Posts Tagged ‘George Macdonald Fraser’

Stevenson, Conan Doyle, and Christmas reading

I’ve been reading Stevenson’s short stories lately – many for the first time – and I can’t help wondering why it has taken me so long to get to them. After all, not only has Stevenson meant much to me over the years, I find his works, when I do read them, most congenial to my temperament. As I never tire of mentioning here, Treasure Island and Kidnapped were huge childhood favourites, and I revisit them whenever I want to bask in nostalgia for my childhood years (which, in my case, is often). And there’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, of course: Nabokov’s inclusion of this work in his critical collection Lectures on Literature, alongside such acknowledged masterpieces as Madame Bovary or Metamorphosis, still raises some peoples’ eyebrows, but not mine: Jekyll and Hyde is as great a masterpiece as any Nabokov places it alongside. And those charming children’s poems in the collection A Child’s Garden of Verses I have known since my primary school years, when, in my Scottish primary school, we were required to commit many of them to memory. (And, contrary to modern wisdom on these matters, this did not put us off: we loved these poems, and I, for one, still do.) But, really, for a long time, that was about as far as it went. Even Weir of Hermiston, his late, unfinished masterpiece, I came to know only quite recently.

However, better late than never, I suppose. I have recently been catching up on some of his short stories. A couple I did know from before: “The Body Snatcher”, for instance. Although often included in anthologies of ghost stories (which is how I got to know it in the first place), it is only in the final pages that the supernatural makes its mark: till then, it had been a splendid thriller, evoking the dark gloomy lanes and wynds of old Edinburgh in the days when grave-robbers used regularly to dig up freshly made graves to sell the fresh corpses to medical research. (There was a fine film based on this story, produced by Val Lewton and directed by Robert Wise, and featuring at its centre a superbly sinister performance by Boris Karloff: well worth catching up on, if you don’t know it already.) And “Thrawn Janet” I also knew – amongst the most terrifying of all ghost stories, but less frequently anthologised, possibly because it is written in what to many is an indecipherable Scots dialect.

Earlier this year, I read, and was much impressed by, the stories published early in Stevenson’s career under the title New Arabian Nights. Looking back on what I had written, I found myself much impressed by the clarity and expressive eloquence of Stevenson’s prose; and I also noted, I see, a delight in devising intriguing situations, but a certain impatience when it came to developing them. However, Stevenson presents us with so rich a panoply of scenes that delight and fascinate, and presents them with such panache, that we find ourselves happy simply to be swept along by it all, and find ourselves not minding too much the demotion to mere background details of the narrative resolutions. Stevenson does not repeat that kind of thing in his later stories – not the ones I have read so far, that is – but he did retain that wonderful gift of setting up intriguing situations. And as a writer of adventure stories, he really was second to none: so great is his skill in creating and sustaining narrative tension that I have even found myself wishing my commuter journeys were longer.

There’s the wonderfully creepy “Olalla”, for instance. It’s not a tale of the supernatural, but it should be: it certainly has the atmosphere of one. Its themes are surprisingly Poe-like – familial decline, hereditary madness, Gothic gloom – all familiar elements in, say, “The Fall of the House of Usher”. But where Poe, to my mind at least, starts at so high a pitch of feverishness that at the climax there is nowhere further to go, Stevenson’s prose is clear and measured throughout, so that when the climax comes, it is genuinely shocking. “Olalla” is fairly long for a short story, and its pacing is immaculate. I have tried to rile some of my Poe-loving fiends by telling them that this was the kind of story Poe would have written had he been as good a writer as Stevenson, but I’ll refrain from saying that here: in the first place, I really would not wish to unleash a torrent of indignant protests in the comments section; and in the second place, it is, to be honest, an inaccurate and frankly unfair assertion. That Stevenson is more to my taste than Poe does not make Poe a lesser writer; but the fact nonetheless remains that Stevenson is, indeed, very much more to my taste.

And there’s “Markheim”, which seems to be Stevenson’s response to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. (And no doubt those as allergic to Dostoyevsky as I am to Poe will tell me how far superior Stevenson’s treatment is of the theme.)

