Historical Heroes: Saul David on George Macdonald Fraser

Saul David, acclaimed historian of the Victorian period, recalls a meeting with the great writer.
George Macdonald Fraser
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But for George MacDonald Fraser and his wonderfully funny – and, to modern eyes, decidedly un-PC – Harry Flashman novels, I would not have become a historian. I read them in my teens and was immediately captivated by MacDonald Fraser’s colourful depiction of Victorian warfare. The books became the literary inspiration for my own four histories (The Homicidal Earl, The Indian Mutiny, Zulu, Victoria’s Wars) and two historical novels (Zulu Hart and Hart of Empire) on the same subject.

MacDonald Fraser had read Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays, a bestselling Victorian novel, as a boy and immediately recognized the drunken bully Flashman as the unacknowledged ‘star’ of the book. Tiring of journalism in the mid-1960s (he was assistant editor of the Glasgow Herald), he decided to use Hughes’ creation as the anti-hero in his own Victorian adventure story. The timing was perfect. Flashman is expelled from Rugby at about the same time Queen Victoria comes to the throne and the ill-fated First Afghan War begins. Hence the first eponymously titled Flashman is set in Afghanistan, with our cowardly hero somehow emerging from the disastrous Retreat from Kabul with his reputation enhanced.

In 2006, shortly before the publication of my own Victoria’s Wars, I was asked by the Daily Telegraph to interview George MacDonald Fraser who had just brought out his twelfth and last Flashman novel, Flashman on the March, set during the Abyssinian Campaign of 1868. I jumped at the opportunity. Who wouldn’t want to meet their literary hero? I did not know it at the time, of course, but it would be the last interview that MacDonald Fraser gave before his death in January 2008.

We didn’t, as it happens, get off to the smoothest start. Well aware that MacDonald Fraser was an old soldier – his account of his time in Burma with the Border Regiment, Quartered Safe Out Here, is one of the finest memoirs to emerge from World War Two – I made a special effort to get to his Bath hotel a little early. But he had only just arrived himself, thanks to a delayed flight from the Isle of Man (where he had been in tax exile since the early 1970s) and needed an hour to freshen up. I repaired to the bar to mug up on my notes.

Two minutes ahead of the newly appointed time, MacDonald Fraser reappeared and sat down opposite me. He was smartly dressed in blazer and open-neck shirt, with a wide friendly face, long ears and a hearty laugh. He still had his Scottish lilt (as do most Caledonians, wherever they live, including my wife) and looked incredibly well for his 80 years. As well he might because Flashman on the March had already sold more hardbacks than any of its predecessors. Which prompted me to ask why only one Flashman, Royal Flash (a send-up of Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda), had ever made it to the silver screen. MacDonald Fraser was, after all, an experienced screenwriter whose credits included The Three Musketeers, the James Bond film Octopussy and the aforementioned Royal Flash, starring Malcolm McDowell. But that expertise, it turned out, was part of the problem. ‘I will not let anyone else have control of the script,’ he explained, ‘and that simply does not happen in Hollywood.’

The other reason for the dearth of Flashman films was, said MacDonald Fraser, the lack of a suitable British actor. Out of left field I suggested Daniel Day Lewis. He was not entirely convinced. ‘He’s probably getting on a bit,’ he said (Day Lewis was then 48), before conceding: ‘He’s probably the best around. I was very impressed with his Gangs of New York.’ At his talk at the Bath Literary Festival that evening, he was even more taken with the idea. ‘Someone suggested today that Daniel Day Lewis might make a Flashman – and on reflection I think he would. He’s big, he’s got presence and he’s got style.’ MacDonald Fraser’s all-time favourite for the role, however, was Errol Flynn. ‘It wasn’t just his looks and his style, and so on,’ he told me. ‘He had that shifty quality.’

So did MacDonald Fraser share any traits with his fictional creation, an inveterate womanizer who, more by luck than judgement, always ends up smelling of roses? ‘No,’ he told me, ‘but I do share his general philosophy. I’m rather a cynic, I suppose. I do not believe in the niceness of humanity.’ Yet even Flashman is not all bad and seems to have a genuine affection for many of his lovers. ‘Yes,’ agreed MacDonald Fraser, ‘he falls for a lot of them – temporarily at any rate. He really loves Elspeth [his wife], there’s no question about it. But the thing about Flashman’s women, and I think this is what appeals to female readers, is that they invariably get the better of him.’

There’s no better example of this than the diabolical revenge that the ex-slave Cleonie takes on Flashman – after he has callously sold her to the Apaches almost 30 years earlier – by luring him into Indian country and arranging his kidnap by Sioux braves. He survives of course, but only just, and not without suffering a partial scalping at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

I’d read somewhere that MacDonald Fraser regarded the Victorian era as the most fertile ground for a military historian. I’m not one to disagree, but why so? He answered, ‘The Empire is at its height and no other country has got that kind of background, that century of adventure and glamour. I’m always asked why I haven’t written about the American Civil War. One reason is that, by comparison, it’s deadly dull.’

MacDonald Fraser is an unashamed fan of the British Empire, and was delighted that revisionist historians like Niall Ferguson (and myself, for that matter) had recently felt able to write about it in a more objective, less guilt-ridden way. ‘With all its faults,’ he says, ‘it’s just about the best thing that’s happened to an undeserving world. If there’s an idea of fair play and honest government today then it’s because of Britain.’ It would have been a ‘good thing’, he adds, if the empire hadn’t ended when it did. MacDonald Fraser was in Bangalore training to be an officer in 1946, the year before Indian independence, and remembers that the ‘great majority’ of Indian cadets were keen for the British to stay ‘because they knew that under the Raj they would get a fair shake in the army’. But the Labour government was determined to ‘get rid of India’, rushed independence and ‘two million people died’.

