George MacDonald Fraser An Appreciation

Essay by Katherine A. Powers

“Bristle up the courage of the cornered rat. Put on the bold front and to hell with them. Bluff, my boy, bluff, shift, and lie for the honor of old England.” Such is the battle cry of Harry Paget Flashman, summoning again the bounderly spirit that propelled him and his 12-volume memoir onto the shelves of hundreds of thousands of devoted readers. Born a bully in 1857 in the pages of Thomas Hughes?s Tom Brown?s School Days, Flashman was brought back to miscreant life in 1969 in The Flashman Papers by George MacDonald Fraser, who died this January at age 82. How could a self-confessed liar, coward, cheat, toady, libertine, and all-around cad attract such an admiring readership? This, after all, is the scoundrel who restored the word “poltroon” to common parlance.

Well, that?s just it — or part of it. Flashman?s rich vocabulary of insult and disparagement, the 19th-century patois of the officer?s mess, the gentlemen?s club, and the sporting life, is simply exhilarating. He is also blisteringly funny in his regard for his own skin, in his dyspeptic view of fine feeling and conventional virtue, and in the umbrage he takes when he runs into someone who is as lost to decency as himself: “She was a clergyman?s wife,” he reports indignantly in Flashman and the Dragon, “and you don?t expect double-dealing from a wide-eyed simperer who sings come-to-Jesus in the choir.”

Weasel and prevaricator in life though he undoubtedly was, old Flashy is the soul of brute honesty in his memoirs. Those who have yet to sample these chapters in history and knavery might as well begin with the first installment called simply “Flashman.” This portrait of a rotter as a young man touches upon his expulsion from Rugby, sets him up as a guardsman and dandy, plunges him into a marriage productive of unwelcome surprises, details a number of characteristically dishonorable acts, and sends him off to Afghanistan to do his part in the first Afghan War (1838-42).

After this grounding in Flashmania, you can move on to any other of his adventures, but I want to recommend Flashman at the Charge, my absolute favorite if only because it is the ideal companion volume to Cecil Woodham-Smith?s brilliant The Reason Why: The Story of the Fatal Charge of the Light Brigade. Whither then? My personal taste runs to those involving such imperial British mayhem and gaffe as the Sepoy Mutiny (1857) in Flashman and the Great Game; the Taiping Rebellion (1860) in Flashman and the Dragon; the First Sikh War (1845-46) in Flashman and the Mountain of Light; and the rescue of British hostages taken by Theodore II of Abyssinia (because, as Flashman reports, Queen Victoria did not answer his letter) in Flashman on the March. But, of course, there is much to be said for Flashy?s eyewitness account of Harpers Ferry in Flashman and the Angel of the Lord and his role in the Battle of Little Bighorn (1876) in Flashman and the Redskins – and, in fact, for every one of these books.

The pleasure we take in Flashman?s unflattering descriptions of history?s great actors and their blunders verges on Schadenfreude. Indeed, the 12-volume series could be said to be the insolent heir to Lytton Strachey?s already impious Eminent Victorians (in which Flashman himself surfaces in the section devoted to pillorying Dr. Arnold). But, no, that isn?t quite right, for though Flashman?s amanuensis, Fraser, was suspicious of flagrant virtue and had no more time than Flashy did for evangelical earnestness, he believed that the British Empire was a force for good — if an often bungling one — and lamented its disappearance with increasing belligerence as he aged. Moreover, he insisted that he found Flashy despicable.

Maybe he did — and maybe he didn?t: Flashman, after all, committed the occasional, if reluctant, deed of valor in later installments of his history. Be that as it may, there?s no question at all that Fraser was fascinated and even charmed by bad behavior, the result, I am convinced, of his pride in his native Cumbria (though he was a Highlander by ancestry) and its disreputable past. With Scotland to its north, Cumbria is part of the Borderlands, the scene, from the beginning of the 13th century to the union of England and Scotland in 1603, of unrelenting lawlessness, of pillage, arson, extortion, kidnapping, massacre, and retribution. Which brings up the matter of George MacDonald Fraser?s other contributions to English letters, many of which were informed by his antecedents, both Cumbrian and Scottish.

The Steel Bonnets: The Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers is Fraser?s tribute to some really terrible characters, “lawless people, that will be Scottishe when they will, and English at their please.” These were the Border raiders, or reivers, men who were not “to put it as tactfully as possible, the most immediately loveable folk in the United Kingdom.” Fraser insists throughout this wonderful, colorful history that these gangs of marauders, sometimes 1,000 strong, were not gallant but “cruel and horrible.” Still, he cannot disguise his appetite for their renegade spirit, their tribal loyalty, their nicknames (“Dog Pyntle,” “Sow-tail,” “Buggerback”) and their speech. It was the reivers, he is pleased to tell us, who gave the word “blackmail” to the English language.

Fraser?s affection for the Borderers (in war “England?s vanguard, and in peace her most unruly and bloody nuisance” also pervades Quartered Safe Out Here, his memoir of being stationed in Burma during the Second World War as a member of the Border Regiment. Conditions were vile, sodden and malarial, and the Japanese enemy did not know surrender. Fraser pays doting attention to the Cumbrian slang and dialect of his fellow soldiers and celebrates the companionable derision, bellyaching, and black humor that bound these men together at this terrible time.

Quartered Safe Out Here was published when Fraser was approaching 70 and in it he waxes choleric now and again against the namby-pamby sensibilities of the late 20th century. That apoplectic tone is absent in his earlier and fictional treatment of his military career (which continued after the war when he served with the Gordon Highlanders in North Africa and the Middle East). The stories, brought together in the collection McAuslan Entire, are told from the point of view of a certain Lieutenant Dand MacNeill, a version of Fraser himself, and a man whose sole concern at one point is not to “go down in history as the Man Whose Kilt Fell Off in Front of Royalty at Edinburgh Castle.” These stories belong to what is now pretty much a vanished genre, fictionalized autobiographical sketches, and are something like a military version of James Herriot?s All Creatures Great and Small. They are funny, self-deprecating, often moving. The characters reappear like old friends, the most extravagant of them being Private McAuslan, “the Dirtiest Soldier in the World” — not “a bad sort in his leprous way, but?sure disaster in any enterprise to which he set his grimy hand.” (“He cannae help bein? horrible. It?s a gift.”)

Fraser?s anarchic side and his fascination with the border raiders is on wild display in The Reavers, his last novel, if such it may be called, just published here. Part madcap romp, part anachronistic caper, part phantasmagoric screenplay, the book is, as Fraser himself puts it in a foreword, “nonsense,” and “simply G.M.F. taking off on what a learned judge would call a frolic of his own.” Its characters include a swashbuckler, Gilderoy (“his classic profile cleaving the astonished air”), and a beauty, Lady Godiva Dacre (“blue hatred lasered from her eyes, and her Titian tresses cracked like shampooed whips”). The story(board) involves the theft of lovely Godiva?s jewels and a plot, code-named “Jimsnatch,” to replace James VI of Scotland (the future James I of England) with an imposter. The book can be seen as a last exercise in mischief on Fraser?s part. “We will not linger on this scene of Villainy Exultant,” he says at one point. And neither will we, but bid him a most fond farewell.