Monday, January 7, 2008

George MacDonald Fraser R. I. P.

George MacDonald Fraser OBE, best known as the author of the Flashman novels, passed on January 2, 2008 at the age of 82 from cancer.

Fraser was born on April 2, 1925 in Carlisle, England. As a boy he read a good deal, including Captain Blood by Rafael Sabitini and Tom Brown's School Days by Thomas Hughes (the latter would be very significant in Fraser's career). He attended Carlisle Grammar School and Glasgow Academy. During World War II Fraser joined the Army and served in the Border regiment in Burma. Towards the end of the war Fraser was given a commission and served in the Gordon Highlanders in the Middle East. Following the war, Fraser entered the field of journalism as a reporter for the Carlisle Journal. After marrying his wife Kathleen, Fraser emigrated to Canada where he worked on the Regina Leader-Post in Saskatchewan. After one year in Canada he returned to the United Kingdom. In 1953 he became a sub-editor at the Glasgow Herald. He would eventually become the newspaper's features editor for a time and then its deputy editor.

By the late Sixties George MacDonald Fraser had grown weary of journalism. He decided to "write his way out (his own words)" by writing a novel. It was at that time he remembered Flashman, a character from Tom Brown's School Days who bullied Tom Brown. Flashman was eventually expelled from school for drunkenness. Fraser decided to write a novel which would chronicle what happened to Harry Paget Flashman following his expulsion from Rugby School. It took Fraser two years to sell Flashman, collecting an inordinate number of rejection slips before it was accepted by Barrie and Jenkins, the same publishing house who published the works of P. G. Wodehouse. Flashman proved to be a success and ultimately there would be 12 Flashman novels published. In fact, the first novel was so convincing that many reviewers at the time thought Flashman was a historical figure!

The series success perhaps lay in that while the series had all the adventure and excitement of Rafael Sabitini's novels, it skewered Victorian sensibilities. Brigadier-General Sir Harry Paget Flashman VC KCB KCIE was a far cry from such heroes as Captain Blood and The Three Musketeers. He was a lovable rogue who fled from battle (even though he was a fair combatant), betrays friends, commits numerous adulteries, and even takes credit for feats of bravery not his own. Despite being a total cad, at the end of each novel Flashman inevitably walks away with medals for his valour and praise for his deeds of bravery.

Fraser also wrote other novels besides those chronicling the life of Henry Paget Flashman. His 1983 novel The Pyrates is a deliberate send up of both pirate novels and pirate films. His novel Black Ajax was a fictionalised account of Tom Molineaux, an African American prizefighter in England in the 19th century. His latest novel, The Reavers, is set in Elizabethan England and deals with a Spanish plot to overthrow the British throne.

Fraser not only wrote historical fiction, but he also wrote nonfiction works on history as well. The Steel Bonnets dealt with the Border Reivers of the English/Scottish border in the Middle Ages. The Hollywood History of the World: From One Million Years B.C. to Apocalypse Now examined the way history has been dealt with in film. Quartered Safe Out Here was Fraser's memoir of his service in World War II.

George MacDonald Fraser also worked in motion pictures. For director Richard Lester he wrote or co-wrote the screenplays for The Three Musketeers, The Four Musketeers, an adaptation of his own Royal Flash (the second Flashman novel), and The Return of the Musketeers. He also wrote or co-wrote the screenplays for The Prince and the Pauper, Octopussy, and Red Sonja (perhaps the low point of his career).

George MacDonald Fraser created one of the most memorable characters in 20th century literature. Even if he had done nothing more than create Flashman, Fraser would be remembered. Fraser did a good deal more than that, writing history books that were very accessible and memoirs that give a rifleman's view of World War II. In 1999 he was awarded the Order of the British Empire. Unlike the awards heaped on his character Flashman, this award was well deserved.

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