast biographies of Mary, Queen of Scots and Oliver Cromwell are works of scholarship; no library would be a library without them. She has produced careful and fascinating histories of dolls and toys. Her recent nonfiction book, The Warrior Queens, was acclaimed both left and right of the Atlantic. Still, she has found time to invent Jemima Shore, who in just eight books has become a memorable heroine of the mystery genre.
Jemima is not as lovably eccentric as Peter Wimsey, Jane Marple, Hercule Poirot or the great Sherlock Holmes, but she's prettier, sexier and far more in tune with today's London. Thoroughly modern Jemima was at Cambridge, is a television news personality and, though much pursued, disdains the men who want her to marry and settle down. (She thinks settling down is a dreary expression, let alone an idea.) Her mind is good enough to appreciate the details of a Van Dyck portrait, while her legs are long enough to dazzle in a doubles match at a fashionable tennis club. What's more, Jemima's character and good looks bloom from book to book.
In this one, The Cavalier Case, Jemima is assigned by the brilliant but batty chairman of her network to produce a television series on historic houses with ghosts and their chic modern owners. It's "a new form of who's in, who's out, if you like," he tells her. She's to begin at Lackland Court, home of a 17th-century Cavalier poet known to every British school-child, whose body disappeared before burial and whose ghost is seen only by children and those about to die. Jemima gets to Lackland Court and finds its handsome new owner planning to turn the place into a tennis club. So she's faced with both historical and modern problems. Jemima handles them with pluck and good humor, taking a few swipes at modern London society along the way. They're the sort Americans can enjoy, on such subjects as the rooms at the National Portrait Gallery, sound-and-light pageants and Englishwomen whose tennis costumes include the family pearls.
The Cavalier Case is the seventh full-length Jemima Shore novel. (There are short stories as well, and Jemima Shore has been the heroine of two major television series, an honor usually kept for fictional detectives with far more cases to their credit.) Antonia Fraser is never so relaxed from scholarship that she doesn't write with intelligence or tell us interesting things. We learn, for example, that the name Jemima is a form of James, and that what we used to call the National Trust is now English Heritage. She parodies the Cavalier poets to perfection, involving us in literary questions like the possible corruption of "I fain would be thy swan" to "I fain would be thy swain."
The mix is great fun, and explains the enormous popularity of the Jemima Shore books. It also explains the popularity of Lady Antonia's biographies, all international best sellers. She writes both history and mystery with zest and verve, and her primary interest is people—foolish queens, military commanders, former wives, rival siblings or stepdaughters desperate for attention. Antonia Fraser is a wonder, and so is The Cavalier Case. Her time out is our good fortune.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1245
SOURCE: "Return of the Monarch," in The Spectator, Vol. 269, No. 8564, August 29, 1992, pp. 25-26.
[In the following review, Worden comments on Fraser's previous work and examines the style and content of The Six Wives of Henry VIII.]
It is a surprise to realise that Antonia Fraser has not written about Henry VIII's wives already. She has written so many books on monarchs and women. There are her long biographies of Mary Queen of Scots and Oliver Cromwell and Charles II. There is The Weaker Vessel, a long study of 17th-century women. There is The Warrior Queens, an account of women leaders from Boadicea to Margaret Thatcher which, exceptionally among her history books, she kept below 400 pages. There is a novel about a royal wedding. Then there is Weidenfeld's Kings and Queens of England series, which she edited and to which she contributed a life of James I. Yet, she tells us, it took a friend to suggest the subject of Henry VIII's consorts, with the words, 'This may not sound like a good idea, but …'
It could be a good idea. Kings and queens are back in historical business, after the decades when they seemed to have been mere puppets of social and economic forces, and when interest in them seemed a frivolous distraction from serious issues of class and ideology. So long as the civil wars of the mid-17th century appeared to have been caused by the rise of the gentry or of the bourgeoisie, the shortcomings of Charles I seemed to have been at most the trigger of the conflict. Now that social and economic explanations of the wars have collapsed, Charles's character looks once more to have been at the heart of the problem.
The same pattern is observable in accounts of the break with Rome. So long as the Reformation was regarded as an explosion of popular and progressive sentiment, Henry VIII's matrimonial problems seemed merely to have affected its timetable. Now that we know how deeply entrenched was the old religion and how little support there was for the new, we remember that the Reformation was an act of state, and realise that England might well have remained a Catholic country but for Henry's roving eye and his need for a male heir.
The return to a Court-centred history is something more than a rediscovery of the effects of Cleopatra's nose, or of Anne Boleyn's black eyes. Historians, increasingly drawn to the relationship between political power and visual or literary statements, have seen that the rituals and entertainments of the Renaissance Court, its elaborate masques and chivalric displays, can help us to reconstruct not merely the power struggles of Tudor England but its political and social values.
