Biographer Antonia Fraser Tells the Stories of Women Who Made History

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From The Wall Street Journal:

Lady Antonia Fraser’s bestselling biographies of Mary Queen of Scots and Marie Antoinette probed the unique travails of female monarchs in eras dominated by men. Her 1984 book “The Weaker Vessel,” about the grim lives of women in 17th-century England, has been hailed by critics as a pioneering feminist work.

Yet despite her familiarity with historical sexism, Ms. Fraser was shocked when she learned about Caroline Norton. a well-born Englishwoman and prolific writer, who in 1836 was publicly accused by her husband George of having an affair with the prime minister, Lord Melbourne. George punished Caroline by stealing away their three young children and keeping the proceeds from her writing for himself. “The fact that she was found innocent of adultery, yet George Norton could throw her out of the house, legally take away their three children and live off the copyright of her books, that absolutely stunned me,” Ms. Fraser, 89, says over video from her home in London, while her two cats sashay around the room. “I was surprised by the appalling state of women’s legal rights. It seemed there’d been no progress since the 17th century.”

In “The Case of the Married Woman,” published in the U.S. next month, Ms. Fraser writes that Caroline Norton was witty, beautiful and charismatic, the author of over a dozen well-received novels, plays and volumes of poetry. Yet the writings she is best known for today are her pamphlets arguing for the rights of married women. “A woman is made a helpless wretch by these laws of men,” Norton once lamented. Her advocacy helped lead to the passage of the Custody of Infants Act of 1839, arguably the first feminist legislation in English history, which made it possible for mothers to petition the courts for custody of their children. She was also instrumental in the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, which expanded access to divorce and gave women legal protection from exploitation by their husbands.

“The more I knew about her, the more I admired her,” Ms. Fraser says. When it came time to write about the tragic and needless death of Norton’s youngest son while he was in the negligent care of his father, she admits “there was a tear in my eye, because I identified so much with her at that point.” This sense of “tremendous kinship” came largely from the fact that Norton was both a writer and a mother—“those two strong calls, which I experienced, too,” Ms. Fraser says.

Ms. Fraser had just given birth to the last of her six children with her first husband, the Conservative MP Sir Hugh Fraser, when she began writing her first work of serious historical biography, “Mary Queen of Scots.” Published in 1969 when she was 36, the book was a bestseller in 11 languages, and Ms. Fraser says it changed her life overnight. Her latest is her 30th book, including 10 novels, two memoirs and two books for children. She credits the daunting output to her discipline during her “sacred” working hours between 9:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. “According to my children, there was a notice on the door saying only come in if you’ve broken a leg. I deny it,” she says with a mischievous smile. She now has 20 grandchildren and 6 great-grandchildren: “There’s something so exciting about babies, though they do grow into teenagers.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal