George MacDonald Fraser, the British writer who died January 2 at 82, was never short-listed for the Nobel Prize. But then, neither were Mark Twain, P.G. Wodehouse or S.J. Perelman, so Fraser is in good company. And he belongs there.
Between 1969 and 2007, Fraser wrote prodigiously—although it never seemed so to those of us who waited impatiently for his next book to hit the stalls. He turned out straight novels (Mr. American; The Candlemass Road), burlesque farces (The Pyrates; The Reavers), autobiography, short-story collections, works of history both serious (The Steel Bonnets) and frivolous (The Hollywood History of the World) and screenplays from Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers to James Bond’s Octopussy. But the magnum opus that made him admired the world over were the 12 volumes of the Flashman Papers.
The character originated in Thomas Hughes’ 1857 novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Tom was the goody-goody hero and Flashman was his nemesis at Rugby School, a bully, coward, wastrel, scoundrel—everything, in short, that God-fearing English boys should never be. Halfway through the book, Flashman—having played his role as a bad example—is expelled for drunkenness and never seen again.
That is, not until 1969, when Fraser’s Flashman appeared, purporting to be the first packet of a huge manuscript discovered during a sale of household furniture. In the guise of memoirs written sometime after 1900, Fraser supplied Flashman with a first name, Harry, and an army career after Rugby that found him in the middle of most of the important events of his day. This first packet took Flashy only through the Afghan War of 1842, from which he returned to a hero’s welcome and the thanks of a grateful Queen Victoria.
The joke is that through it all—and the 11 packets that follow—Flashman remains just what he was at Rugby: a selfish, cowardly, 24-karat cad. He’s forever bullying, whoring, shirking, running for his life and blubbering for mercy—but somehow he always comes out looking like the stalwart paragon of English manhood; covered in glory, honors and wealth, with everyone who knows the truth about him either safely dead or having their own reasons for keeping mum.
The Flashman books move with the speed of a runaway train and are often laugh-out- loud hilarious, great ribald rip-roaring adventures with an anti-hero we love to deplore. They’re also wonderful sugar-coated lessons in 19th-century history; Fraser did his homework, and whether Flashy is riding to Harpers Ferry with John Brown or at Balaclava with the Light Brigade, his “memoirs” are accurate in every detail—except, of course, for Flashman’s participation.
It’s a pity Fraser didn’t live to “edit” more of the reminiscences Flashman hints at, like his days as a U.S. Marshal along the Sacramento River or his service in our Civil War (fighting on both sides, naturally). But we mustn’t be piggy, I guess. At the very least, one of the books—Flashman in the Great Game, in which Flashy is forced to go undercover as a native Indian in 1857 and finds it prudent to stay that way when the Great Mutiny breaks out—is a great novel in its own right; all 12, taken together, are probably the supreme work of comic fiction in the English language.
On a personal note, I had a long-distance brush with Fraser myself as a grad student at CSU Long Beach. My major was acting, and I hoped to make my master’s project a one-man show of the Flashman Papers (there had been six books published at that time). I wrote Fraser for permission, but he politely declined; the stage rights were tied up, and my show would violate his contract.
I was disappointed, of course, and half-wished I’d gone ahead without asking; how would he ever know? Ah, well, that’s what you get for being honest, as Flashy would say.
But no hard feelings, Mr. Fraser. Thanks for everything, and farewell.