If these and other historiographical developments have largely passed Fraser by, it is hard to blame her. Specialist historians write for each other. I say 'specialist' rather than 'professional', for the term 'professional historian' has come, by a sleight of hand convenient to those who recognise themselves in the term, to conflate two qualities: the quality of having scholarly standards, and the quality of earning a salary.
Fraser's scholarship, albeit unambitious, is always diligent, clear-headed, responsible. Even so, salaried history has made her kind hard to write. Fraser is the 20th century's equivalent to the popular Victorian writer Agnes Strickland. Like Fraser, Strickland came from a versatile literary family; like Fraser, she was devoted to Mary Queen of Scots; and like her she wrote lives of the queens of England. Strickland, with few predecessors to guide her and few salaried historians to look over her shoulder, made errors of scholarship and judgement which Fraser would not commit. Yet, for the same reason, she was able to carve out fresh historical territory. Fraser can travel only where learned articles have been before her.
She has a high respect for Henry's long-suffering wives, most of them women of intellect and strength of character. She wants to banish the clichés: 'The Betrayed Wife' (Catherine of Aragon), 'The Temptress' (Anne Boleyn), 'The Good Woman' (Jane Seymour), 'The Ugly Sister' (Anne or Anna or Cleves), 'The Bad Girl' (Katherine Howard), and 'The Mother Figure' (Catherine Parr). All her characterisations are shrewd and sympathetic and, as far as they go, persuasive. But none of them is three-dimensional
There are two problems, one of style, one of content. Fraser's books evidently sell in large numbers, and if those who buy them read them, and thus learn about a past that would otherwise remain closed to them, she is performing a valuable service. But do they read them? Can they really get through so many pages of nerveless prose? 'On the Welsh borders that spring, the weather was notably cold and wet, as a result of which sickness of various kinds was rife.' It is one thing to pen a sentence like that in a tired moment, another not to tear it up next day.
Solecisms jostle with limp constructions. Of Henry's final parting with Catherine of Aragon we learn that 'Unlike his behaviour towards Wolsey, he did not bid her an affable—if false—farewell.' At Anne Boleyn's coronation 'the celebrations of the City were not an unalloyed success at the grass roots level such things were supposed to reach.' Catherine Parr, nursing Henry, 'moved into a small bedroom next to his, out of her queenly apartments, emphasising the fact that a man on his sixth wife must be assumed to stand in need of a nurse and for this role the widowed Lady Latimer'—Catherine herself—'was well equipped.'
Perhaps Fraser's prose would be sprightlier if her grasp of historical context were stronger. In Mary Queen of Scots, much the best of her books, it was strong. Here she is unable to bring alive the political and religious conflicts to which the fate of Henry's queens belonged, and which would give the book a spine. Without that context the reader's interest is unlikely to be sustained, unless by pity for blighted lives or by interest in the clothes or the jewels or the sex.
The result, far beneath Fraser's honorable aim, is a sort of slow-moving Tudor Dallas. Henry VIII is 'lithe and goldenhaired' in his youth, when 'a vast love of life in all its forms exuded from him'. In time he is captured by the 'tempestuous, challenging Anne Boleyn'. Anne's outfit for her coronation is 'a mixture of the virginal and the resplendent'. For her execution she favours 'a mantle of ermine over a loose gown of dark grey damask, trimmed with fur, and a crimson petticoat'. In Catherine Parr, who 'comes across as someone who enjoyed the small pleasures of life', 'shoes were a real passion'.
The divorcees, Catherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves, linger at the ranch. Anne of Cleves takes to drink. There are beauties and fast women. Lady Margaret Douglas is 'the best-looking Tudor girl of her generation'. The 'Bad Girl', Katherine Howard, proves to be merely a Good Time Girl, but, being 'the sort of girl who lost her head easily over a man', she commits infidelities which 'tick away like a timebomb'.
In a shorter, tauter book the limits of Fraser's vision would matter less. The Six Wives of Henry VIII is dedicated to Harold Pinter, whose plays reduce experience to the smallest number of words in which it can be communicated. Fraser seems to work on an opposite principle. She needs a word-limit.
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SOURCE: "My Fair Lady," in Harper's, No. 3371, November, 1992, pp. 58, 60.
[In the following interview, Samson and Fraser discuss The Wives of Henry VIII.]
When her friend and erstwhile New Yorker editor Bob Gottlieb suggested she write her next book on the wives of Henry VIII, Lady Antonia Fraser remembers thinking that it was the book she was born to write. "I felt like rushing around the streets of New York, accosting people and telling them what I was going to do," she says.
The idea was a natural for a writer who had long since earned her place as a major historian. At 27, Lady Antonia wrote the definitive biography Mary, Queen of Scots, which was a best seller in eight languages. It was followed by equally acclaimed volumes on Oliver Cromwell and Charles II. Then she moved on to The Weaker Vessel, about women's sufferings in the 17th century, and The Warrior Queens, which she wrote afterward "because I felt so depressed that I had to cheer myself up."
