Robert Fraser (writer)

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Photo by Stephanie Newell – Robert Fraser at Glyndebourne in June 2009

Robert Fraser FRSL,[1][2] is a British author and biographer.

Early life[edit]

Fraser was born on 10 May 1947 in Surbiton, Surrey, the second son of Harry MacKenzie Fraser, a London solicitor, and Ada Alice Gittins of Pontypool in the county of Monmouthshire. His brother was Malcolm Fraser (1939–2012), Emeritus Professor of Opera at the University of Cincinnati and co-founder of the Buxton Festival.[3] At the age of eight, Robert Fraser won a choral scholarship to Winchester Cathedral, where he sang the daily services while studying at the Pilgrims School in the Close. Among his fellow choristers were the future newscaster Jon Snow[4] and international tenor Julian Pike. After attending Kingston Grammar School Fraser went on to the University of Sussex to read English with David Daiches and Anthony Nuttall. He later wrote a doctorate on tradition in English poetry at Royal Holloway, University of London while simultaneously studying Harmony, Counterpoint and Composition at Morley College with Melanie Daiken and James Iliff.


Fraser began his teaching career at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana, where he lectured from 1970 to 1974 before moving to the University of Leeds to teach under Geoffrey Hill. He subsequently held posts in the University of London and at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was Director of Studies in English until 1993, tutoring among others the novelist Belinda Starling[5] and the actor Alexander Armstrong.

Fraser is currently Professor of English at the Open University and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.[6]


Fraser's choral background can be detected in his work for the stage, such as the performing translation of Domenico Cimarosa's opera Il pittor parigino performed at Buxton in 1989.[7] He has also published articles on the cultural and political contexts of the music of Purcell[8] and Handel[9] He is the author of several biographical works for the theatre, including plays on the lives of the composer Carlo Gesualdo and of Byron. God's Good Englishman, his dramatic portrait of Samuel Johnson, opened at the Oxford Playhouse in 1984 and toured Britain with the actor Timothy West in its title role.

James George Frazer[edit]

Academically, Fraser is a specialist in the writing of his near namesake, the classicist and cultural anthropologist James George Frazer, on whom he has published several books, and the genesis of whose best known work on magic, religion and myth he charted in The Making of The Golden Bough: The Origins and Growth of An Argument.[10] A study in intellectual gestation, it was later integrated into the full "archive" edition of Frazer’s magnum opus as a special introductory volume.[11] In 1994 he edited for the Oxford World’s Classics a "new abridgement" of Frazer’s classic that brought some of its most provocative ideas back into general circulation, including theories on Christianity and sacred prostitution.[12] At the same time, he is a respected critic of the work of Marcel Proust, on whom he has published a much-cited study,[13] and spoken on BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time.[14]

In the wider literary world Fraser is principally associated with the life and work of certain twentieth-century British poets. In the early 1980s he conducted a dispute with Laura Riding, former consort of Robert Graves, who took issue with his review of her Collected Poems.[15]

George Barker[edit]

In 1987 he edited the Collected Poems, and in 1995 the Selected Poems, of T. S. Eliot's protégé George Barker.[16] His life of Barker, The Chameleon Poet,[17] aroused opposition among some members of the poet’s own family.[18] But on its appearance in late 2001 it was warmly reviewed by the poets laureate Carol Ann Duffy[19] and Andrew Motion,[20] and by the writers Anthony Thwaite,[21] Vernon Scannell,[22] Humphrey Carpenter[23] and Frederic Raphael;[24] it was chosen by the novelist D. J. Taylor as Spectator Book of the Year for 2002.[25]

David Gascoyne[edit]

In 2012, Fraser's biography of the poet David Gascoyne, Barker's lifelong friend, was published by the Oxford University Press.[26]

The book was criticised in some quarters for devoting insufficient space to the darker side of Gascoyne's personality. "Fatally," remarked Paul Batchelor in The Times Literary Supplement "Fraser has little time for introverts".[27] In marked contrast, reviewing the book for The Guardian, Iain Sinclair lauded it as "a witnessed romance of manners and slights, a landscape in which cold biographical facts are converted into metaphors of questing vision, delirium, breakdown".[28] In May the book was placed first in the Independent's chart of ten best new biographies.[29]

