Saturday, January 05, 2008

Flashy dies

There have been a large number of obituaries and tributes to George Macdonald Fraser, the creator of Harry Flashman, who died recently. In the continuing spirit of RSC we have stolen a couple: A poem from Bill on Harry's Place, a pastiche of 19th century mawkishness. and an article from History Today may 2000 reproduced from the Flashman Society

The Burial of Sir Harry Flashman

Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,
As his corpse to the rampart we hurried;
Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
In the trollop our hero had married.

We buried him darkly at dead of night,
When the strumpets were out gallivanting,
By the struggling moonbeam's misty light
At the hour Flashy was lustfully panting.

No useless coffin made up his bier,
Not in sheet nor in shroud was his corse girt;
But he lay like a poltroon quaking in fearHiding,
till the end, ‘neath a lady’s skirt.

Few and short were the prayers we said,
And we spoke not a word of sorrow;
But we silently thought ‘at least it’s not I who is dead’,
Though we bitterly thought of the morrow.

We thought, as we hollowed his narrow bed –
It was high time he slept alone –
Of the dangers we’d rather pile on his head,
While we lived it up safely at home.

Lightly they'll talk of the spirit that's gone,
I doubt if we'll miss him that much
And little he'll notice, if they let him sleep on
While his girls writhe ‘neath our fresh touch.

But half of our heavy task was done
When the clock struck the hour for retiring;
And we heard the distant and random gun
That the foe was sullenly firing.

Quickly and suddenly we laid him down,
From the field of his fame cold and sterile;
We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone,
But we ran far away from all peril.

