By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 4, 2008
George MacDonald Fraser, whose tales about an unscrupulous Victorian scoundrel, Sir Harry Flashman, chronicled the misadventures of one of the most memorable characters of modern British fiction, died Jan. 2 of cancer at his home on the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea. He was 82.
After working for years as a journalist, Mr. Fraser published his first novel about Flashman in 1969, passing it off as the newly discovered memoirs of a 19th-century coward, Lothario and soldier of misfortune. Flashman appeared in a dozen novels over the years, inadvertently landing at the center of almost every major military campaign of the Victorian age, from the Boxer Rebellion in China to the Indian Mutiny, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the siege of Khartoum, the Mexican Revolution and the Battle of Little Big Horn.
In Mr. Fraser's words, Flashman "can only display the courage of a cornered rat" as he tries to escape his many predicaments. Flashman demonstrates little more than craven self-interest, yet he invariably emerges as the antihero of his comic escapades, undeservedly winning top medals for bravery and bedding countless women along the way.
When the first novel in the series appeared, "Flashman: From the Flashman Papers, 1839-1842," Mr. Fraser claimed to have edited manuscripts he had found at a household sale.
Several critics were initially taken in by the ruse and believed that the stories were drawn from a lost cache of authentic memoirs. But the character of Harry Paget Flashman originally appeared as a bully in "Tom Brown's Schooldays," a popular Victorian boys' book that Mr. Fraser read as a child. The story flagged whenever Flashman left the stage, Mr. Fraser noted, so he made the irrepressible rogue the central figure of his novels.
"Anything is thinkable if it preserves [Flashman] with a whole skin," critic Christopher Hitchens wrote in The Washington Post in 1986. "The very qualities which got him expelled from Tom Brown's Rugby School -- deceit, cruelty and funk -- fit him admirably as a man to take credit for the sacrifices of others."
Mr. Fraser was born April 2, 1925, in Carlisle, England. His father was a doctor who passed on to his son a love of reading and a passion for his Scottish heritage.
Mr. Fraser was a poor student -- "sheer laziness," as he put it -- who entered the Army at 18 and was demoted to private three times. He eventually became an officer in a Scottish regiment that fought bloody hand-to-hand battles with the Japanese in Burma.
In 1993, Mr. Fraser published a memoir of his military experiences, "Quartered Safe Out Here," that has been hailed as one of the finest autobiographies of World War II. He worked at newspapers in England and Canada before becoming an editor with the Glasgow Herald from 1953 to 1969.
The success of his Flashman books -- which came after two years of publishers' rejections -- allowed Mr. Fraser to quit his newspaper job and retire to the tax haven of the Isle of Man.
Besides his Flashman novels, he wrote three well-received collections of short stories and several other historical novels. His final book, "The Reavers," set in the Elizabethan era, will be published in April. He also had many screenwriting credits, including 1975's "Royal Flash," starring Malcolm McDowell, two revivals of "The Three Musketeers" in the 1970s and the 1983 James Bond film "Octopussy."
Among his nonfiction works were a history of the borderlands of Scotland and England ("The Steel Bonnets," 1971) and "The Hollywood History of the World" (1988), in which Mr. Fraser lauded the movies' fidelity to historical truth: "What is overlooked is the astonishing amount of history Hollywood has got right. . . . For better or worse, nothing has been more influential in shaping our visions of the past than the commercial cinema."
Mr. Fraser was a painstaking researcher whose novels were admired for their accurate descriptions of battles and Victorian customs. The only characters more unprincipled than Flashman were politicians, whom Mr. Fraser held in universal contempt.
"Any gang of politicos is like the eighth circle of Hell," he wrote in "Flashman and the Redskins" (1982), "but the American breed is specially awful because they take it seriously and believe it matters."
Mr. Fraser was proudly conservative and often spoke out against modern social trends, including immigration, coarse language and the metric system of weights and measures. He praised the far-flung British empire -- which made Harry Flashman's picaresque exploits possible -- as "the greatest thing that ever happened to an undeserving world."
Survivors include his wife of 58 years, Kathleen Hetherington Fraser; three children; and eight grandchildren.