Yet for all her renown as an established biographer, Lady Antonia resists pigeonholing. Between her more serious works, she writes crime novels featuring the female detective Jemima Shore and is a fixture—along with her husband, the playwright Harold Pinter—on London's fashionable literary circuit. (She inherited her title from her father, the Earl of Longford, and uses it on feminist grounds—insisting that Lady, like Ms., is a form of address all women should adopt.) During her tenure as president of English PEN, the international writers' association, Lady Antonia has also proved to be a formidable ambassador for freedom of expression, most notably in her tireless dealings with the British Foreign Office over controversial novelist Salman Rushdie and then-visiting dissident Vaclav Havel.
On the day of our interview, Lady Antonia was in the midst of doing publicity for The Wives of Henry VIII, which had just been published in England…. One morning newspaper praised her "Gioconda smile," while another commented that her skin "would make peaches weep in their cream." She dismisses the gushing references to her beauty: "I suppose one's vanity is pleased by it, but if I could be born again with more beauty or more brains, I'd take the brains," she says.
In any case, having recently turned 60, Lady Antonia has found that the label has become a burden. "Once you are called a beauty, then you are either an ex-beauty, a fading beauty, or 'still surprisingly beautiful.' But at least one gets more shortsighted, so when you remove your spectacles to put on makeup, the image in the mirror is pleasingly blurred," she says, laughing.
The author credits her success as a historian to her "ordinary eye." "When I'm reading a diary or looking at a document," she says, "I pick out the things that will interest other readers. I don't do it on purpose, I just see things the way most people do, which is very useful." In The Wives of Henry VIII, she divulges the sort of details one longs to know about royal marriages. Details of court life emerge in a way hitherto ignored by historians: the sleeping arrangements, the hazardous business of sexual intercourse in the public rooms of Hampton Court Palace, and the methods of contraception. She writes of the filthy passageway between Henry's and Catherine of Aragon's rooms and of Anne Boleyn's assessment of Henry's performance as a lover, which lacked both "vertu" (skill) and "puissance" (staying power).
Lady Antonia's obvious enjoyment of research is what brings the book to life. She worked each morning for six years in the British Library, keeping Mediterranean hours, often breaking for lunch with a friend at a nearby Greek restaurant. She also visited the scenes of the crimes: At the Tower of London, she felt the ghosts of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard as she studied the block where they both lay down their necks. "Unless you can imagine the feel of the ax on your own neck, you shouldn't be writing this book," she says.
Lady Antonia has dealt with the wives as individuals, rather than as the "Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived" cardboard classifications by which they've previously been categorized. Each of the women is a colorful, headstrong character rather than merely a victim. Lady Antonia admits that, had she been around at the time, she, too, might have fallen for Henry's charms. "When he was young, he was terribly attractive. He wasn't born with a 54-inch waistline and a face like a potato marked with little eyes. When he came to the throne, he was 18, tall, with a slim waist and hips, broad shoulders, golden hair, very athletic, loved music. I think anybody might have fancied him. He sounds marvelous."
And would she have survived? "I think I would have been like Anne Boleyn and needed too much independence," she says. "But I would have produced sons, as I've had three." Lady Antonia doesn't identify with any of the six wives in particular, but says she likes Anne Boleyn for her spirit and Catherine of Aragon for her intelligence: "People tend to think of Catherine as a bigoted old Spanish boot, but she was probably the cleverest queen consort England ever had."
Given the current state of the British royal family, one cannot help but speculate on how Fergie and Diana might have fared at the hands of Henry. The Duchess of York, it's agreed, would have lost her head. "She has no common sense. I think that is the kindest comment to make," Lady Antonia says. The Princess of Wales, however, would have survived. "Royalty had privacy then. It's tragic what's happening. As long as heirs were produced, we, the people, wouldn't have known about the rest of it."
And what would a biographer make of Lady Antonia's own life? "Oh, I don't think writers make very interesting subjects," she says, a touch disingenuously. "Well," she adds, after a moment's reflection, "it was Hilary Belloc who said, '[Her] sins were scarlet, but [her] books were read.' I think that says it all."
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SOURCE: "Betrothals and Beheadings," in Chicago Tribune, December 20, 1992, p. 7.
[In the following review of The Wives of Henry VIII, Cole examines the intricate individual stories that make up the work.]
In this new study of King Henry VIII and his wives [entitled The Wives of Henry VIII], Antonia Fraser sets out to dispel the historical perception that stereotypes those six women—Catherine of Aragon as the Abandoned Wife, Anne Boleyn as the Temptress, Jane Seymour as the Good Woman, Anna of Cleves as the Flanders Mule, Katherine Howard as the Bad Girl and Catherine Parr as the Mother Figure. Fraser points out that those images, while true in some measure, will not bear the hard scrutiny of history.
