Who Was Elizabeth Fraser?

Fraser's ullus.2

Illustration by Elizabeth Fraser

In mid‑October 1936 Frye has a chance encounter with Elizabeth Fraser, a Canadian graphic artist and book illustrator with whom he and Helen Kemp had had a passing acquaintance in Toronto and who was living in London and (sometimes) in Oxford.  “We parted with expressions of esteem,” Frye writes to Helen, “and promises to come together later.  I may give a tea for her and [Douglas] LePan soon.  She looks interesting.”  But before he can send an invitation, Fraser asks him over for a meal, which he accepts, showing up at her place two weeks later.  Thus begins the most intriguing relationship Frye has during the year.  Fraser, a pipe‑smoking free spirit who is twelve years older than Frye, is trying to survive in Oxford by illustrating books, always living on the brink of insolvency.  One of her projects, described in some detail in Frye’s letter of 3 November 1936, mystifies him because he cannot imagine why she is drawn to the turgid prose of the text.  Fraser completes twenty or so extraordinary drawings for the book, which turns out to be Plato’s Academy: The Birth of the Idea of Its Rediscovery by Pan Aristophron, published in 1938 by Oxford University Press.  Frye says that Fraser is “a very remarkable girl” and is attracted to her ideas, which he says “have been gradually developing the way mine have on Blake, into a more and more objective unity all the time,” as well as to her drawings, which he sees “as sincere as the book is faked, and as concrete as the book is vague.”

Aristophron says nothing at all in his preface about Fraser’s drawings, which are identified only by her stylized initials—EF—tucked away in the corner of several of the illustrations.  The book was printed by John Johnson, “Printer to the University” and also a friend of Fraser’s.

Fraser was also interested in preserving wall paintings in medieval churches, and so she and Frye would go to churches in and around Oxford and sketch the paintings, which are in various states of disintegration.  They share each other’s company on a number of occasions during November and December 1936, having tea together, going on a “pub‑crawl,” hiking to the countryside and surrounding villages on numerous occasions, and seeing plays and movies together.  “God knows what one can make of the girl,” Frye tells Helen. “Her relief at finding someone who wouldn’t blush and look the other way when she powdered her nose and who wouldn’t think she was a fallen woman if she wanted to go find a bush in the course of the walk suggested that she had been making rather a fool of herself in front of Englishmen recently—I suspect she has a genius for that.”  They continue to see each other frequently throughout the 1937 Easter term.  Toward the end of the term Frye writes to Helen that Elizabeth is “a lonely girl with lots of courage, pride and sensitiveness, but she is a swell girl.  She hits hard and rubs people the wrong way, in a way I think you understand, after six years of me, but she’s more honest and straightforward than I am and has more guts.  You’ll love her when you meet her.”  Both Frye and Fraser frequently borrow money from each other, and each is attracted to the other’s creative bent, even though Frye hardly knows how to respond to some of her illustrations and designs.

After completing his examinations at the end of his first term at Oxford, Frye finds himself miserable and penniless, waiting to receive the next instalment of his Royal Society grant so he can go to London for the Christmas vacation.  But his spirits are lifted by the arrival of ₤50 from the Royal Society and by “a fairly concentrated dose” of Elizabeth Fraser.  On 19 December he escapes to London for the holidays, staying with Edith and Stephen Burnett, friends of Kemp through Norah McCullough, the educational supervisor at the Art Gallery of Toronto.  Elizabeth Fraser shows up in London on 26 December for a five‑day visit, and she and Frye attend two performances of Murder in the Cathedral. (Fraser gets sick at the first performance and has to be hauled home in a taxi). They also wander out to Hampton Court to see a painting by Mantegna.

In addition to his tutorials with Edmund Blunden Frye has been working on his Blake manuscript throughout the year.  Blunden has suggested Faber & Faber as a publisher, and a day or so before he returned to Canada in late June 1937 Frye does send off his manuscript, which he has called The Blake Prophecies, to R.E. Stoneman at Faber & Faber.  What Frye submits is actually only the first two chapters; he takes chapters three and four, which are twice as long as the first two, back to Canada with him, where he intends to make a final revision.  Meanwhile Elizabeth Fraser serves as his intermediary, the correspondence with Faber & Faber being directed through her.  On 6 July Stoneman rejects the manuscript because he “cannot foresee a wide enough sale.”  Fraser mails the rejection letter to Frye at Gordon Bay, but holds on to the manuscript so it can be sent out again, asking him to forward to her “a series of fresh & inspired letters to all the publishers.”  Frye obliges in late July with a letter to Cambridge University Press.