African Writer's Series[edit]

Fraser was one of the guiding spirits behind Heinemann Educational Book’s celebrated African Writers Series,[30] and is a founding editor of the 25-year-old journal Wasafiri.[31] He has published a "critical history" of West African poetry,[32] along with monographs on Ben Okri[33]- a personal friend – and the Ghanaian novelist Ayi Kwei Armah.[34] During 2004–7 he travelled in India and Africa[35] researching a comparative account of publishing in those regions which appeared in 2008 as Book History Through Postcolonial Eyes: Re-Writing the Script.[36] Over the same period he co-edited with his friend Dr Mary Hammond of Southampton University a two-volume survey of international publishing entitled Books Without Borders.[37] In October 2005, in connection with this work, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society

He has been described as a writer "who tries to keep one foot planted in, and the other well outside, academe".[38] Yale's Harold Bloom has noted his powers of comparative analysis,[39] and Harvard's Biodun Jeyfo has commended the "superb work" of "this meticulous scholar-critic".[40] The classicist Roger Just has also drawn attention to his “care, precision, good sense and…admirable lightness of touch.”.[41] But his writing has also given rise to vocal dissent,[42] adopting as he does a line that seems now radical, now trenchantly traditionalist.[43] His decision, in the words of John McLeod, “not to work with the niceties and orthodoxies of postcolonial theory" has on occasions given rise to sharply worded rejoinders.[44] He has little time for critical fashion and in 1999 coined the mocking term “Theocolonialism” to describe the subordination of independent judgement to passing fad, and the purported tendency among some academics in the field of literary studies to leap aboard noisy bandwagons.[45]

Private Life[edit]

For thirty two years, until her death in 2014, Robert Fraser was married to the law lecturer Catherine Birkett. Their son Benjo is a Research Associate in Theoretical Physics at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.