Anne Boleyn was certainly more than the King's goggle-eyed whore and Anna of Cleves more dignified than the cruel sobriquet that attaches to her name. Catherine of Aragon was a woman of character who bravely resisted banishment, fighting to the end for the legitimacy of her daughter, Mary. But to a greater or lesser extent, all six of Henry's wives were created or destroyed by what Fraser describes as their biological destiny—their capacity, in an age of grim infant mortality, to fructify the sovereign's bed with royal progeny, especially male offspring, and thus to perpetuate a dynasty insecure from its inception in 1485, when Henry of Lancaster killed Richard III on Bosworth Field and proclaimed himself Henry VII, the first of the Tudor kings.
It was an accession won at the point of a sword, and there were others with superior dynastic claims to the throne. Throughout his long reign, Henry VIII was constantly aware and wary of those deciduous loyalties lurking about his court. One cannot understand his marital career without taking into account this obsession to have male heirs, for the royal Tudors proved not to be highly philoprogenitive as a family. If Henry could not father a male successor, God, it would seem, could not establish His seed upon the throne of England.
The giant personality of Henry VIII has long over-shadowed the six women who shared his kingdom. With a firm grasp of her material, Fraser chronicles their lives at court triumphs as well as disasters, and admirably catches the lusty flavor of the period in this well produced and handsomely illustrated book.
Of the six women brave or foolish enough to marry Henry, only Jane Seymour retained his lasting affection, and she died giving birth to his son. Catherine of Aragon and Anna of Cleves were first courted and then cast aside for political purposes, while Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, both young and wayward, were caught in the caprice of infidelity and beheaded to assuage the King's anger.
Kingship in England reached a pinnacle of power and authority in the 16th Century. Henry was more than an absolute head of state, he also was the supreme head of the church, the spiritual as well as temporal ruler. Immortalized by the painter Hans Holbein as a Renaissance prince ruling in the image of God, Henry not only dominated the royal court, with its palaces at Greenwich, Windsor and Hampton, its tournaments and hunting lodges, but also the upheavals of the Reformation and the statesmen and princes—Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer, the Emperor Charles V and Pope Clement VII—who used the King's wives as pawns in the powerful game of politics.
If Henry was a born ruler, he was not born to be king. He might never have reigned except that his older brother, Arthur Prince of Wales, died young. Henry was 12 when he became heir apparent, succeeding to the throne six years later on the death of his father, Henry VII. He conducted affairs of state much as he approached matrimony—with an axe.
His first wife, Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, actually had been his dead brother's wife for about six months. Catherine was betrothed to Arthur to consolidate an alliance of England and Spain against the common enemy, France.
Six years older than Henry, Catherine was a plain, pious woman. A man of appetite and ambition, Henry, at age 19, did not feel compelled to marry her. But he was weary of a variety of mistresses culled from the ladies at court, the imperatives of power underlined the importance of the Spanish alliance and there was the need to produce a son. They were married for almost 20 years, but Catherine, having given birth to Mary Tudor, failed to bring to life a male heir, and the marriage evaporated in serial miscarriages, still-born infants or others who were short-lived.
The marriage might have endured, however, had Anne Boleyn been a harlot. Instead, having bewitched the King, she demanded marriage and the throne. It is said that the length of the siege is a woman's glory, and Anne Boleyn resisted the rampant war-lord until he made her queen. Young and attractive, she had grown up in France and was wise in the ways of the coquette. In the end, there was no divorce. Henry's marriage to Catherine was simply annulled, she was pensioned off as the Dowager Princess of Wales, wife of the late lamented Arthur, and England acquired a new queen. The first child was a girl, christened Elizabeth; the second was still-born, and the whole tragic litany of conjugal mis-carriages began again. Naturally flirtatious, Queen Anne had many admirers at court and many enemies who envied her position. Quick to become jealous and suspicious, the King began to believe the pervasive whispers about the Queen's capacity for dalliance circulating throughout the court. Arrested and put on trial, she went to the scaffold, in the words of one witness, looking "as gay as if she was not going to die."
Henry, who liked to combine betrothals with beheadings, secretly married Jane Seymour, a lady-in-waiting at court, two days after Anne's execution. The Seymours were landed gentry with sound aristocratic connections, but what appealed to Henry was that they were a prolific family. The new Queen died giving birth to Edward, Henry's first legitimate male heir to survive, (Edward would die at age 16, of tuberculosis.)
Henry, now an aging, corpulent man, was once more without a wife. New political alliances were explored without much success. Mary of Guise and Christina of Denmark spurned the King's overtures, and eventually, on assurance of his advisers, Henry decided on Anna of Cleves, a petty princess from the lower Rhineland. The marriage would provide England with the support of the North Germans, from Scheldt to the Zuider Zee. The Low Countries would be his, and beyond the North Sea, Henry would possess a people who, like himself, had cast off the Pope and who would also prove invaluable to trade.
