Farewell to Flashman
The singular creation of George MacDonald Fraser, 1925-2008.
Jan 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 18 • By CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS
Looking back over the nearly 40 years since I first found myself immersed in a Flashman story, perhaps the single most striking thing about the experience is the date. It somehow didn't seem to "fit," amid all the feverish enthusiasms of the late sixties, that one should be so thoroughly absorbed by the doings of a racist-sexist-imperialist-you-name-it military officer. I can remember the mingled shock and glee with which my radical friend Andrew Cockburn and I discovered, over a steaming curry that was another colonial legacy, that we had both recently fallen for the same author and character. I have met that look, of the confirmed addict and fellow-sufferer, many times since.
Maybe it was partly the period that explained the fatuity by which a dozen British publishers greeted George MacDonald Fraser with rejection slips. But he eventually found a home with Herbert Jenkins, the independent house that had already earned itself immortality by bringing out P.G. Wodehouse. And there is charm in the fact that Wodehouse himself, who seldom commented on other writers, said, "If ever there was a time when I felt that 'watcher-of-the-skies-when-a-new-planet' stuff, it was when I read the first Flashman."
Not unlike Wodehouse, the Flashman novels transport one into a ready-made alternative world, populated with an extraordinary cast of characters. In bold contrast to Wodehouse, however, almost all these characters are real-life historical ones, with only the chief protagonist being annexed from an earlier fiction. It took nerves of steel for Fraser to pit Flashman against Otto von Bismarck, or to pitch him into the sack with Queen Ranavalona of Madagascar, but the upshot was that good historians found themselves praising his verisimilitude, and many people owe all their knowledge of, say, Afghanistan to the voluminous footnotes that accompany each adventure.
Managing to patrol the frontiers of fact and fiction in an almost postmodern fashion, Fraser always insisted that he was merely the editor of a trove of papers discovered ("wrapped in oilskin") at an English country-house auction, while daringly inserting his hero, in Royal Flash, into the action of Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda or, in a later story called Flashman and the Tiger, bang into the middle of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Adventure of the Empty House. Just as many people more than half-believe that Sherlock Holmes was a real person, so Fraser used to get letters from people offering to put him in touch with distant Flashman descendants.
"Pot boiler," said John Updike, rather wince-makingly, about the Fraser formula. There was some element of truth in this. Every tale had a super-villain, a super-minx, and a harrowing escape from torture or death. If that reminds you of Ian Fleming, perhaps it's no disgrace. (Fraser wrote the screenplay for Octopussy.) But his plots were far more credible than Fleming's, because they were based on the scarcely believable facts about high-Victorian empire, and his characters were much more authentic because, well, because they were authentic. In addition to this, he was extremely and consistently funny. Flashman affronts Benjamin Disraeli with anti-Jewish taunts and teaches a slave girl to say "Me Lady Caroline Lamb," and his extraordinary lack of sensitivity is done with exquisite care. Meeting Oscar Wilde at the theater, Flashman describes him as looking like "an overfed trout in a toupe," which is about as much damage as one could hope to inflict in six words.
Of Fraser's robust Toryism there can be no doubt. He described the British Empire as "the greatest thing that ever happened to an undeserving world" and bore arms for it in Burma (admittedly against another empire--the Japanese one--that was infinitely worse). But he does not romanticize or airbrush the gruesome and exploitative aspects of imperialism. What he writes about the slave trade, say, or about the horrific British destruction of the Imperial Palace at Beijing, is unvarnished and accurate. What he writes about the Zulus and the Sikhs and the Afghans is full of respect and admiration.
Unlike most old-school Tories, also, he shows an admiration for the nascent power of the United States and sets a good deal of his narrative in this country, with two excellent portrayals of Abraham Lincoln and one unsettlingly vivid depiction of John Brown. Flashman himself always remembers to be properly contemptuous of any grand overarching theories, bluffly opining, "In my experience the course of history is as often settled by someone's having a belly-ache, or not sleeping well, or a sailor getting drunk, or some aristocratic harlot waggling her backside."
In later years, and partly for purposes of tax exile, Fraser withdrew to the Isle of Man: one of the better-preserved of the British Isles and a place which reminded him, as he said, of England as it used to be. I talked to him by phone on his 80th birthday--"Same day as Charlemagne, Casanova, Hans Christian Andersen, and Kenneth Tynan," as he stoutly told me--and found him suitably reactionary. In 1969, when Flashy first stepped onto the page (or should I say back onto the page where Thomas Hughes had left him?), it would have been well-nigh impossible to imagine that British soldiers would be again in action in the historic battle-honor territories of Afghanistan and Mesopotamia. But now that they were back, George MacDonald Fraser was not in the least bit delighted: "Tony Blair is not just the worst prime minister we've ever had, but by far the worst prime minister we've ever had. It makes my blood boil to think of the British soldiers who've died for that little liar."
It is an illustration of historic irony, and of the bizarre operations of fortune's wheel, that that very tone of voice should now be an indicator of the outlook of the British Right.
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Thomas Paine's Rights of Man: A Biography.