  1. ^ "Professor Robert Fraser". Open University. Retrieved 14 March 2010. 
  2. ^ "Fellows (F)". Royal Society of Literature. Retrieved 14 March 2010. 
  3. ^
  4. ^ Jon Snow, "Passion and tears before bedtime", The Daily Telegraph, 19 March 1995, p. 19. See also Jon Snow, Shooting History: A Personal Journey (London: HarperCollins, 2004), pp. 21–5.
  5. ^ Robert Fraser, "Starling", The London Magazine, October/November 2007, p. 28.
  6. ^ Royal Society of Literature, List of Fellows and Members, 2009.
  7. ^ Michael Kennedy, Buxton: An English Festival with a Foreword by Roy Hattersley (Buxton, 2004), pp. 70, 134.
  8. ^ Robert Fraser, Have fair fallen, The London Magazine, April/May 2004, pp. 46–54.
  9. ^ Robert Fraser, Whatever is, is right: Handel’s Penultimate Oratorio and the Pity of War, The Times Literary Supplement, 17 January 2003, pp. 13–14.
  10. ^ Robert Fraser, The Making of the Golden Bough: The Origins and Growth of An Argument (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1990). See also Robert Fraser ed. Sir James Frazer and the Literary Imagination: Essays in Affinity and Influence (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1990); and Robert Fraser, Mere Idle Calumnies: How Sir James Frazer’s anthropological open-mindedness was misappropriated to support a Blood Libel – and how he responded, The Times Literary Supplement, 10 April 2009, pp. 13–15.
  11. ^ Volume two of the Palgrave Archive edition of The Golden Bough (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave, 2002).
  12. ^ James George Fraser, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, A New Abridgment from the Second and Third Editions (Oxford University Press, 1992, 1998).
  13. ^ Proust and the Victorians: The Lamp of Memory (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1994).
  14. ^ "Proust – Life and Work", In Our Time, Thursday 17 April 2003.
  15. ^ Robert Fraser, "From Fable to Cryptogram", English (Oxford University Press for the English Association, Vol. XXX, No. 136 (Spring 1981), pp. 84–6. Laura Riding's riposte was printed in Vol. XXX1, No 139 (Spring 1982), pp. 85–100.
  16. ^ George Barker, Collected Poems edited by Robert Fraser (London: Faber, 1987); George Barker, Selected Poems (London: Faber, 1995),
  17. ^ Robert Fraser, The Chameleon Poet: A Life of George Barker (London; Jonathan Cape, 2001).
  18. ^ "Barker Bites Back", Londoner’s Diary, The Evening Standard, 6 February 2002, p. 12; Elspeth Barker, "Too shabby for words", Tatler, March 2002, pp. 104–5; Elspeth Barker, "Admired and Reviled", The Independent on Sunday, 17 February 2002, Books Section, p. 13. See also, however, Christopher Barker, The Arms of the Infinite (London: Pomona, 2006), pp. 137, 142, 157, 173 etc.
  19. ^ "Rhapsody on a Bohemian", The Mail on Sunday, 24 February 2002, Review Section, p. 64.
  20. ^ "Equally devoted to the gutter and the stars", The Financial Times Weekend 9/10 February 2002, Books, p. iv.
  21. ^ "In love with the muse", The Times Literary Supplement, 22 February 2002, pp. 3–4.
  22. ^ "Faithful to his Muse, not to his women", The Sunday Telegraph Review, 3 February 2002, p. 15.
  23. ^ "A pugilist poet with a taste for danger", The Sunday Times Culture, 17 March 2002, p. 44.
  24. ^ "An old bohemian, amoral and fiercely moralising", The Spectator, 23 February 2002, pp. 37–8.
  25. ^ The Spectator, 16 November 2002, p. 48.
  26. ^
  27. ^ 'Greetings to the Solitary' The Times Literary Supplement No.5697, 8 June 2012, p.7.
  28. ^
  29. ^
  30. ^ James Currey, Africa Writes Back: The African Writer’s Series and the Launch of African Literature (Oxford: James Currey; Johannesburg: Wits University Press; Athens: Ohio University Press, 2008), pp. 77–8, 82, 287, 297–8.
  31. ^ "To Be A Pilgrim", Wasafiri No. 59, (25th Anniversary Issue, Autumn 2009), pp. 84–5.
  32. ^ West African Poetry: A Critical History (Cambridge University Press, 1986).
  33. ^ Ben Okri: Towards The Invisible City Writers and Their Work (Tavistock: Northcote House in Association with the British Council, 2003).
  34. ^ The Novels of Ayi Kwei Armah: A Study in Polemical Fiction (London: Heinemann, 1980)
  35. ^ ‘Major Grant for Literature’, Sesame (Milton Keynes: The Open University), January/February 2004, p. 7.
  36. ^ Book History Through Postcolonial Eyes: Re-Writing the Script (London and New York: Routledge, 2008).
  37. ^ Robert Fraser and Mary Hammond, Books Without Borders (London: Palgrave 2008): Volume One: The Crossnational Dimension in Print Culture; Volume Two: Perspectives from South Asia.
  38. ^ The Royal Society of Literature Review 2008, p. 62.
  39. ^ Harold Bloom's Modern Critical Views: Marcel Proust (Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004), vii.
  40. ^ Biodun Jeyfo, Wole Soyinka: Politics, Poetics, Postcolonialism (Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 224–7.
  41. ^ Roger Just, "The Lichen on the Bough", The Times Literary Supplement, 11 January 1991, p. 3.
  42. ^ See especially Joseph Bristow "A discipline divided: Is there a crisis in English Studies?", The Times Higher Educational Supplement, 3 June 1988, p. 14.
  43. ^ See especially his "The Shock Of The New Has Lost Its Edge", The Times Higher Educational Supplement, 13 May 1988, p. 16.
  44. ^ John McLeod, review of Lifting the Sentence in The Modern Language Review, 1 October 2002.
  45. ^ See "The Death of Theory: A Report From the Web", Wasafiri, No. 30 (Autumn, 1999), pp. 9–14. A revised version appears as Part Four: Postcolonial Theory As Fiction, Chapter 14: "Theocolonialism: Persons, Tenses and Moods" in Lifting the Sentence: A Poetics of Postcolonial Fiction (Manchester University Press, 2000), pp. 214–30.

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