Anna was 34, prudent, unprepossessing and bored. Marriage to the English King would be an escape. Amid considerable pomp and ceremony, she arrived in England. But she was no beauty, and Henry recoiled. (Fraser cites Anna's "slightly bulbous nose" as "one explanation of the King's disappointment.") In vain he tried to rescind the contract but was finally persuaded to go through with the ceremony.
Henry found Anna dismal and could not bring himself to consummate the marriage. Instead, he sought distractions among the ladies of the court, among whom was 18-year-old Katherine Howard, who bore a faint resemblance to her cousin, the ill-fated Anne Boleyn.
At age 50, King Henry had not lost his taste for a pretty face and flashing eyes. Queen Anna was informed that the King was divorcing her because their marriage had taken place under constraint. He assured her of his affection and hoped for her compliance. Tired of virginal matrimony, the Queen readily agreed, with certain conditions—she would remain in England and be provided with a suitable residence and income. The King was generous, and the Lords, the Commons and the clergy, bidden to obedience by their royal master, quickly pronounced the divorce.
Henry neither wished for nor expected a child from Katherine. She was like a child to him, and he rejoiced in her youthful radiance. But in less than two years, the serenity of the aging satyr was savaged by ugly innuendoes concerning the Queen's chastity. When she was 15, a music master had tried to seduce her, and, in the words of Katherine's confession, she "suffered him at sundry times to handle and touch the secret parts of my body." There were rumors of other, later amatory audacities. Arrested, put on trial, Queen Katherine was decapitated as a lesson to ladies of loose morals who trifle with kings.
An ogre of obesity, ulcerous, spent in spirit and slipping into melancholy, Henry now contemplated his sixth marriage. Catherine Parr, a consolable widow of excellent breeding, was in her 30s and less than good-looking. Sensible and intelligent, she had already outlived two husbands and was adept at caring for and pleasing elderly men. She was not enamoured of the King but resigned herself to becoming queen.
While his nights may have been prosaic, Henry was at last at peace in the companionship of a woman. He died after a series of strokes, having reigned for almost 40 years. Two weeks after the funeral, Catherine quietly married a handsome man of minor nobility, Thomas Seymour.
The final historical irony would be that, out of the wreckage of all Henry's marriages, the female child at whose birth he had winced would take the scepter, meant for the sons he lacked, and, as Queen Elizabeth I, become the greatest Tudor monarch of them all.
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SOURCE: A review of The Wives of Henry VIII, in The New York Times Book Review, December 20, 1992, p. 11.
[In the following review, Goreau considers Fraser's perspective on Henry VIII and his wives.]
"Who does not tremble when he considers how to deal with a wife?" asked Henry VIII in 1521.
That the King was writing on behalf of marriage, emphasizing the precious and sacred charge involved in such a union, must surely be one of the odder ironies of history. Odder still, given subsequent events, was that his motive in writing "The Defence of the Seven Sacraments" was to refute Martin Luther's heretical challenge to Pope and church. For Henry's efforts, the Pope granted to him and his successors the title Defender of the Faith.
Just six years later, Henry initiated the divorce that ultimately propelled England into the maw of schism. The divorce (never, of course, recognized by the Holy See) took another six years to orchestrate, but, once accomplished, ushered in a period of marital chaos whose extremes have rarely been equaled—even in our own era of rampant family dysfunction. Renaissance Europe watched aghast as the King of England ordered his second wife, Anne Boleyn, beheaded on trumped-up charges of treason after only three and a half years of marriage, then registered with disbelief the coronation of four more Queens of England in the space of little more than a decade. When apprised of the news that Henry had repudiated his fourth wife, whom he had married just six months before, to place on the throne an adolescent named Katherine Howard, the King of France shook his head in wonderment and asked: "The Queen that now is?"
To keep track of the dizzying list of royal mates, Lady Antonia Fraser tells us in the introduction to her latest work of popular history, people took to counting them off in a little refrain: "Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived." The six women in question, Lady Antonia observes, have come to be "defined in a popular sense not so much by their lives as by the way these lives ended." She proposes, in The Wives of Henry VIII, to rescue them from this historical injustice.
One might object in passing that to be remembered for the manner of one's demise, provided it was spectacular enough, is not an uncommon fate. But a much stronger objection to Lady Antonia's point is that divorce, as modern experience has proved, need not be the end of one's life. Indeed, the popular refrain that Lady Antonia cites reveals a more important point, for it fixes the moment—and means—at which these women ceased to be regarded by the King as his wife (with the exception, naturally, of his widow, Catherine Parr). One of the most interesting aspects of Lady Antonia's book, in fact, is its exploration of the manner in which the two divorced wives, Catherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves, dealt with the limbo in which they were cast by divorce.