And there are three stories making up the late collection Island Nights Entertainment. As with New Arabian Nights, Stevenson is clearly evoking A Thousand and One Nights in the title, but even had he not done so, it would have been difficult keeping A Thousand and One Nights out of even the briefest of discussions of these tales. Although set in the South Sea Islands (where Stevenson spent the last few years of his life) rather than in the Middle East, they are saturated with a sense of magic and wonder that permeate A Thousand and One Nights. The first of the three stories, “The Bottle Imp”, borrows the idea of the genie of the lamp (with the lamp replaced by a magic bottle). This genie, or “imp”, as Stevenson calls him, will grant its owner any wish; but the owner must sell the bottle on at a lower price than he had paid for it; for if he dies with the bottle still in his possession, his soul will go to Hell.

So naturally, over time, the price of this bottle spirals lower and lower, and becomes ever more difficult to get rid of: for, eventually, a state will inevitably be reached where its price is the lowest denomination available in any monetary system, and selling it at a lower price will become impossible. It’s an intriguing set-up. The resolution this time is not shirked, nor demoted to a mere incidental detail, but nonetheless, it’s the situation one remembers more than how it all works out at the end.

Then there’s “The Isle of Voices”, which, if one had to pitch it, could be described as “Arabian Nights meets Joseph Conrad”. (Although, of course, this predates, if only by a few years, the works of Conrad.) There is much here for the students of post-colonial studies to sink their teeth into. The premise is, once again, magical in nature – a sorcerer obtains his wealth by spiriting himself, invisible, to another island, where, by burning certain leaves, he can transform shells to coins, and transport them back home.  But human greed knows no limits: by the end, there’s a sickening bloodbath, in which the native inhabitants of this island are slaughtered for the sake of further gain. It isn’t, perhaps, easy for this story to fit into any simple pattern: the sorcerer, in the first place, is not white, but is native Hawaiian; and the people so horribly massacred by the end, far from being innocent victims, are themselves cannibals. But the themes of exploitation, greed, and imperialist violence are all there.

The longest and most substantial story of the three is “The Beach of Falesa”, and, once again, we seem to be very much in Conradian territory. The narrator is a white trader in the South Seas, and, while he is hardly free from racism himself, finds himself genuinely loving the native girl he has so cynically been hitched up with in “marriage”. Prominent in this story is the theme of sexual exploitation of native girls: the girls and women are treated as so much property, to be enjoyed as objects, then ill-treated, and abandoned as and when her “husband” tires of her. At one point, the narrator speaks casually, as if in passing, of one of the traders “thrashing” his “wife”, as if it were the most natural and unremarkable thing in the world. And while the narrator, in this case, does indeed find himself loving the girl who has, effectively, been allotted to him, by the end of the story he worries about returning to Britain with his mixed-race children: he knows there is no place for them there.

But powerful though all this is, it is still, essentially, an adventure story. (As, indeed, are many of Conrad’s works.) The narrator, Wiltshire, finds himself pitted against a fellow trader, Case, who has his own very dubious set-up, and who doesn’t tolerate competition: Wiltshire realises that he must either kill Case, or be killed by him. The story takes a long time to build: Stevenson’s pacing is deliberate, but when the tension starts to grip, it doesn’t let up. And the passage where Wiltshire delves deeper and deeper into Case’s mysterious domain has about it a sense of almost hallucinatory terror: it’s hard not to feel that one is being drawn into some sort of Conradian Heart of Darkness.

I haven’t read them all Stevenson’s stories yet: there are still a few more to go, but it’s always good to have something to look forward to. I haven’t been disappointed by any of the ones I have read so far. But over the Christmas holidays, I think I’ll turn to Stevenson’s fellow Scotsman – born about a generation after Stevenson, and just a mile or so away from Stevenson’s birthplace in Central Edinburgh – Arthur Conan Doyle. Not the Sherlock Holmes stories: there’s far more to Conan Doyle than those Sherlock Holmes stories, which I keep re-reading them all the time anyway. No – this Christmas, I am planning to read through the Brigadier Gerard stories. All of them. It has been far too long since I last read them, and I am pretty sure I have not read them all.

