Fraser, George MacDonald

Fraser, George MacDonald
Apr. 2, 1925-Jan. 2, 2008
English novelist, short story writer and historian


Scottish novelist, short story writer, film scenarist, historian, and journalist, writes: "My parents, a Scottish doctor and nursing sister, agreed with Dr. Johnson that the best sight a Scot ever sees is the high road to England-at least, they agreed with him as far as Carlisle, where they settled after the First World War. I was sent to Carlisle Grammar School, where I performed so indifferently that they decided to send me to Glasgow Academy, where my examination showing was, if anything, worse. However, I did win two prizes, for English and general knowledge, learned to play Rugby and cricket with cunning if not enthusiasm, received a cup for throwing the cricket ball, read impressive quantities of historical fiction, and became probably the only Laertes in theatrical history to defeat Hamlet-admittedly, only at a rehearsal. These qualifications were not considered sufficient for entrance to the medical faculty of Glasgow University, and I went into the army, a willing conscript, in 1943. I was occasionally a lance-corporal, served as an infantryman with 17th Indian Division of XIVth Army in Burma, and was finally commissioned in the Gordon Highlanders.

"After the war I was a sports and general reporter with the Carlisle Journal, where I married Kathleen Hetherington, a reporter from another paper. We went to Canada together, and after a brief period in Toronto where I almost sold a set of encyclopedias to a man with a broken washing-machine, we got jobs as reporters in Saskatchewan. After a year we came home, our first son was born, and I worked as a reporter and sub-editor on the Cumberland news before we moved to Glasgow in 1953. On the Glasgow Herald I was variously on sports, parliamentary, and foreign news sub-editing, leader-writing and feature-writing, before becoming features editor, and deputy editor from 1964 to 1969. Our daughter and second son were born in 1953 and 1957 respectively.

"I had been writing on and off since the age of five, and thanks to my wife's encouragement I persevered in the hope of becoming a novelist; my first book, Flashman, was published in 1969, and I gave up newspaper work and devoted myself to being a free-lance author."

Harry Flashman entered English literature as the bully and "bad influence" in Thomas Hughes's tribute to the British public school system, Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857). In that novel he is very properly expelled from Rugby by the great Dr. Arnold. George MacDonald Fraser has been inspired to speculate about the career that might follow these disgraceful beginnings, and in this way has created not only a splendid comic character but a knowledgeable satire on the moral pretensions and hypocrisies of Victorian society.

Flashman appeared in 1969 and purported to be the first installment of his shameless memoirs, covering the years between 1839 and 1842, but written many years later in old age. They give Flashman's own version of his expulsion from Rugby, and his subsequent entry into Lord Cardigan's 11th Light Dragoons. Parted by his inveterate cowardice from this crack regiment, he is sent to the North West Frontier and is caught up in the appalling blunders of the first Afghan War (1842). After ignominious surrender, all the British troops involved in that disaster perished in the retreat through India, the only survivor being a certain Dr. Brydon. In Fraser's account, Flashman also survives, thanks to his genius for self-preservation and his skill as a seducer, and emerges from the debacle a national hero.

Harry Flashman is a coward, a liar, and a cheat, but he has no illusions about himself, and in his memoirs at least is disarmingly frank. The reader warms to him, not least because many of the historical and imaginary characters around him behave little better while paying lip-service to high Christian ideals. The novel was universally praised, both as a "highly entertaining jeu d'esprit" and for the accuracy of its historical detail, though one critic objected mildly that Flashman falls "too easily into the attitudes of a mid-twentieth-century con-man."

Having established his character, Fraser went on to exploit him with much-applauded skill. In Royal Flash, Sir Harry (as he has now become) blunders his way through various battles, plots, and boudoirs as an officer of the Horse Guards, compounding the Schleswig-Holstein Question, and avoiding disaster by a mixture of luck and cynical cunning. Flash for Freedom! takes him to the United States, and Flashman at the Charge involves him in the Crimean War (he accidently leads the charge of the Light Brigade, is captured by Cossacks, escapes by sled, and foils the Czar's plan to overrun India, enjoying the favors of an international cast of remarkable women along the way). "Fraser has done a wondrous thing," Peter Andrews wrote in his review of this novel. "By making his principal character into the ultimate anti-hero, Fraser has brought back the old-fashioned English adventure novel for those of us who wouldn't ordinarily read them." Royal Flash was filmed in 1975 from the author's own scenario.

In 1970, meanwhile, Fraser had published The General Danced at Dawn, in which he draws on his own experiences as a young officer in the Gordon Highlanders. These nine stories are all narrated by Lieutenant Dand McNeill, newly commissioned in a Highland regiment during the years just after World War II, when the regiment is returning home from service in India via North Africa. Martin Levin thought that "some of the entries would require a native reader for full appreciation…. Others are more universally the stuff of good-humored military fiction: of missions unaccomplished, obstacle courses failed, and snafus from Jerusalem to Edinburgh." Another reviewer decided that Fraser's "insistent emphasis on clannish camaraderie might be more moving were his plots less weak and predictable … and were his moments of modest truthfulness not bluffly outshouted by a tone of unconvincing heartiness." There was a generally warmer reception for McAuslan in the Rough, a second collection of stories employing the same formula, centering this time on the exploits of Private John McAuslan, "the dirtiest soldier in the world"-the regimental idiot who somehow always comes through in a pinch. "Mr. Fraser's command of tones and turns of phrase is compellingly right," one reviewer concluded, and "a whole cast of characters" is "memorably caught by a vividness of presence and voice."

Sir Harry Flashman, KB, VC, rides again in Flashman in the Great Game, surviving the horrors of Meerut, Cawnpore, and Lucknow to be prayed over by General Havelock, haunted by the ghost of Dr. Arnold, and in the end to make a very good thing out of the Indian Mutiny. "The joke has been splendidly established," one reviewer wrote, "but even the best of jokes wears thin; for any Flashman aficionado a moment comes when the belly-laughs subside and the story-teller's mantle-Buchan, Hope, Masters-envelops him and sweeps him away." Richard Usborne was also reminded of Buchan, and went on: "As [Flashman's] chronicles progress he is finding it harder and harder to convince me that he is the thoroughgoing bounder and cad that his author wants him to be and that he himself blatantly insists he is." Usborne, who said that he longed to fault Fraser on a fact, but could not, thought this the best of his books so far.

The Steel Bonnets is not a novel but a factual study of the "borderers"-the raiders, cattle thieves, and protection racketeers on either side of the Anglo-Scottish border who preyed on each other and feuded continually until they were stopped by the lawful and more efficient brutalities of James I early in the seventeenth century. The distinguished historian Hugh Trevor-Roper called it "a splendid book, both scholarly and readable, accurate and alive, documented and well written. It is the only work I know which imposes form on the anarchy of Border history, and gives life to that form. … This is a book which a historian can envy." Apart from Royal Flash, Fraser has written screenplays for The Three Musketeers (1974), The Four Musketeers (1975), and The Prince and the Pauper (1977).

George MacDonald Fraser lives with his wife and children at Baldrine on the Isle of Man. A "sentimental Presbyterian," he is "firmly opposed to all party politics." He lists his recreations as "snooker, picquet, talking to wife, history, singing."

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