So exhaustively researched are the Flashman novels that when the first one appeared in 1969 almost a third of 40 American reviewers, academics among them, were taken in by MacDonald Fraser’s conceit that the story was based on a newly discovered manuscript. ‘One guy said it was the most extraordinary discovery since the Boswell Papers,’ he explained. ‘And he was a professor of either history or English.’ I told him how I took the conceit one stage further by giving Flashman a cameo appearance in my otherwise factual biography of Lord Cardigan, The Homicidal Earl. The result was a reader’s letter informing me that Flashman was a fictional character! Macdonald Fraser is not surprised. As recently as three years ago he received a letter from an American PhD student asking to see the Flashman Papers. ‘People want to believe it,’ he says, ‘that’s the thing.’

Yet MacDonald Fraser was adamant that historical novelists should never tamper with the facts. Of the many real-life people who’ve appeared in the Flashman novels – from Disraeli to Queen Victoria, General Sir Colin Campbell to Lola Montez – he only took liberties with two: the Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck (‘but he was such a swine anyway that I figured that was all right’) and Count Nicholas Ignatieff, the ‘gotch-eyed’ Russian secret agent who tries repeatedly to murder Flashman. ‘I made him an arch-villain,’ said MacDonald Fraser. ‘He wasn’t. But he was a hard man. The trick,’ he said, ‘was to be true to the spirit of the person’, which is why, in Flashman and the Great Game, he includes an editorial footnote questioning Flashman’s claim that he slept with the otherwise ‘respectable’ Rani of Jhansi, the Indian Joan of Arc.

He admitted to the odd clanger, such as Flashman referring to the ‘worst mess’ he’s been in since the Sikh war battle of Chilianwalla. It took an American reader to point out that on the day of the battle – 13 January 1849 – Flashman was evading slave-owners on the Mississippi river. ‘It was very careless of me,’ admits MacDonald Fraser, ‘but I can blame that on Flashman. Poor old fool meant Isandlwana, but his memory was fading.’

Why, I asked, given his obvious love of history, had he only written one work of non-fiction (Steel Bonnets, a history of the Border Reivers)? He said he found ‘writing straight history isn’t as much fun, and I tend to see the funny side of things’. His novels can be side-splittingly funny, none more so than the episode in Flashman at the Charge when our flatulent hero is unwillingly propelled towards the Russian guns at Balaklava by a runaway horse.

He tended not to read modern historians, preferring the detailed narrative élan of 19th century practitioners like Alexander Kinglake and Sir John Kaye. His favourite novelists were Walter Scott (‘I’ve just finished The Betrothed’) and Rafael Sabatini (whose Captain Blood, published in 1922, ‘made me realize that history was one helluva story’). What about his contemporaries? ‘I don’t read modern novelists, apart from my daughter [the novelist Caro Fraser].’ Not even Patrick O’Brian? ‘I’m a Hornblower man, so I don’t know whether I’d like O’Brian or not.’

I’d planned to send him a copy of my forthcoming Victoria’s Wars, but given his stated aversion to modern writers there seems little point. Which is when he surprises me by saying: ‘I’d like to read your biography of Lord Cardigan.’ I offered the copy I’d brought along – to show him the spoof passage about Flashman – and he accepted. But then I checked the title page and discovered to my horror that it was inscribed to my wife. Apologizing profusely, I hastily withdrew the offer and promised to post him a copy. He understood. He dedicated most of his books to his wife, Kath, who encouraged him not to give up when the original Flashman was rejected by ‘at least a dozen publishers’.

Saul David

I thought back to the late 1990s when, despairing of my ability to make a living as a historian, my agent suggested I write a historical novel. I took the bait and decided to set it in World War One with Flashman’s nephew as the central character. The enticing prospect of Flashman minor popping up in all the wars of the early 20th century was before my eyes. And just as rapidly it vanished. My agent read the first two chapters and told me not to give up the day job.

I related the above to MacDonald Fraser who was quick to point out that Flashman was an only child and had no nephews. What about a son? ‘Yes, but he became a bishop.’ Damn, just as well the book was never published. But if it had been, would MacDonald Fraser have minded? His reply is non-committal. ‘Lots of people have said they’d like to do this, they’d like to do that with Flashman. My agent has just warned them off.’

I asked him what he thought about the breach of copyright action that Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, were then bringing against the British publishers of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. ‘They’ve got to lose that case [they did],’ he said. ‘If they win it’s going to make writing historical fiction very difficult. Anyway, as I understand it, there’s no copyright in ideas.’ He also thought it was ‘very difficult not to plagiarize’ and had had some close shaves himself. Like the time he discovered that a P. C. Wren book called Worth Wile, published in 1937, had a scene in which the hero was ‘held in a dungeon by a nasty Russian with a split eye’. MacDonald Fraser wrote just such a scene in Flashman and the Great Game before he was even aware of the Wren book. He got the idea for the Russian Ignatieff’s split eye from a boy at his school with an eye that was half blue, half brown. ‘Would Wren, had he still been alive, have believed that this was just coincidence?’ he muses. ‘But it was.’

I ended our chat by asking him how he would change the school curriculum for the better. ‘More imperial history,’ he replied. ‘The Empire had its faults but it’s something to be proud of.’ Not many people would have the courage to say that today. But then MacDonald Fraser never shied away from controversy, and was a passionate believer, as am I, that no subject of history should be off the agenda because it might offend.

Saul David is a historian, broadcaster and novelist. He has written a number of acclaimed histories of the Victorian period, describing many of the events featured in the Flashman series. His latest book is Crucible of Hell, an account of the Battle of Okinawa