January 05, 2008

George MacDonald Fraser, RIP

The author of one of Abu Muqawama's favorite series of books passed away this week at 82. (Charlie is still woefully remiss in not having read them; maybe she'll spend some birthday money on a set.) From the Guardian obit:

George Macdonald Fraser, who has died aged 82, was the creator of Harry Flashman, one of the bright gems of the English comic novel. Fraser was already 44, and a long-serving journalist, when he decided to leave his job as deputy editor of the then Glasgow Herald to write fiction. He had the happy idea of resurrecting Flashman, the cowardly bully of Tom Brown's Schooldays and seeing what happened to him after he had been expelled from Rugby school for drunkenness.

The result was Flashman (1969), which saw the craven Flashy turned into a soldier, quaking with fear but still drinking and chasing women in the middle of the retreat from Kabul in the first Afghanistan war. The book was original and very funny and it also, most unusually for a comic novel, gave readers a telling picture of life in England and the empire between 1839 and 1842: there were four closely-packed pages of notes at the back of the novel which proved the historical accuracy of what seemed like mere exuberant farce.

Fraser followed it the next year with Royal Flash. This was a double literary conceit, with Flashman, a character from one Victorian novel, getting involved in the plot of another, Anthony Hope's 1894 classic The Prisoner of Zenda. The idea was that Hope had used Flashman's adventures to invent the tale of Rudolf Rassendyll, the Englishman who was the double of the King of Ruritania. Flashy gives the reader the true story, involving Bismarck and the Schleswig-Holstein affair. The book also featured Lola Montez, the fabulous beauty of the age, and her lover Ludwig, the mad King of Bavaria. Ten pages of notes again told the casual reader that he was getting much true historical gen among the comic cuts.

Bismarck and Schleswig-Holstein aside, Fraser's real interests were the British empire, the American civil war, and the wild west. The 12 books of the Flashman series feature many of the 19th century's major engagements: the slave trade in Flash for Freedom (1971), the Charge of the Light Brigade in Flashman at the Charge (1973), The Indian Mutiny in Flashman in the Great Game (1975), Custer's last stand in Flashman and the Redskins (1982), the Opium Wars in Flashman and the Dragon (1985), and the raid by the abolitionist John Brown on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in Flashman and the Angel of the Lord (1994).

In a late book of short stories, Flashman and the Tiger (1999), Flashman, up against Bismarck again, averts a European war in 'The Road to Charing Cross', is involved in a celebrated royal scandal concerning Edward VII in 'The Subtleties of Baccarat', and, in the title story, 'Flashman and the Tiger', he is found at the battle of Rorke's Drift before encountering Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. Other Flashman books were Flashman's Lady (1977), Flashman and the Mountain of Light (1990) and the very last one, Flashman on the March (2005), about the Abyssinia Campaign of 1868.

In every novel the notes confirm that while Flash's sexual high jinks and great feats of cowardice are fictional they are played before a real historical background. Sometimes the real events are very hard to believe. Two women in particular - the "female Caligula", the black Queen Ranavalona of Madagascar in Flashman's Lady, and Jeendan, the nymphonmaniac Maharini who dressed as a dancing girl and ruled the Sikhs in their war against British India in 1845-46 - seem the work of a fevered imagination, but they turn out to be quite real historical figures.

Update: Abu Muqawama just learned of George MacDonald Fraser's death by reading his own freaking blog. Thanks, Charlie, for spotting this. Abu Muqawama was wandering through the Border's in Nashville just the other day and bought Flashman's Lady for the airplane ride back to London. Those of you who are DC-based can find pretty much the whole Flashman series at Kramerbooks on Connecticut Avenue. Also, you guys know how much Abu Muqawama dislikes Maureen Dowd, but she once wrote a column on why it might have been helpful for George W. to have read Flashman before going to war in Afghanistan. Read it here.