The hits keep on coming. George MacDonald Fraser, creator of Harry Flashman, has died at the age of 82. If you haven’t read the adventures of Sir Harry Paget Flashman VC, KCB, KCIE, do it now. Start.
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.