It is incredible to think that storytellers of such brilliance were born in such close proximity to each other: I certainly cannot think of anyone – not even Dumas – who surpassed these two in terms of plotting. And I suppose that to Stevenson and Conan Doyle, one could add a third Scots writer – George Macdonald Fraser, whose Flashman novels are surely up there with the best when it comes to holding the reader’s attention purely with the plot.

Well, not purely, perhaps, with the plot: even the best of plots require immense writing skills if they are to hold the reader’s attention so fixedly. Over the last century or so, plot seems to have slipped down the list of priorities in what is loosely termed “literary fiction”, and maybe, one day, it would be interesting to analyse the skills required to hold the reader’s attention in this manner, and have them turning the pages purely to find out what happens next.

But for the moment, I am having far too much fun enjoying them to be worried about all that. Christmas holidays are approaching: it’s time to choose one’s Christmas reading – nothing too heavy, nothing to unduly tax one’s alcohol-sodden mind – but nothing to insult the reader’s intelligence either. Those wonderfully witty and exciting Brigadier Gerard stories seem to fit the bill perfectly!

“Flashman’s Lady” by George Macdonald Fraser

To recap:

Flashman, the vicious school bully from Tom Brown’s Schooldays, and a nasty a piece of work lacking all moral compass, has found himself involved in some of the most striking and dramatic historic events of the 19th century, and, despite his appalling behaviour, has generally, through comic misunderstandings, been mistaken for a gallant hero. In his old age, he wrote disarmingly honest and gloriously colourful accounts of his various adventures; and George Macdonald Fraser has scrupulously edited these accounts, adding scholarly and well-researched footnotes and appendices, thus presenting them to the public as important historic documents; and, in the process of doing so, he has presented to the public also some of the very finest of adventure stories ever written, easily equalling and possibly at times even surpassing such masters of the genre as Dumas, Stevenson, Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle.

Flashman’s Lady is the sixth in a series of twelve. (I am reading through these marvellous novels in the order in which they were written: a quick survey of the first five may be found here.) In this novel, in the first hundred or so pages set still in Blighty, we are given some marvellous set pieces – most notably, cricket at Lords, and a wonderfully vivid and picturesque scene depicting a public hanging at Newgate. But then, we’re off: Macdonald Fraser whisks us off first into Malaysia and Borneo (where Flashman, most unwillingly, becomes involved in warfare against local pirates); and, in the latter part of the novel, into Madagascar, where, as a slave, he is appointed to train the army, and to be lover of the insatiable Queen Ranavalona, who, if Macdonald Fraser’s account is to be believed (and he certainly provides copious references, including several eye-witness accounts), was amongst the most vile and wicked mass-murderers in history.

In dealing with such historic events, there is always the danger that the historic background will overwhelm the story. This possibly happened in the fifth of the series – Flashman and the Great Game – which depicted various events of the Indian Mutiny. The historic events and the personalities involved were depicted with such tremendous vitality and vividness, that it was easy to overlook the fact that Flashman himself, for much of the novel, was little more than an onlooker. But Macdonald Fraser is determined not to let that happen here. To this end, he introduces as a major player Flashman’s wife, Elspeth. In previous novels, she had remained safely ensconced in Britain while Flashman whored and cheated his way through various scrapes, but here, she is in the midst of things, accompanying Flashman first to Malaysia, and later into Madagascar. We are even presented with extracts from her diary. Of course, she is as ignorant and as splendidly airheaded as ever, but, for all that, Flashman has developed an attachment of sorts to her. This doesn’t prevent him cheating on her whenever he can without the slightest pang of conscience; but it does mean that he can’t quite leave her to her fate. It means that he can at times risk even his own safety for her sake. Some readers may complain that this is a dilution, or even a betrayal, of the utterly amoral Flashman we had known from earlier novels: perhaps it is. But there isn’t really enough to his character as presented in the earlier narratives to sustain our interest across an entire series of full-length novels. Flashman from those earlier novels wasn’t capable of development, and to sustain our interest across so many novels, he does, I think, need to develop. I personally did not find this particular development unbelievable.

