Rugged Outcast

Cromwell: The Lord Protector

by Antonia Fraser
Knopf, 774 pp., $12.50

Cromwell: A Profile

edited by Ivan Roots
Hill and Wang (World Profiles series), 237 pp., $3.65 (paper)

Oliver Cromwell
Oliver Cromwell; drawing by David Levine

Antonia Fraser’s enormous biography succeeds in what I take to be its aim: it can be read with pleasure and profit by almost anyone who can afford it, however well or ill acquainted with Cromwell’s period. The pleasure might have been doubled, and the profit scarcely diminished, if the length had been halved; but even the most knowledgeable of seventeenth-century historians may feel awed by the thoroughness of Lady Antonia’s research. Some of her source references are positively exotic.

There are, as one might expect, no startling discoveries, for the challenge to Cromwell’s modern biographers is less to unearth new evidence than to make fresh sense of the old; and none of Lady Antonia’s perceptions can be said to be very original. Nevertheless, the book is distinguished by narrative skill (especially marked in the accounts of military campaigns) and by unerring good sense. No biographer has dealt so sensitively or so persuasively with Cromwell’s friendships and family relationships, a theme which illuminates the public as well as the private man. The factual errors are mostly trivial. There is an occasional tendency to lean on unreliable sources, but otherwise Lady Antonia’s judgments command respect even where one dissents from them.

These are admirable qualities. They are, indeed, qualities that reviewers always seem to find themselves describing as admirable. The trouble is that Oliver Cromwell was a great man; and this book, for all its merits, does not begin to convey the measure of his greatness. Why not?

To answer that the limitations of any book reflect the limitations of its author would be as inadequate as it would be ungallant. A writer capable of a book as good as this is capable of a better one. It is true that Lady Antonia does not seem to be abreast of the more esoteric of academic controversies, and that there are those who will imagine that this matters. I am not sure, for example, that she would be able to tell a rising gentleman from a falling one, or a Presbyterian Independent from an Independent Presbyterian. She certainly does not know the difference between a Leveller and a Digger, a confusion that will be sternly viewed in some quarters.

Other deficiencies, perhaps, are more serious. Lady Antonia, more at home with Cromwell the soldier than with Cromwell the statesman, shows little grasp of the way politics works or of the political circumstances in which Cromwell operated. Consequently, like many of his other biographers, she is weaker on the 1650s than on the 1640s. A general criticism of the book is that the background of the story is notably less impressive than the foreground. In this respect Cromwell is a much tougher biographical challenge than Mary Queen of Scots, the subject of Lady Antonia’s previous book, and at times one senses that she feels out of her depth. When her confidence wilts, her prose tends…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.