There have been many fine individual biographies of Henry VIII's queens, but until the publication earlier this year of Alison Weir's lively study The Six Wives of Henry VIII. there were few responsible collective treatments, probably because the very idea of uniting these six biographies in one volume requires that their subjects be defined, first and foremost, as wives. Putting these life stories together, however, turns out to have an unexpected advantage: it throws into relief the ways in which six women of very different character and background learned—or failed to learn—to cope with a prodigiously difficult man. Conversely, looking at the story as a whole allows us to see how grappling with Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, two very powerful and (each in her own way) defiant women, fundamentally influenced not only Henry's next choice of a wife, the relatively docile Jane Seymour, but also determined the way he would behave toward wives who followed. After Henry's experience with the fiery, intelligent, plotting Mistress Anne, Lady Antonia notes, "the King would specifically order his future wives to avoid argument." If they failed to keep this caveat in mind, he would darkly remind them of their predecessor's fate.
Not surprisingly, the King's favorite wife was his third, Jane Seymour, who took as her motto "Bound to obey and serve." Of all his wives, she alone produced a male heir, and she did him the favor of dying before he could tire of her. For it was Henry's own peculiar destiny to be attracted to women of spirit and discover afterward that spirit in a wife was an irritation he could not suffer gladly.
Another strength of The Wives of Henry VIII is its author's determination to retell the story as though she did not know what its end might be. "Although we know Henry VIII will marry six times," Lady Antonia writes in her introduction, "we must always remember that he did not." Unfolding the story from its relatively innocent beginning, she takes us step by step through the process of moral compromise through which the Renaissance's splendid, golden boy king was transmogrified into a repulsive old tyrant whose monstrous proportions perfectly mirrored his ego. Like that of Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray, Henry VIII's character coarsened by degree with each violation.
Yet, despite her obvious disgust with Henry, Lady Antonia is determined to be fair. She puts events carefully in context, supplying the political and social underpinnings of what looks to 20th-century eyes suspiciously like one long royal nervous breakdown. She reminds us, for example, that by 16th-century standards Henry was a fairly good husband to his first wife for nearly 20 years until, deeply distraught over Catherine's repeated miscarriages and the realization that no more children would come from the marriage, he finally turned to divorce as a means of freeing himself to produce a male heir. Lady Antonia points out, furthermore, that Henry's desperation over the succession had its roots in the fact that his father had won his crown at the battle of Bosworth Field. Henry VIII, the usurper, passed on to his son what might be called an intense throne anxiety. Without an indisputable—that is to say, male—heir, Henry feared that England might well fall once again into civil war.
Lady Antonia also disentangles the highly complicated strategies by which the King justified his actions, always managing to preserve "the tender conscience on which he prided himself." The same man who did not shrunk from letting his minister's invent the charges on which Anne Boleyn was tried was nevertheless reluctant to tell an outright lie himself. "Taxed many years later with having had an affair with three Boleyns, two daughters and a mother," Lady Antonia writes, "the best he could do was to reply shamefacedly: 'Never with the mother.'"
The Wives of Henry VIII does, as it promises, admirably succeed in bringing to life, with economy of detail, the six women who married England's ruler. But, despite Lady Antonia's assertion that "this is not his story," the biography's focus keeps wandering inevitably back to "the gigantic Maypole … round which these women had to dance." This may be, however, an unavoidable consequence of the fact that what these six women had in common was coming to terms with Henry. Finally, the book's greatest interest lies in its deeply engaging portrait of a marriage—in serial.
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SOURCE: "A Good Crumb," in History Today, Vol. 44, No. 11, November, 1994, p. 60.
[In the following review, Ives assesses the strengths and failings of Fraser's approach to writing history as evidenced in The Wives of Henry VIII.]
That Antonia Fraser's Six Wives of Henry VIII is available in paperback as well as on library shelves should guarantee circulation to the only current account of Henry VIII's wives and by far the best of its kind. It has all the Fraser virtues: liveliness, enough but not too much detail, a grasp of up-to-date scholarship and an eye for the memorable—I shall treasure St Bernadino of Siena's remark that the mother who fails to tell her daughter what to expect on her wedding night 'sends her to sea with no biscuit'. Above all imaginative sympathy; the past lives as is too rarely the case in academic history today. After half-a-century Eileen Power's quip still remains true: 'Once upon a time there was a historian who was so dull that all the other historians began to notice'.
The dullness of academics is partly fear of being wrong, and it is the case that the Fraser method does take risks. Points are sometimes missed. The evidence suggests that Henry divorced Anne Boleyn not on grounds of precontract to the Earl of Northumberland but on grounds of his own previous intercourse with Anne's sister (macabre consistency). Feel for a good story sometimes overcomes proper scepticism. The tax collector whom the Lincolnshire rebels in 1536 sewed in a cowskin to be eaten by dogs is a fiction. Occasionally connections are jumped at too readily; William Herbert's advancement antedated his sister-in-law's becoming queen in 1543.
