April 2: George MacDonald Fraser was born on this day in 1925, and C. S. Forester died on this day in 1966. Between the two of them, in two dozen books ranging over Her Majesty’s lands and seas, Fraser and Forester turned the nineteenth-century British Empire into a never-ending, never-dull yarn. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower is the model of duty, denial, and self-deprecation; Fraser’s Harry Paget Flashman is something else again, as he’d be the first to brag — indeed was the first to brag on the first page of Flashman, first of the series:
When a man is as old as I am, and knows himself thoroughly for what he was and is, he doesn’t care much. I’m not ashamed, you see, never was — and I have enough on what Society would consider the credit side of the ledger — a knighthood, a Victoria Cross, high rank, and some popular fame. So I can look at the picture above my desk, of the young officer in Cardigan’s Hussars; tall, masterful, and roughly handsome I was in those days … and say that it is a portrait of a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, a thief, a coward — and, oh yes, a toady.
In The Light’s on at Signpost (2002), a memoir written as he approached eighty (and had achieved his own fame and an OBE), Fraser reflects on the enduring appeal of his scoundrel-hero:
Through the Seventies and Eighties I led him on his disgraceful way, toadying, lying, cheating, running away, treating women as chattels, abusing inferiors of all colours, with only one redeeming virtue — the unsparing honesty with which he admitted to his faults, and even gloried in them. And no one minded, or if they did, they didn’t tell me. In all the many thousands of reader’ letters I received, not one objected. In the Nineties, a change began to take place. Reviewers and interviewers started describing Flashman (and me) as politically incorrect, which we are, though by no means in the same way. This is fine by me. Flashman is my bread and butter, and if he wasn’t an elitist, racist, sexist swine, I’d be selling bootlaces at street corners instead of being a successful popular writer.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.