Yesterday was a sad day for fans of the "bawdy romp" genre of extremely well written historical fiction. British author George MacDonald Fraser has died at the age of 82. Fraser served in the British army in India and Burma during WWII, and his service memoir Quartered Safe Out Here stands in the first rank of soldier's writing. But it is his imagined memoir of Sir Harry Flashman, Brigadier-General V.C. K.C.B., K.C.I.E. - Victorian cad and villain of Tom Brown's School Days - that endeared him to so many readers and made his reputation.
Flashman manages to wriggle through some of the worst military debacles of the era with the undeserved reputation as a bluff and hearty hero rather than the shirking, womanizing bully he was underneath. Flashman has few redeeming qualities besides a firm seat in the saddle and a facility with languages (traits he shares with the historical Captain Sir Richard Burton, who among other things was responsible for translating the Kama Sutra and making the Hajj to Mecca disguised as a Muslim). Those who knew his true character managed to come to nasty ends or were blackmailed into silence before they could expose Flashman as a poltroon and a coward of the first order.
The Flashman novels are presented as his actual memoirs, lightly edited and annotated by Fraser. The old General Flashman has this to say about his literary undertaking:
"These stories will be completely truthful; I am breaking the habit of eighty years. Why shouldn't I?
When a man is as old as I am, and knows himself for what he is, he doesn't care much. I'm not ashamed, you see; never was -. So I can look at the picture above my desk, of the young officer; tall and handsome as I was in those days, and say that it is the portrait of a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat. since many of the stories are discreditable to me, you can rest assured they are true....."
All this delightful skulduggery takes place against the backdrop of exhaustively researched history, complete with footnotes that integrate Flashman's account with actual primary sources. In the course of 12 books (and with hints of other accounts in the Flashman papers that never made it into print), Harry Flashman survives The 1st Afghan War; the Charge of the Light Brigade; The Indian Mutiny; Isandwlana, Little Big Horn; and a dozen other massacres in which he tangles with fascinating historical personages, beds exotic beauties, and quite often inadvertently alters the course of history.
Fraser wrote numerous other books, including The Hollywood History of the World which I highly recommend, and the screenplays for the Three and Four Musketeers movies in the 1970s and the James Bond film Octopussy. Flashman, though, was his greatest character and most engaging body of work. I first read these novels in Africa and have been a huge fan ever since. They are delightfully non-PC - Flashman is an unreconstructed bigot and snob and uses the vernacular of his age and station - and the release of the next chapter of the Flashman papers was a much anticipated event from 1969 to 2005when the latest installment came out. Fans around the world are left to fill in the blanks in Flashman's story, most notably his service on both sides in the American Civil War and with Emperor Maximilian in Mexico. Now both he and his creator belong to the ages.