There are also errors. For example, the ambassador to France in 1542 was not John Paget but William; Thomas Seymour was not Lord Admiral in 1544; the illegality in torturing Anne Ascue was not that she was a gentlewoman but that she had already been condemned; the misprint on p.372 of 'progress' entirely distorts the sense. So, too, with the illustrations. These are plentiful, well-chosen and varied but 'Thomas Boleyn' is probably 'James Butler' Anne's intended husband; the Horenbout miniature captioned 'Anne Boleyn' is improbable, so too the Holbein drawing at Windsor; the sixteenth-century view of the Tower is a Victorian redrawing; the Wyngaerde of Richmond Palace is actually of Hampton Court.
But such matters are rarely more than venal. The importance is the overall interpretation. Here, of course, any writer has a problem of balance. Katherine of Aragon—and quite clearly that was how Tudor Englishmen spelt the name—was involved with Henry for thirty-four years and Anne Boleyn for ten, but the next three wives for under two years each and the last for less than four.
The temptation to skimp after Anne Boleyn's death is strong, especially as political considerations suggest that it was the first two wives who mattered and that the only significant thing about the others was that Jane had a son and the rest remained childless. Antonia Fraser, however, resists this, treating each woman at a decent length. In consequence, although there are full-scale scholarly biographies to set alongside her accounts of Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, her treatment in depth of the last four wives gives the book a unique value.
Lady Antonia claims that she has no favourites but she certainly tries to redress some balances. One example is Jane Seymour, portrayed as a serene and submissive creature, not the schemer I made her. Not that I am persuaded—nobody who had been around a Tudor court for as long as Jane could possibly have been so unaware. The Fraser rehabilitation of Anne of Cleves is, by contrast, very convincing. Anne is shown to have been by no means ill-favoured—the 'Flanders Mare' sneer dates from the eighteenth century—and once settled in England as an independent and wealthy woman she enjoyed life (particularly alcohol) and some popularity.
I am not, however, like Antonia Fraser, 'mystified' at Henry's disappointment with her. Anglicised, Anne was one thing, Anne arriving in England for the first time was another. Completely naïve, wholly unsupplied with the 'biscuit' of the facts of life, she understood no English and was totally ignorant of courtly etiquette and courtly devices. It is no wonder that she effectively ignored the complete stranger who burst in to give her presents and became totally bewildered when he changed costume and appeared as king. Henry had expected a sophisticated woman only to have his chivalric gallantries fall flat before this repressed provincial hausfrau. Had he been available, a few lessons with Professor Higgins might have done the trick, but the forty-nine year old Henry had been made to look a fool and sulked at how badly he had been treated.
Antonia Fraser's interpretations are worth listening to, whether one agrees or not. I would, for example, certainly want to question the notion that during the long years of waiting Anne Boleyn and Henry practised coitus interruptus. I agree that Katherine Howard probably did know the technique but it requires some male co-operation and while I can accept that in emergency she might be ready to force away a lover, I cannot imagine Henry VIII tolerating such treatment. Habsburg enemies called Anne 'the Concubine' but her determination to be more than a mistress and Henry's obsession to beget a son in wedlock must together have limited the intimacies they allowed themselves. It is the twentieth-century reading history backwards to assume that chastity was not the preferred contraceptive option of past generations.
In one respect, however, the book disappoints. It points out the links between the wives but deals only indirectly with what really united them—Henry VIII himself. What did he look for in them? Sophistication we have seen. Maturity? Apart from the least satisfactory of his wives, the nineteen-year-old and knowledgeable Katherine Howard, the remainder were well past youth, three in the later twenties and two over thirty. Was this because Henry wanted someone to manage, even mother him? There are certainly hints of this with both the Katherines and with Anne Boleyn. It is here that our knowledge of Henry's youth is so disabling. His mother died when he was eleven, but his even more formidable grandmother, Margaret Beaufort, survived to see him crowned and has been credited with the dominant role in the transition from father to son. Whether this was the case is, not, unfortunately, clear from the latest biography of her by M.K. Jones and M.G. Underwood.
In The King's Mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, the authors make a valiant attempt to demonstrate that Margaret played an important political role from 1485, but data to enable a firm decision one way or the other is simply not available. One would like to believe in the Tudor matriarch who stood behind both son and grandson and there are some indications of this, but she comes out far more strongly as a tough-minded Tudor widow, concerned with family, status and property but with a genuine concern for charity and above all her Cambridge colleges. It is nicely ironic that of all her grandson's wives it was Anne Boleyn who shared this enthusiasm!
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SOURCE: "Playing Modern Detective In the Gunpowder Plot," in The New York Times, December 4, 1996, pp. C3, C7.
[In the following review, Gussow investigates Fraser's ideas on the research she conducted for Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot.]
