04 Jan 2008

George McDonald Fraser, OBE (1925-2008)

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George McDonald Fraser, author of the Flashman novels, a series of comic historical novels typically revolving around one of the best-known military disasters of the Victorian era and featuring as their hero a later-in-life version of the cad and bully Flashman from Tom Brown’s Schooldays, has died at age 82 of cancer.

Fraser had resided on Man as a political (and tax) exile from socialist Britain for many years.

He served during WWII in the Border Regiment and, after being commissioned an officer, in the Gordon Highlanders. Upon leaving the Army, he worked as a journalist for the Glasgow Herald. In 1969, he published the first of the Flashman novels which soon became a lucrative success.

As the London Times observes:

He had hit on a deceptively simple idea that proved to be a bestselling formula at the end of the Swinging Sixties. The public still wanted to sit down with a good rip-roaring yarn — but did not want heroes. So why not make the central character a cad? A cad the reading public already knew about — Harry Flashman, the bounder of Tom Brown’s Schooldays?

What happened to Flashman after the good Doctor Arnold expelled him from Rugby? Fraser decided that he must have gone into the Army. Bully, liar and coward he may still have been, but the Victorian military authorities did not mind. Or perhaps they were simply too stupid to notice, as he whored and cheated his way around the British Empire. The resulting stories became one of the great tongue-in-cheek achievements of popular fiction.

The standing joke between Fraser and his readers was that these were genuine memoirs: they had been discovered, “wrapped in oilskin” and stuffed into a tea chest, during a house sale at Ashby, Leicestershire, in 1965. They described how, after a long, eventful life, loved by the ladies and lauded by the Establishment — Flashman was a brigadier-general, a VC, a Knight of the Bath, a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur and, amusingly, holder of the San Serafino Order of Purity and Truth — the old scoundrel mused in old age about how he had got away with it: “The ideal time to be a hero,” he wrote, “is when the battle is over and the other fellows are dead, God rest ’em, and you take the credit.”

It was all rollicking nonsense; but it had a sterling quality that went to the heart of many sophisticated readers who like to relax with a rubbishy book provided it is well written rubbish.

The Guardian identifies another basis of the series’ success.

Fraser was intending amusing travesty, but, underneath it all, the author really believed in Britishness. When the chips are down (when sepoys, for example, are murdering women and children in the Indian Mutiny) Flashman is a gallant and decent fellow (and no racist). Flashy, not unflashy Tom, embodies what made the empire work.

The Flashman novels spoke eloquently to the British reader. They articulated that mixture of cynicism, shame, and pride that contemporary Britons felt about Victorian values and Great Britain.

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