Every so often you come upon an author who does it all: plots brilliantly, creates fascinating characters, takes the reader to distant (well-researched) places, and demonstrates a great sense of humor in the process. The late great George Macdonald Fraser was such a writer, and his death in 2008 deprived us all of the delights of more of his terrific historical novels.
Anyone with an interest in 19th century British history should turn to Fraser’s wonderful Flashman series, starring Harry Flashman, a minor character in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, in which Flashman was a bully the righteous hero had to overcome. As an adult, Flashman is still a bully and a coward, as well as a rake and a liar and a born cynic, and because of these traits, he is a great guide to the rise of the British Empire, which he serves (sort of) as an army officer. Somehow Flashman manages to be involved in most of the major wars (and some of the minor ones) of the century, starting with the first Afghan war in Flashman, continuing with participation in the Charge of the Light Brigade in Flash at the Charge, the Sepoy Rebellion in Flashman in the Great Game, the first Sikh war in Flash and the Mountain of Light, and traveling from Madagascar to Borneo to China to Ethiopia in the service of the Queen, usually reluctantly and usually due to complicated circumstances. In between his British adventures, Flashman also manages to witness and become involuntarily involved with a certain amount of 19th century American history, including the run up to the Civil War (Flash for Freedom!), John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry (Flashman and the Angel of the Lord), and the Battle of Little Bighorn (Flashman and the Redskins). All sorts of real historical people show up in these books (from Abraham Lincoln to George Armstrong Custer to Otto von Bismarck to Oscar Wilde, among many others) and either manipulate Flashman or are manipulated by him in turn. There is a great deal of violence (most of which is historically accurate), sex (I did mention that Flashman’s a rake, right?), and intrigue, both political and personal, and there is probably no more enjoyable way of absorbing a lot of British history than by reading these novels (the footnotes alone are worth the read, containing both detailed historical background for the people and events Flashman is describing and editorial comments on his supposed recollections).
Not content with the Flashman series (which would be enough to cement the reputation of many a writer), Fraser also wrote a number of extremely funny short stories based, somewhat loosely, on his experiences with the Gordon Highlander regiment after World War II, starring “the dirtiest soldier in the world,” Private McAuslan. The General Danced at Dawn and McAuslan in the Rough are unappreciated gems, well worth seeking out if you want a good laugh out loud read.
Why am I writing about George Macdonald Fraser now, years after his death? Because one of his early novels has just been posthumously published, and that’s worthy of celebration. The book is called Captain in Calico, and it features another rogue, perhaps even less respectable than Flashman, a pirate captain by the name of John Rackham, also known as Calico Jack, roving the 18th century Caribbean, seeking treasure, beautiful women, and revenge against the man who stole his fiancee. With the classic Fraser touches — excellent historical research, convoluted plots and cameos by real historical figures, vivid characters, a slightly warped sense of humor — Captain in Calico is a book to point to when people claim “they don’t write ‘em like that anymore.”
Unfortunately there probably won’t be any more books by George Macdonald Fraser (unless someone unearths another treasure from his vaults, like this one), but at least we still have all his wonderful and entertaining historical novels to binge on. Start anywhere, and enjoy!