At this point Fraser seeks Blunden’s advice, which is to send the manuscript to Jonathan Cape if Cambridge rejects it.  “Blunden,” Fraser reports, “thinks it is a good book, but he wishes it was more freely supplied with breaks, of the sort he describes as `landing‑stages.’  He would like you every now and then to get off from your subject & sidle up to it.  He wants in other words bits of relief.  The pictures will supply this to some extent, & if the selection is right I myself feel that they will supply it all.”  Blunden also advises Frye to inform Geoffrey Keynes that the manuscript has been sent to Cambridge.  Fraser, now acting more or less as Frye’s agent, does send the manuscript to Cambridge on 31 July, saying that the other two‑thirds of the book will follow in September.  Cambridge replies, not unexpectedly, that it will consider the manuscript, but only after it has the complete text in hand.  Frye does send the manuscript back in the fall, but in November Cambridge rejects it, and Fraser posts it back to Frye, thus bringing to an unsuccessful close Frye’s first effort to have his Blake book published. It will be ten more years before it finds its way into print.

When I was editing Frye’s Diaries I was never successful I uncovering much information about Fraser.  I felt that her letters to John Johnson of Oxford University Press might be revealing , but these letters, in the archives of OUP, are restricted.  John Ayre describes the relationship between Frye and Fraser as a “lonely hearts” one that “centred on discussions of art and the damnation of poverty” (Northrop Frye: A Biography, 133). It is certainly that, but there may have been a romantic involvement as well.   The thirty or so letters from Fraser to Frye (in the Helen Frye Fonds of the Northrop Frye Papers) strongly suggest such an involvement.  Here are some sample passages:


55 A High Street

Oxford. 13 January 1936

The beautiful part about you is that you are not “young.”  I have had a pipeful, since reading your letter, & the more I puff, & the more I think you over, the more I glow,—with pleasure. . . .

Darling Norrie, all along I have said to myself “this cannot be.  The man is, in point of fact, twenty-four”  …. But deep down, as you would say, I know that 24 means nothing.  What con­fused me, if anything, was the word you used in October—“fiancee.”  It is not your word.

Sweet Norrie (an absurd word, but you are sweet.  For one thing you smell like a baby.  And you have a beautiful face, and you know about your ears) I do not want to marry you.  I do not want to marry anybody just now.  At thirty-eight I may succumb to marriage.  It will likely be a bad one.

But I do want to have a baby, for the most practical of reasons.  The only trouble is that there are equally practical ones (or is it “-cable”) against having one.  We shall weigh them when you come.  I think the “n’s” should have it. . . . Darling, you are just a little young.  Thank God.


5 January 1937 

55 A. High Street 



Darling Norrie!—

By the by, do you know yet that my knowledge of anatomy is far more exact than yours?  Last night it at long last occurred to me to look into my Cunningham [Cunningham’s Manual of Practical Anatomy], & Holy Moses if you weren’t trying to bust into my bladder or body in general.  There sure would have been an explosion, &, I might say, a yell.  Seriously, ask Edith if you’re supposed to get into the uterus itself, because it doesn’t look any more possible than it feels, as long as I still, as pray heaven I do, belong to the nulliparae [women who have never given birth to a child].  Nice term that: Means you have lost caste both ways . . . .


Monday, tea‑time [undated]

Darling, our jobs are the same.  It is that that I saw with alarm the very first day you came to tea.  There is always the danger that we will confirm this with living arrangements.  Sometimes the two are best linked, sometimes not.  I think that Helen might make you the more effective.  At any rate you must see her.  And this term we are living at Oxford, I in the Bachelor home, you at Merton.  Darling, let us clasp hands & be good.

And I want when you play.  I want very very much to come when you play.  Ask me to, Norrie.

55A.  Monday [undated]

And let me know, silly, if you ever do get the flu, & I shall send Mrs. Bachelor [EF is living at the Bachelor house] around with a basket over her arm, & over the basket a napkin, & under the basket a dozen fresh eggs and a milk, jelly & me, of course, sweetness!


Sunday night [undated]

You were wanted to-day, badly, as you may have gathered from Mrs. Boyd’s message.  Come to tea.

7 August 1937


Darling (how I hate that word, but there is no other) life is getting all cluttered up.  I shall have to move.  I hate to be cluttered up with little things.  I would like to love you & have a baby & earn its bread & do books, & collaborate with you.  Nor­rie darling, I would like to collaborate with you!

And. if you don’t stop sending me neatly dove-tailed love messages I shall have a fit of apoplexy.  This habit is akin to the one of bestowing kisses on the nape of my neck in the presence of another male.  It is thoroughly despicable and relates you unpleasantly to people like Pelham Edgar.

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