Flashman author George MacDonald Fraser explains how 'history disguised as fiction' has been his inspiration and is also his aim.
`YOUR EYES ARE blinded by the sight of gold, man!' Thus Sir Daniel Darnley Darnley (or was it Darnby?), the Laughing Pirate, duelling in an Aztec treasure-house, despatching some unfortunate Spanish villain with a lightning rapier 'thrust -- and awakening my interest in history for the first time.
I was about eight years old and until I encountered Sir Daniel in a D.C. Thomson 'tuppenny blood' my acquaintance with the past had been limited to the odd Bible story, Greek and Norse myths, and my first school history book, The World Family. I'm sure it was an excellent primer, but all I remember of it is a couplet about Hannibal crossing the Alps because he wanted the Roman scalps, and a law of King Hammurabi's condemning arsonists to be thrown into the fire they had started, which seemed drastic, though not illogical. I became disenchanted with the book when, asked to read aloud from the last chapter which dealt with the Great War, I was mocked for my mispronunciation of 'the warring navies', which I rendered as though the last word was spelt with two 'v's, thus conjuring a picture of labourers swarming out of the trenches brandishing picks and shovels.
And then I chanced on Sir Daniel, and it dawned on my infant mind that history (in his case Elizabethan or Restoration, I forget which) was not only a sober record of the past, but a wonderland of action and excitement, where gallant adventurers swaggered and fought and intrigued, usually for patriotic but occasionally for mercenary reasons, against sinister enemies, most of them foreign, and life was a series of battles: escapes, ambushes, rescues, conspiracies, duels, and general romantic activity. I knew it was fiction, of course; only later did I discover that true history left fiction far behind.
This began to dawn through the exploits of another true-blue British buccaneer named Morgan, who swung a hearty cutlass and sang a merry jingle about 'the Spaniards who sail the Spanish Main, we hunt their craven souls; We cut off their heads and trim their ears, to make a game of bowls.' (It will be seen that even at the age of eight I was tending towards the Macaulay rather than the Gibbon school of history.)
But Morgan was a turning-point, for I discovered that there really had been a buccaneer of that name, whose real-life exploits were pure Hollywood; he was my bridge from dream history to true history, from the pages of The Skipper to (eventually) Esquemeling, Charles Johnson, Defoe, Dampier and Prescott; from ripping yarns to the great escape from Maracaibo and the epic march on Panama.
My progress along this path was assisted by a writer whom I regard as the best historical novelist since Walter Scott -- and I am well aware that I am giving him priority over a talented host headed by R.L. Stevenson. Rafael Sabatini it was who confirmed for me that history was not only a serious study but a magical entertainment, and showed me how historic fact may be wedded to exciting fiction. At this he was a past master, a historian turned story-teller who excelled in both fields. I should guess that he influenced more writers than any academic teacher.
I first came across Sabatini in a school library, and Captain Blood, that sweeping piratical saga inspired by the life of my old friend Morgan (the real one), held me enthralled. Months later the cinema curtains opened on the film version, with Erich Wolfgang Korngold's majestic overture thundering out, the novice Errol Flynn defying Judge Jeffreys, pinking Basil Rathbone, wooing and winning Olivia de Havilland, and scattering Dons and Frenchmen in all directions... and I was seeing history for the first time, or thought I was, which is much the same thing when you are ten years old.
From that moment I became a sort of history alcoholic, absorbing it from every available source, factual and fictional, but mostly the latter. Treasure Island, Ivanhoe, The Prisoner of Zenda, The Three Musketeers, and the works of Jeffery Farnol, Philip Lindsay, and many others were consumed, but I did not abandon my first mentors, the Wizard, Hotspur, and Rover, who took me through the Napoleonic Wars in The Fighting Temeraire, the '45 Rebellion with an Alan Breck clone named Red Fergie, the Border raids with one Black Musgrave, and the Seven Years' War with The Ten Scarlet Feathers, which dealt with a sacred war bonnet belonging to the celebrated Indian chief, Pontiac. This inspired my own first attempt at historical fiction, a lurid but (I'm proud to say) factually-based account of the massacre of British-American settlers at Fort Venango. I was writing it during a maths lesson when it was confiscated and destroyed by an unsympathetic vandal of a master; the Nazi book-burnings were taking place about this time, and I brooded on the coincidence. I still haven't forgiven that man; as Dr Campbell said of James Boswell: 'When I think of the murdered literature that lies at the door of that drunken little ass ...'
But I digress. By this time I was getting past the 'tuppenny blood' stage (so far as I ever have) and had developed a new enthusiasm, for a work by one Robert Graves, embellished with a stone bust and the title 'I, Clavdivs'. Being unfamiliar with the Roman 'u' at that time, I went about calling it 'I, Klav-divs', but if this was derided I didn't notice, for Graves had me hooked, and I still rate Claudius as one of the four best historical novels I have ever read (Scott always excepted), the three others being Captain Blood, Kenneth Roberts' Northwest Passage, and de Coster's Legend of Ulenspiegel.
I was caught reading Claudius during a Latin class (no wonder my education was erratic), and was rebuked by the teacher: 'You'll never get anywhere, Fraser, reading that sort of thing instead of Kennedy'. (Kennedy's ghastly Primer was the book of the century with Latin teachers). And then he added: 'And yet, who knows?' which was perceptive in its way, for wherever I've got (not, admittedly, very far) it has been as a result of devouring historical fiction.
All this must seem terribly juvenile and trivial -- 'tuppenny bloods', cloak and sword romances, and cinema swashbucklers as a springboard into history. Well, I have now been producing historical fiction of a fairly sensational kind for over thirty years, and I wish I had a pound for every reader's letter I have received saying, in effect: 'Thank you for awakening my interest in history, for telling me what I didn't know, and for pointing me to the sources'. That is the ultimate reward, and I know they mean it, because it happened to me too.
As I've said, it was Sir Daniel Darnley who led me to Esquemeling, and Conan Doyle to Froissart, Graves to Suetonius and Tacitus, Henry to Kinglake, Mayne Reid to Bancroft, the Wolf of Kabul to Kaye and Mallinson, and Sabatini to more than I can count. Yes, and Forever Amber to Macaulay, Pepys and Evelyn, and Gone With the Wind to Bruce Catton and Samuel Eliot Morison. Nor must I omit 1066 And All That, the best introduction to history ever written.
If this proves anything, it is that there is no truer guide to the past than good historical fiction. There is nothing phoney about it; while I tend to distrust approaches to education which suggest that it is an enjoyable game (when we know it is just hard slogging), the good costume novel is telling no more than the truth when it suggests that real history is fun and excitement and glamour and suspense; that it has all the ingredients of a great adventure story. But of course, that is what history is.
It does not matter if the historical novel is pure unashamed fiction, with plot and characters owing nothing to historic fact, so long as it is properly researched and reflects, as faithfully as the writer knows how, the period and its spirit. Better still, of course, to write what a Sabatini reviewer called 'history disguised as fiction' -- that is, to take historic truth and present it as a story, weaving in whatever fictitious incidents and characters are needed to oil the narrative's wheels, but never, never falsifying or distorting the truth on which it is based. Fairness above all, to the best of the writer's ability; it isn't always easy, but history and the reader deserve no less.
It is a rule which the best of them -- Scott, Dumas, Doyle, Graves, Forester, Sabatini, Roberts and the rest -- never broke, and far beyond the entertainment they gave and continue to give to countless millions, they did history good service, and set an impossible standard for those emulators who trudge vainly in their footsteps. I for one owe a lifetime's work to all of them. And to Sir Daniel Darnley.

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