Friday, January 4, 2008

Flashman's last stand

To the unquestionable dismay of millions of readers worldwide, the memoirs of the life of the British Empire's most reluctant soldier and outstanding cad, Sir Harry Flashman, are now at a close with the death of his chronicler, George MacDonald Fraser, at the age of 82.

The most thoroughgoing yet admirable coward, thief, womaniser, scoundrel and all-around rotter ever described, Fraser's re-creation of the bully from Thomas Hughes's Tom Brown's Schooldays as the most unlikely and unintentional hero of Queen Victoria's Empire surely stands as one of literature's great comic characters. But the remarkable feat of Fraser's writing and research has always been his astonishing attention to historical accuracy and detail, copiously annotated in endnotes. Always at the greatest pain to escape any possible danger to any hair on his head, but equally keen to grab any opportunity for undeserved credit, Flashman cuts a dashing if vainglorious figure through the most incredible list of actual historical exploits of the British Empire that could possibly be compiled, not to mention so vividly described and faithfully related. The twelve books of Flashman's adventures are absolutely painless and rewarding history lessons, less learned than happily imbibed. And, it must be added for those with the taste, Fraser's unabashed and merry colonial — dare I say tory? — chauvinism is a constant treat in this day of unrelenting received anglo-phobia.

With the possible exception of P.G. Wodehouse — who himself was a great fan — Fraser's Flashman sequence and his short tales of Private McAuslan of the Gordon Highlanders, "the dirtiest soldier in the world," are probably the most purely enjoyable experiences of my good reading fortune. Fraser's talent, and the possibility of just one more Flashman book, will be very much missed, but there will never be any loss of the opportunity to read them again. Rest in peace, George MacDonald Fraser… God has received a great soldier and story-teller.


F451-2.0 said...


Aside from having read the Flashman series and the McAuslan, as one whose none too distant ancestors arose from the Scottish Borders I found his "The Steel Bonnets" entertaining, educational and in so many ways explanitory.

My regret in his passing is in some small part personal as I met him at one of his readings at a bookstore on Princes Edinburgh.

Ever the diplomat and gentleman, he spent most of the time during the question and answer period following the reading,diplomatically deflecting repeated insistant suggestions that for the most part, the rest of the Flashman series should be devoted to cataloguing every major historical event in American history during the Victorian era.
He patiently explained repeatedly that central to his writing was the history and culture of the Victorian era British Empire and to to do otherwise would defeat the purpose of his writing. Given that the crowd of perhaps a hundred seated in the basement hall of the bookstore consisted mainly of American tourists,the discussion involved at least 45 minutes of "...yes, but" responses. This went on and on and ever the reticent Canadian I had kept mum. However, eventually, with the serial badgering continuing, frustration overtook me and in part to merely change the subject and in part to deflect further discussion onto the topic of his writing vis a vis Flashman and and other writings in the context of the British Empire, I piped up and broke through with a question of my own.

Aware that for part of his career he was a journalist in Saskatchewan, I enquired as to whether he had ever considered placing Flashman in the Riel Rebellion of 1885. We discussd that over the heads of the others and again when upstairs he was kind enough to sign his latest.

He later wrote me a handwritten thanks which I still possess.

To other devotees of Fraser... I recently came across the Canadian Legion Magazine's biography of Canadian Alexander Roberts Dunn whose action in storming the guns in the charge of the light brigade earned him the Victoria Cross.

When I read the more detailed description of him, his photograph and account of his life and times the magazine provided, my first thought was, "son of a...that's Flashman."

I was curious enough to consider writing him, but now it will remain forever a mystery.

Perhaps that's best.

Thank you George for decades of laughter and enlightment.

MapMaster said...

Thank you for the story, f451-2.0. A Flashman book set around the Riel Rebellion would certainly have been a treat.

You are quite right about the Steel Bonnets as well, a fascinating romp through a part of history of which I hadn't known anything until reading it. I quite enjoyed his novels Candlemass Road and Mr. American as well, although the Pyrates left me a little dry.