World Literature

George MacDonald Fraser

 

BORN: 1925, Carlisle, England

DIED: 2008, Isle of Man (British Crown dependency)

NATIONALITY: British

GENRE: Fiction, drama, nonfiction

MAJOR WORKS:

Flashman: From the Flashman Papers, 1839-1842 (1969)

Royal Flash: From the Flashman Papers, 1842-43 and 1847-(1970)

Flashman and the Dragon (1986)

The General Danced at Dawn (1970)

Quartered Safe Out Here: A Harrowing Tale of World War II (2001)

 

 

George Fraser. Fraser, George IV, 1968, photograph. AP Images.

 

Overview

George MacDonald Fraser was more than a novelist— he was also a journalist, soldier, scholar, historian, and writer of screenplays. He is best remembered for his series of satirical Flashman novels, centered on a cowardly and mischievous British soldier in the nineteenth century who stumbles his way through history. Fraser also made a successful career in Hollywood, both as a historian of the movies and as a screenwriter for several popular films. Throughout his life and his writing, Fraser has explored exactly what it means to be ‘‘heroic’’ in the modern age.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

From the Son of a Doctor to an Ordinary Soldier. George MacDonald Fraser was the son of a doctor, born and raised in Carlisle, England, near the border with Scotland. He attended school in both Carlisle and Glasgow, Scotland. In 1943, several years after Germany’s invasion of Poland, which marked the beginning of World War II, Fraser joined the army. During his service, he repeatedly engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the Japanese in the jungles of Burma (now Myanmar). He recounts some of these experiences in his memoir, Quartered Safe Out Here, a book widely praised for its view of war from the ordinary soldier’s perspective.

Fraser used his military experiences after the war, including his postings in the Middle East and North Africa, to create three volumes of short stories about the waning days of British colonialism, which began at the end of World War II as most of Europe lay in ruins and even Britain found itself nearing bankruptcy. The stories alternate between comedy and tragedy, and all of them feature Fraser’s character Private McAuslan, ‘‘the dirtiest soldier in the world.’’

Life After the Military. After his discharge from the military, Fraser became a journalist in England and Canada, eventually returning to Glasgow to become an editor at the Glasgow Herald in 1953. He left this position when his first novel, Flashman, became a hit in 1969. He moved to the Isle of Man, Crown dependency of the United Kingdom, to avoid paying high British taxes, and he remained there for the rest of his life.

Success in Hollywood. Fraser’s interest in history led him to write a book about how Hollywood treats historical figures and events, The Hollywood History of the World: From One Million Years B.C. to Apocalypse Now (1988). He concludes that the movies do a more responsible job than most people might assume. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Fraser contributed to the movies himself, adapting his novel Royal Flash for the screen in 1975. He also wrote the screenplays for several other historical farces, including The Three Musketeers (1973) and its sequel The Four Musketeers (1974). He also cowrote one screenplay in the James Bond series: Octopussy (1983).

Fraser was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1999. He continued writing and publishing work into old age. On January 2, 2008, at the age of eighty-two, George Fraser died of cancer. His daughter, Caro Fraser, is a successful writer with a series of novels of her own— legal thrillers set in London’s Caper Court. He is also survived by his wife and two sons.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Fraser's famous contemporaries include:

Roald Dahl (1916-1990): British author known for his children's books, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964).

Margaret Thatcher (1925-): Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990.

Claude Levi-Strauss (1908-): The French anthropologist who was an important figure in the development of structuralism, a branch of analysis that focuses on the relationship between interrelated parts of a system as a source of meaning, as it relates to anthropology.

John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006): An economist who argued that wealthy nations should use their resources to help developing countries deal with poverty for their mutual benefit. He won two Presidential Medals of Freedom, from presidents Harry Truman and Bill Clinton.

 

Works in Literary Context

Fraser’s most popular creation, Flashman, was inspired by Thomas Hughes’s novel Tom Brown’s School Days (1857), which Fraser read as a boy. In Hughes’s novel, a character named Flashman appears as a sadistic bully that torments the novel’s protagonist, Tom. Building on a tradition of authors who publicly conflated fact with fiction, Fraser joined authors like Daniel Defoe who gained popularity after their tales, which were assumed by readers to be true, were revealed to be fiction.

False Document. When Flashman: From the Flashman Papers, 1839-1842 first appeared in 1969, many people assumed it was a true story. It deals with the misadventures of a young British captain in India who always manages to end up the hero while running from danger. Fraser claimed that he had found the manuscript wrapped in oilskins and packed in a tea-chest in the Leichestershire town of Ashby-de-la-Zouch. So many readers believed the account was true that the publisher had to break the story that it was a fake to the New York Times. With this publicity, the book became a bestseller.

Joining the Tradition of Conflating Fiction with Fact. Fraser was certainly not the first author to conflate fiction with fact. When the novel emerged as a popular literary genre in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, it was a child that bore a family resemblance to its various ancestors: travel narratives, sermons, saint’s lives, criminal confessions, spiritual autobiographies, histories, political tracts, professional guides. The first bestselling novel in the history of the genre was Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. That story was told in Crusoe’s voice, the real author’s name appears nowhere in the book, and there is enough realistic detail for it to be taken as fact.