The presence of Elspeth in the main action also introduces the motif of the “damsel in distress”, thus giving this novel more a feel of the traditional Boys’ Own adventure story than in the previous five. This sense of the Boys’ Own adventure story is heightened by the extraordinary presence of James Brooke, one of the most colourful and remarkable of all historic figures, and who could so very easily have stepped out from one of those traditional Boys’ Own adventure stories. But he was real enough: an appendix tells of his astonishing campaigns to rid the islands of the Malay Archipelago of piracy. The depiction of his character would have appeared utterly fantastic had not Macdonald Fraser, with his usual care for historic authenticity, supplied so many scholarly references in the footnotes: James Brooke really was, it seems, as extraordinarily daring and quixotic a character as is presented here. Macdonald Fraser has a wonderful ability to depict charismatic figures from history, and reading this, one can but shake one’s head in disbelief that such a person could ever have existed.

As ever, Macdonald Fraser admires heroism. Brooke’s associates – some historical, others products of the author’s imagination – are brought superbly to life, none more so than the marvellous figure of Paitangi, half Scots and half Arab, an unlikely Muslim-Calvinist, who ends up sacrificing himself for the good of the expedition. He does so without any self-conscious heroics: it is simply a job he has been engaged to do, and he does it. The narrator Flashman may not value this, but it is precisely this sort of heroism that Macdonald Fraser celebrates throughout this series of novels.

Of course, despite all the elements of the Boys’ Own adventure stories, these are serious novels for grown-up readers. The covers may give the impression of light entertainment, but the covers are misleading. Amongst other things, these are blood-drenched novels. Given the events they relate, they could hardly be otherwise. In children’s adventure stories, characters can be wounded, or can die, without the author having to give any detailed account of their suffering: that is not possible here. Not that Macdonald Fraser wallows in detailed description: far from it. When a pirates’ ship is taken, for instance, he mentions some of the corpses recovered of women who had been tortured to death; but mercifully, he leaves out the details of the torture: it is not the purpose of these novels to nauseate the reader. But the horrors cannot be overlooked either. These are not, after all, children’s books. And horrors don’t really come much more horrific than the reign of Queen Ranavalona in Madagascar.

As with the depiction of James Brooke, but for different reasons, the depiction of Ranavalona can stretch credulity. But once again, copious references, often to eye-witness accounts, are cited. It appears that Ranavalona was a sadistic psychopath, delighting in inflicting upon her subjects the most hideous tortures and executions on a massive scale. Perhaps, with our knowledge of Nazi Germany and of Soviet Russia, or of Khmer Rouge or of Assad or of any of the other brutal despotic regimes with which this world continues to be plagued, we should not be surprised: but it is hard not to recoil in horror in reading these chapters. Once again, it is not Macdonald Fraser’s purpose to nauseate us: he is writing, first and foremost, an adventure story. And he uses all his considerable skills as a narrator to ensure that this novel remains, first and foremost, an adventure story, without descending into torture-porn. Nonetheless, I doubt I have read anything more horrific in fiction.

Ranavalona may be seen as mad, but Flashman has his own views on this:

Her wants are simple: just give her an ample supply of victims to mutilate and gloat over and she was happy – not that you’d have guessed it to look at her, and indeed I’ve heard some say that she was just plain mad and didn’t know what she was doing. That’s an old excuse which ordinary folk take refuge in because they don’t care to believe there are people who enjoy inflicting pain. “He’s mad,” they’ll say – but they only say because they see a little of themselves in the tyrant, too, and want to shudder away from it quickly, like well-bred little Christians. Mad? Aye, Ranavalona was mad as a hatter in many ways – but not where cruelty was concerned. She knew quite what she was doing, and studied to so it better, and was deeply gratified by it, and that’s the professional opinion of kindly old Dr Flashy, who’s a time-served bully himself.


I grew up with Boys’ Own adventure stories, and I suppose I am predisposed towards the genre. But I have never believed in applying different standards to genre literature and to non-genre literature: by any standard, this novel is a triumph, and, like its predecessors in the series, it really makes me wonder whether there has been a more skilled novelist in the last fifty or so years than George Macdonald Fraser. What the likes of Dumas or Stevenson had been to their generations, Macdonald Fraser is, I think, to mine. And the best of it is that I am only half way through this series: there are six more novels to go, and, if reports are to be believed, the standard does not flag.