In The Weaker Vessel (1984), an ironically titled celebration of women in the 17th century, Antonia Fraser recounts the feminine virtues of the day: fidelity, modesty, meekness, patience, and humility. When an interviewer asked Fraser how she felt she measured up to these qualities, Fraser replied: “Not too well. 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.” One might also add that modesty on Fraser’s part would be suspect, given the extent of her accomplishments.
Fraser was born into a literary clan. Her father, Frank Pakenham, seventh Earl of Longford, was an Oxford don, a prolific writer, and later a politician; her mother, Elizabeth Pakenham, Lady Longford, has more than a dozen titles to her credit. In the 1960s Lady Longford was approached with the idea of writing a biography of Mary Queen of Scots. At that time, Fraser had set aside earlier literary pursuits to support the career of her husband, Tory politician Hugh Fraser, and was expecting the fifth of her six children. But no longer could she remain on the literary sidelines. Fraser had been enthralled by the doomed Queen since childhood, when she acted out scenes from Mary’s life—particularly the famous execution—for her seven younger siblings (three of whom also went on to become authors, as did some of Fraser’s own children). The topic became Fraser’s, and the result was Mary Queen of Scots (1969), winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and a bestseller in eight languages.
Fraser has been praised for the thoroughness of her research, the liveliness of her re-creation of history, and for humanizing her subjects, even as she renders judgments. Accuracy of detail is critical: “If I write that it was a cold day, you can be sure I know it was a cold day because Pepys told us.” Fraser has immersed herself in the 17th century, applying knowledge of the period to successive biographies of Oliver Cromwell, King James I, and King Charles II.
In the mid ’70s, Fraser began writing mystery novels alongside her nonfiction works. She created TV commentator/sleuth Jemima Shore, lending the character many of her private tastes. Notes the author, “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.” Fraser also connects her impulse to write fiction to the start of a new life when her marriage of 20 years broke up. In 1980, Fraser married playwright Harold Pinter.
Over the years, Fraser has been an active crusader for authors’ rights. As a Chair of English PEN, she has been highly effective in helping to free dissident writers in prison. “That is my major concern: writers who are in prison for writing,” she comments.
Fraser has appeared as a broadcaster, lecturer, and panelist on BBC’s “My Word.” Her recent works are more panoramic in scope, covering multiple rather than single subjects, as in The Warrior Queens (1988), a study of women who led their people into battle, and The Wives of Henry VIII (1992). Sifting through layers of time, Fraser maintains a passion for uncovering what happened. History is her backdrop, but the person—the individual living the life—remains in Fraser’s foreground.
Excerpt from Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot (1996)
A maligned and persecuted group in Elizabethan England, Catholics looked forward to greater tolerance under the reign of King James I (also King James VI of Scotland and son of Catholic Mary Queen of Scots). When expectations for religious leniency were dashed, a group of conspirators plotted a daring terrorist act: blowing up Parliament with King James and royal family members inside. Their foiled attempt of 1605, which continues to be commemorated in England on November 5 as Guy Fawkes Day, is the subject of Antonia Fraser’s newest book.
Among the “Honest Papists” whom Fraser portrays are a pair of women who defied the government by hiding Jesuit priests when their presence in England was illegal. Eliza Vaux, a widow, and her unmarried sister-in-law Ann Vaux played prominent roles in events surrounding the Powder Treason. Catholic patriarch Sir Thomas Tresham, whose name appears in the excerpt, was contemptuous of independent women:
Mistress Anne Vaux was a ‘maid’ in the parlance of the time, but what we would call a spinster. She was born in 1562 and was therefore over forty at the time of James’ accession: this spinsterhood was almost certainly a deliberate choice in that Anne Vaux held herself to be dedicated to the service of God. From the 1590s onward she saw this service as best performed by protecting and managing the affairs of Father Henry Garnet, the Superior of the Jesuits. Garnet’s own sisters had gone abroad and became nuns at Louvain: this left Anne Vaux able to pose as his sister ‘Mistress Perkins’ in order to avoid awkward questioning about the priest’s precise status. In private Garnet called Anne his ‘sister in Christ.’ . . .
Nevertheless, for all her piety, Anne did, like Eliza, take on Sir Thomas himself, suing him in the Court of Wards as a trustee for her marriage portion. Since she had not married and had no intention of doing so, it was a bold gesture undoubtedly provoked by her desperate need of funds to help the priests. Sir Thomas was once again furious and this time managed to fight back by forcing Anne Vaux to come to Rushton to beg for the money personally. If she showed herself ‘stomachful’ (uppish) she still would not receive it. Anne was in her turn extremely angry. Hauling along her widowed sister Eleanor Brooksby (equally pious but much more timid), Anne Vaux indulged in ‘verbal combat’ with Sir Thomas in his own house from noon until four in the afternoon, stopping him from eating his dinner. She got her money.
As a single woman with a handsome fortune at her disposal and a convenient widowed sister to provide domestic respectability, Anne was also able to play a crucial part in renting houses in which Jesuits might gather in safety. The Jesuit rule required priests to meet at least once a year–hopefully twice–in order to give an account of their conscience to their Superior and renew their vows. Such a congruence of Jesuits inevitably presented dangers which single priests, operating alone, did not face. For this purpose Anne Vaux rented Baddesley Clinton in Warwickshire from the antiquarian Henry Ferrers.
Baddesley Clinton was a secluded early Tudor mansion, with a moat, set amid woods about a hundred miles from London. The situation was perfect for the purposes of retreat and Anne immediately set about having a talented lay brother called Nicholas Owen (who will play an important part in this story) devise enough hiding places to conceal twelve or more priests. By using the moat and the levels of a sewer, together with secret turret trapdoors and stairways, Owen was able to ensure that Father Garnet and others survived a notorious search in 1591. They stood for four hours, half immersed in water. But they were not captured.
Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot (1996)
The Wives of Henry VIII (1992)
The Warrior Queens (1988)
The Weaker Vessel (1984)
Cromwell: The Lord Protector (1973)
Mary Queen of Scots (1969)
“Jemima Shore” Mystery Series.
Interview with Fraser