While writers as diverse as John le Carré and V. S. Naipaul journey to exotic places in search of material, Antonia Fraser habitually goes to the reading room of the British Museum, where she is surrounded by her research (and sometimes by her mother, daughter or other members of her family of writers, the literary Longfords). For Lady Antonia there is also a sense of adventure, despite the quietude and the archival aspect of her creativity.
In her books she has looked deeply into the lives of major figures in English history, searching for facts behind myths. For her new work, Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot, there is also a mystery. In 1605, Robert Catesby, Guy Fawkes and other Roman Catholic dissidents threatened to blow up Parliament and assassinate King James I of England as a protest against religious persecution.
As she says in her book, the problem was to draw conclusions from "imperfect records and testimonies taken under torture." As a result, some historians have raised doubts that the plot ever took place, suggesting that the Government may have imagined it in order to blame the Catholics. Over tea during a recent visit to New York (with her husband, Harold Pinter), Lady Antonia said: "You have to assess the evidence, read the primary sources and make up your own mind. I happen to think there was a plot, and that the Government penetrated it 10 days before it happened." To reach that conclusion, she consulted all available documents, historical papers as well as the pamphlet on torture that is sold to tourists in the Tower of London. She also gathered atmosphere through field work, what she calls "optical research." For example, she explored closets and crannies where priests were hidden.
As with her other books like Mary Queen of Scots and The Wives of Henry VIII, Faith and Treason peripherally serves as a guidebook. Book in hand, readers go to castles, National Trust houses and dungeons described in the text. "Forget the Blue Guide," Lady Antonia said. "I am the Guide."
In England, the tourists are already on Guy Fawkes's trail. Even more will be if the book becomes a film. The movie rights have been sold, and the novelist William Boyd is writing the screenplay.
It would be the first of Lady Antonia's histories to reach the screen, although dramatizations of her mystery-novels about Jemima Shore, a television reporter and amateur sleuth, have been presented on public television. In a sense, Faith and Treason is a bridge between those mysteries and the author's biographies. Because she uses detective tools in investigating the complex case, she was especially pleased when one reviewer compared the book to the work of Mr. le Carré.
Speaking about the plotters, she wondered how they "could have chucked everything away, not only for themselves but for their wives and children," all, of course, for the sake of a cause. The central figure was not Fawkes but Catesby. Fawkes became the one most remembered because he was found with gunpowder in the basement of Parliament.
Subsequently England celebrated the exposure of the plot as Guy Fawkes Day. Each year on Nov. 5, bonfires are lighted and Fawkes is burned in effigy, sometimes along with the Pope. In a turnabout, there is some sympathy for Fawkes in Britain. To illustrate, Lady Antonia repeated a joke about the country's natural antipathy to politicians: "Guy Fawkes is the only man who got into Parliament with the right intentions."
Her own allegiance is neither with James I nor the plotters but with the priests and courageous women who gave them shelter, at risk to their own lives. Priests were arrested, tortured and executed, but most of the women avoided arrest by playing on the idea that they were "weak" and therefore incapable of action. Echoing Lady Antonia's earlier book, The Weaker Vessel, Faith and Treason depicts strong women behind the scenes.
It is dedicated to her son-in-law and daughters-in-law, to "Edward, who would have defended them; Lucy, who would have hidden them; Paloma, who would have succored them in exile." What would Lady Antonia, a Catholic, have done if confronted with a recusant seeking shelter? "I hope I would have been like Magdalen Montague, a great Catholic lady who never compromised, and all the time she was hiding people."
Faith and Treason is detailed in its descriptions of life and culture in the period. For example, people drank beer and not water, because water was so contaminated that it became "a lethal substance."
There are frequent references to Shakespeare, who was contemporaneous with James I. Lady Antonia said that in writing Macbeth, with its theme of regicide, Shakespeare was influenced by the Gunpowder Plot. Hamlet and King Lear came later, and therefore were Jacobean rather than Elizabethan plays. Because Ben Jonson and others were writing at the time, she said, the period was artistically a "kind of cusp." In her biography Royal Charles, the author reminds readers that several years after the Gunpowder Plot, others seeking religious freedom sailed from England on the Mayflower. Since she has visited the 17th century in this and other books, it is clearly her favorite age.
"It is the century," she said, adding quickly: "But I'm actually quite happy in my own time. I don't have a sentimental feeling about the past. I want to recreate it, but I don't want to drag about in those clothes." She would not mind time-traveling, she said, "if I could wander about and be invisible."
She said biographers and historians should establish an order of values and not be submerged in trivialities. In this area, she defers to the English historian E. H. Carr, who said that everything that happens every day is not history, no matter how famous a person may be. "By the next day it's the past, but it's not necessarily history," Lady Antonia said.
Through footnotes and textual references, she parallels the Gunpowder Plot with recent events in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, but in characteristic fashion does not underscore the relevance. The work is not intended as a polemic.
For her next book, a biography of Marie Antoinette, Lady Antonia will leave the British Museum. In a change of place, with pen and author poised, she will take up new research residence at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.