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History Into Fiction: The Writer's Art of Recreating the Past

A Eulogy to George MacDonald Fraser

It’s worth a trip to the newspaper stacks if you missed Robert Messenger’s stirring remembrance of British writer George MacDonald Fraser in the January 17th edition of The Wall Street Journal.

Fraser, best known for his “Flashman” novels that brought to life Britain’s nineteenth-century imperial adventures, died earlier this year at the age of 82.

Fraser was one of those rare writers of historical fiction who successfully straddled the publishing and movie worlds, having compiled numerous novels and more than thirty screenplays to his credits. Messenger, a senior editor at the Weekly Standard, describes with admiration how Fraser’s protagonists were often the antithesis of the traditional hero: politically incorrect, toadying, lying, cheating, elitist, and racist. Remarkably, these flawed characters were quite popular with the reading public.

Among the many fascinating observations in Messenger’s essay is his reminder that Fraser took an unusually tolerant view about the need for movies and historical novels to abide by the “facts” of history. Discussing Kipling’s influence on the popular view of the British Raj, Fraser once wrote that the test should be not how precisely a work of fiction followed the written records, but whether it successfully reflected the countries and people portrayed.

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