Olive Fraser was born in Aberdeen, and died in the same city sixty-eight years later, the early promise of her life and work having been sadly blighted by illness of both mind and body, her poetry little published and remaining uncollected until after her death.
Born on 20 January 1909 to Roderick Fraser and Elizabeth Jane King, a farming couple who had married in secret, baby Olive was given to the care of a great-aunt in Nairn when her mother emigrated to join her father in Australia. Thanks to the great-aunt, Ann Maria Jeans, Fraser passed a happy and healthy childhood in Nairn, excelling at school before going to study English at Aberdeen University. She shone at King’s College as an outstanding student, a gifted poet, and a lively companion. Among her many awards was the Calder Verse Prize, which she won twice; she also gained a scholarship to Cambridge.
Alongside these successes there was a never-extinguished sadness in Fraser’s life: the knowledge that she was an unwanted child. Her mother was cold to her, and her father and his family never recognised her (both parents returned from Australia, but lived apart). All this was reflected in her writing throughout her life, in poems of heartbreaking poignancy, and surely was the background, if not the cause, of her mental distress. After King’s College the pattern of her life was one of recurring illness, both physical and psychological.
While at Girton College in 1933 she was troubled with headaches and had much difficulty in settling to her studies. It was the year she first had psychoanalysis. She withdrew from the Tripos on medical advice, but had established a reputation as a promising poet, and in 1935 won the Chancellor's Medal for English Verse, the first woman to do so.
When war broke out, Fraser, being unmarried, was liable for national service, and in April 1940 applied to enter the WRNS. Unfortunately she was posted to watch duty in Liverpool on several nights of heavy bombardment in May 1941, an experience which must have had a deep and terrible effect on one whose mental health was already wavering. She was granted compassionate release, and the following year returned to the north, though sadly not to a stable home, as her beloved great-aunt died in 1944 and the house was given up.
In 1946 Fraser tried her luck in the south again with a job as an assistant in the Bodleian Library, and for several years managed a fairly good life. In 1949 she moved to London, eventually taking up independent residence, for the only time in her life, in a terraced cottage in Greenwich. Keen to preserve the best of her time and strength for writing, she took jobs only part-time or when needed. Thus poverty became her constant companion, but she was receiving friendship and support from the Catholic Church (which she had been attending since schooldays, despite a Protestant background), and in 1950 was received into the Church.
Some of Fraser’s earlier poems had been published in the Aberdeen University Review and in several other magazines, including Temenos, and in the Catholic newspaper The Tablet. In 1951 the Arts Council of Great Britain held a poetry competition to mark the Festival of Britain; the Scottish Committee awarded money prizes for work in Scots and Gaelic, and Fraser won in both lyric and dramatic verse (the other Scots-language prizewinners were Alexander Scott and Sydney Goodsir Smith). Serif Books published a booklet showcasing a selection of the poems submitted to the competition, in which Fraser is represented by seven poems in energetic Scots. All the poems are imbued with a sense of being apart and longing to belong, which in ‘All Sawles’ Eve’ becomes explicit:
In a’ the lown air whaur delicht did rove
I kent my ain name.
‘My leal bairn, my dear luve,
My bairn come hame.
My bairn come hame, O lat me tak
Your haun’ in my nieve.’
Ae step I took. The reidbreist spak
‘O tis All Sawles’ Eve.’
O tis All Sawles’ Eve, and didst thou come,
Sae kindly aye, my ain?
I saw thro tears the warld toom
Whaur the bird sang his lane.
It is surprising that Fraser wrote so little in Scots, considering the assured way she handles the language, despite having grown up speaking English. In either language, Fraser’s poetry had a distinctive old-fashioned air; Joy Hendry, in a Scotsman review of 24 June 1989, wrote:
Olive Fraser’s poetry is in some ways strangely anachronistic, full of diction, verse forms and poetic mannerisms associated with the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. Yet in its power of utterance, in its unpoetic frankness about, for example, her own illness and circumstances, it expresses a modern sensibility.
Iain Crichton Smith, on the other hand, found in Chapman 58 that ‘With the best will in the world it is hard to find any modernity of diction or exactitude of image.’
Fraser was gathering work with the hope of publishing a collection, but in 1956 suffered a sudden and severe breakdown which left her intermittently in the care of Bexley Hospital until 1961, having been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Through these years she felt that illness and the medication received for it prevented her from writing – prevented her, indeed, from being in control of her own intellect. Fraser determined eventually to return to Scotland, and by the later 1960s was established in Aberdeen, living in digs, supported by a network of kind friends, and feeling better for some changes in medication. During a hospital spell in 1968 she was at last diagnosed with hypothyroidism, and prescribed drugs accordingly, which worked a miracle in improving her health, weight and appearance. Three good years followed. She had a little room to herself within Cornhill Hospital, and friends among the nurses, and was free to leave the hospital, or to stay and write in peace; she was several times invited back to London or Cambridge for holidays with friends. Sadly 1976 brought cancer with it, and she died in 1977.
Those three ‘wonderful years’, as Fraser called them, saw the production of much poetry, some of it appearing in Temenos, but most unpublished. Still, though, her sadness haunted her, for in 1971 she wrote ‘The Unwanted Child’:
I was the wrong music
The wrong guest for you
When I came thro' the tundras
And thro’ the dew.
Summon’d, tho’ unwanted,
Hated, tho’ true
I came by golden mountains
To dwell with you.
I took strange Algol with me
And Betelgueuse, but you
Wanted a purse of dust
And interest to accrue.
You could have had them all,
The dust, the glories too,
But I was the wrong music
And why I never knew.
The early promise of Olive Fraser’s prize-winning poems, the confident poems of 1951 with their natural use of Scots, and the output of the good years did not lead to the publication of a collection in her lifetime. She had always told her friends she had ‘a book of poetry’, but it wasn’t until 1983 that a mass of papers and some 400 lyrics came to light. The literary scholar Helena Mennie Shire knew Fraser at Aberdeen and in Cambridge, and had previously collected from friends and publications enough poems to make a small collection, The Pure Account (1981). Working from the newly found papers in the 1980s, Mrs Shire compiled The Wrong Music (1989), adding a biographical and critical introduction, doing great justice to her friend's often sad and difficult life. It is to this introduction that anyone wishing a better understanding of Olive Fraser and her poetry should turn.
Poems by Olive Fraser
The Pure Account: poems by Olive Fraser , ed. Helena M. Shire (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1981)
The Wrong Music: the poems of Olive Fraser, 1909-1977, ed. Helena M. Shire (Edinburgh: Canongate, 1989)
Selected Biography and Criticism
Helena M. Shire , ‘Introduction’ in The wrong music: the poems of Olive Fraser 1909-1977 (Edinburgh, Canongate, 1989)
Ali Smith, ‘Olive Fraser’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004)
In the Library
Other Useful Info
Copyright is held by Olive Fraser's literary executor;
please contact the SPL
Manuscripts and papers
Aberdeen University Library
Sketch of Olive Fraser, reproduced by permission of the Estate of Olive Fraser.