Satire of Victorian Figures and Society. The eleven sequels to the original Flashman novel abandon the factual premise in favor of satire and comedy, as the protagonist travels to virtually every notable location and meets nearly every important person in the second half of the nineteenth century: Benjamin Disraeli, Arthur Wellesley Wellington, Otto von Bismarck, Queen Victoria, Abraham Lincoln, and others. The main character’s selfishness and eye for the ladies get him into tricky situations, but he always weasels out of them through his charm, wit, and knack for making a quick getaway. Fraser was writing these Flashman novels in the mid-1960s when straightforward and heroic historical fiction was no longer in style. One of Fraser’s literary contributions was to fuse the old Victorian novel with the new cynical, sardonic, and witty satires of the 1960s.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

An "antihero" should not be confused with a "villain": The antihero is the protagonist (the center of the reader's interest and affection, trying to bring about good or order) and the villain is the antagonist (the character trying to stop the protagonist, trying to create crime or chaos). An antihero exhibits qualities such as cowardice or dullness, but still remains the protagonist, sometimes in spite of himself. Here are some other works containing antiheroes.

Hamlet (1599-1601), a play by William Shakespeare. The titular character of this tragedy is often considered one of the earliest examples of an antihero in English literature. Though his aims are just, Hamlet is hesitant, skeptical, and self-absorbed These traits all contribute to his ultimate downfall.

Don Quixote, Man of La Mancha (1605), a novel by Miguel de Cervantes. This central book in the canon of Western literature tells of an eccentric Spaniard who cobbles together a suit of armor made of scrap metal and sets out to slay giants and rescue damsels in distress.

The Maltese Falcon (1930), a novel by Dashiell Hammett. This classic detective story introduced the character of Sam Spade, a private investigator who does whatever it takes—including working with criminals—to solve his case.

Blackadder (1983-1989), a television series written by Rowan Atkinson, Richard Curtis, and Ben Elton. This classic British series is about a vain, cowardly, self-interested, but very smart and witty antihero who appears in various places throughout key moments in British history, from the medieval period through World War I.

 

Works in Critical Context

Fraser’s novels, notes W. Keith Kraus of Best Sellers, are ‘‘the continuing story of Harry Flashman, a nineteenth- century rogue who zoomed to stardom in a first volume over the bodies of a few thousand Afghans ... and a handful of reviewers.’’ Other Flashman books feature the hero in various historical settings. In Flashman and the Redskins, for instance, Flashman travels to the United States and tries to persuade President Ulysses S. Grant to give General George Armstrong Custer his job back. Jonathan Yardley, in Washington Post Book World, finds this adventure, though not ‘‘quite as hilarious as promised in the promotional material,’’ still ‘‘consistently entertaining’’ and ‘‘eminently satisfying.’’ Jack Kapica, of the Toronto Globe and Mail, considering the hero’s exploits in Flashman and the Dragon less predictable than the previous Flashman books, declares that ‘‘there is a more mature hand at work here, and one that is oddly even more satisfying.’’

Of the Flashman books in general, a writer for the London Times writes, ‘‘It was all rollicking nonsense; but it had a sterling quality that went to the heart of many sophisticated readers who like to relax with a rubbishy book provided it is well written rubbish. Fraser was a thoroughly professional literary craftsman.’’

Objections to Fraser’s writing are often politically based. It is not always clear when racist and sexist attitudes regularly appear in the Flashman novels because of their nineteenth-century setting, or because they are shared by Fraser. As Fraser himself once said of Flashman, ‘‘If he wasn’t an elitist, racist swine, I’d be selling bootlaces at street corners instead of being a successful popular writer.’’ The London Times obituary for Fraser reads, ‘‘Through it all, sabres glint in the sunlight and the white man comes out top in the end; bosoms heave, bodices are ripped; foreigners strut and sneer and simper and generally prove their inferiority. Part of the delight of the stories, when they appeared in an age of women’s liberation and campaigns against racial discrimination, was the shameless way Fraser ignored political correctness.’’ Others have been less delighted. A reviewer of Flashman and the Angel of the Lord says that the novel’s ‘‘ignorant, extremist, symbolic political violence ...is ultimately uninteresting.’’ In Fraser’s memoirs, he is particularly harsh on the changes in Britain under the ‘‘New Labour’’ government of Tony Blair; the appeal of The Light’s on at Signpost (2002) is likely to be limited to those who already agree with his conservative point of view.

 

Responses to Literature

1. Have you ever been tricked into thinking that all or part of a fictional work was true? What was your reaction? What are the benefits and dangers of this as a literary technique?

2. Where do you draw a line between an antihero and a villain? How much can a character ‘‘get away with’’ before you lose sympathy or interest? Do some research on what reviewers have said about Flashman as an antihero, and see if he crosses that line for some of those critics. What do you find most and least appealing about Flashman?

3. Fraser was commissioned to write a screenplay for the James Bond series. Why do you think the producers selected Fraser? What do Bond and Flashman have in common as characters?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Periodicals

Hitchens, Christopher. ‘‘Farewell to Flashman: The Singular Creation of George MacDonald Fraser, 1925-2008.’’ The Weekly Standard 13.18 (January 21, 2008).

‘‘George MacDonald Fraser: Times obituary.’’ London Times (January 4, 2008).

Messenger, Robert. ‘‘Hail the Cowardly Hero and His Bravely Un-P.C. Creator.’’ Wall Street Journal (January 17, 2008): D7.

Web Sites

Duncan, Lesley and Martin Laing. ‘‘George MacDonald Fraser.’’ The Herald. (January 4, 2008.) Retrieved March 22, 2008, from http://www.theherald.co.uk/features/obituaries/display.var.1944575.0.george_macdonald_fraser.php Last updated March 22, 2008.

‘‘The Flashman Society. ’ Retrieved March 22, 2008, from http://www.harryflashman.org/

‘‘The Last Testament of Flashman’s creator: How Britain Has Destroyed Itself.’’ Retrieved March 22, 2008 from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/news/news.html?in_article_id=506219&in_ page_id=1770