Author in embryo

By Benjamin Massey

June 29th, 2016

You don’t often open a book to an introduction like this:

A book such as Captain in Calico would probably be even less likely to find a publisher today than sixty years ago – not because it isn’t excellently written, but because ripping yarns are hardly fashionable now – and we do not want readers to be deceived into thinking it is vintage George MacDonald Fraser, and of the standard of the Flashman novels or the McAuslan short stories. Indeed, we thought long and hard before allowing it to be published, and are only doing so because we believe that, as an early work, Captain in Calico is a delightful curiosity, one which we hope will provide fans of GMF with a fascinating insight into the inspirations and creative impulses that turned him into such a fine novelist.

No danger of that being quoted in the promotional material. Still less because that tantalizing leader was written by George MacDonald Fraser’s own children, filial piety overcome by the demands of honesty and taste1. Just to rub salt into the wound, Caro Fraser concludes the book by reproducing two letters from a literary agent who rejected the novel at the time, with unstinting criticism of why the thing was frankly unpublishable.

Maybe the Fraser clan can afford to be forthright. As that paragraph should have told you, Captain in Calico was the first (or at least the first surviving) attempt by ex-soldier, ex-door-to-door-encyclopedia-salesman, and then-journalist George MacDonald Fraser to write and publish a historical novel. Written, rejected, heavily revised, and rejected again, the manuscript was sealed up in a safe until his children, cataloging his library for a sale in 2014, came across both work and letters. The reason the novel can be published today is that, between those rejections and his death in 2008, Fraser wrote the twelve-volume Flashman series and established himself forever as one of the twentieth century’s cultural gems, even before you count his screenplays, his other novels, his two volumes of autobiography, the rollicking McAuslan short stories based on his life in the post-war British Army, or God so much else2.

It was all built atop bedrock of solid research from a breadth of sources no professional scholar could sneer at, and one of the chief joys of the Flashman Papers is the sheaf of footnotes providing a cornucopia of historical context, clarification, and even “corrections” to the “errors” of the fictional chronicler. Fraser was a journalist but he did his research all the same. Captain in Calico doesn’t show the same knack for bringing the distant past to life as his later work. The setting is the Caribbean in generic ol’ 17-some-odd, and despite era-appropriate set pieces there is little in the atmosphere to convince us this is really another time and another place.

Captain in Calico is also not funny. We get a couple good jokes but as the plot thickens the tone darkens. The titular Jack Rackham, a famous pirate of the 18th century known as “Calico Jack” for his flamboyant dress, starts out well enough but gets himself deep into the soup with, and thanks to, the ravishing and dangerous but inconstant Anne Bonney. To anybody who knows the story of Rackham and Bonney their fall is preordained, and there’s no swashbuckling fun about it. The denouement tries to reverse things but it is explained to the reader like a child, lest it look like too much. Much of the plot is maritime, inevitably for a pirate thriller, and Fraser was never, ever, a Patrick O’Brian in his ability to turn shipboard routine into something both engrossing and enthralling.

So what we have here is a historically uninteresting, serious novel by a man who came to fame for his hilarious, and historically brilliant, work. It is also, as the 50-year-old editor’s notes at the end agree, overwritten for what plot it tries to carry. There are two major episodes of betrayal, one telegraphed a hundred miles off and the other disposable. Unusually for a “ripping yarn” there is far more darkness than light; Flashman would always have that moment where he would stand at the top of a bluff watching the remains of the British army get pounded into pulp, and the horror of it would be brought to bear on the reader, but his is ultimately a happy existence—for Flashy, anyway. Neither Calico Jack Rackham, nor any of his friends, get that much.

So the surprise is that it’s still so likable. It turns out the one constant of George MacDonald Fraser is that he can write. Rackham is a classic anti-hero, bad but not wicked, rash but not stupid, vengeful but not malicious, and well worth following. Bonney could have been drawn more sharply but in her we get an early glimpse of Fraser’s power to create compelling women. Most of the secondary characters were bought off the rack which, in context, is no problem. The plot may not be classic stuff but, with Fraser’s nascent but charismatic prose, it works.

It’s more fun than another “serious” Fraser novel, The Candlemass Road, written in 1993. Like Captain in Calico, The Candlemass Road drew upon a setting that consistently fascinated Fraser: the Scottish Borders in the Elizabethan age, when tribes of English and Scottish reivers ceaselessly pillaged across (and along) the frontier despite the gallant efforts of a few lawful men, and with the active connivance of many who should have been lawful. It was an age of peace indistinguishable at times from war, when even the good guys were villains yet savagery was inhibited by unwritten rules and a perverse code of honour. The Candlemass Road can be a drag, written with an awkward combination of modern grammar in an Elizabethan mode, its main character too-obviously there to record what other, more interesting people are doing. The characters win their battles and it hardly matters an inch. Calico‘s Rackham has an unexpected chance to preserve his life, if not his fortune; Candlemass‘s Waitabout Noble gets a break, rejects it, and may live to regret it. It was that sort of place. Those borderlands were too big for one novel to change, and Fraser was too scrupulous to deny it. The Candlemass Road sags under the weight of authenticity. Fraser’s straight history of the border reivers, The Steel Bonnets, twenty-two years earlier, turned out to be a much better read.

He made up for that gloom in the end, though. Fraser’s last publication was The Reavers, essentially an adaptation of The Candlemass Road with the fun dial cranked up to eleven. Some characters appear nearly unchanged, others are given a quick makeover. The plot echoes The Candlemass Road for the first act then lurches off into wizards, warlocks, Spanish schemes, and ravishing bombshells taunting each other about their wardrobes. The Reavers knows exactly what sort of novel it is and includes stage directions, music cues, and enough deliberate anachronism to fill St Mary’s Loch. You could never make it into a movie, because no movie would be sufficiently movie-like. It’s an uninhibited entertainment and it succeeds because Fraser was such a good entertainer.

Though we couldn’t have known at the time, it wasn’t his first such adaptation. 1983’s The Pyrates has less in common plotwise with Captain in Calico than The Reavers with The Candlemass Road, but the two piratical books share a zest for swashbuckling that veered towards pathos in Calico and towards farce in Pyrates. Calico Jack Rackham is not a primary character in The Pyrates, but the good captain appears as the astute, brave, undisputed leader of the novel’s preposterous pirate gang, a sober gallant that seems to have come out of a completely different story. Well, now we know why. Anne Bonney is also there, with the sex drive of a small city, and late in the story the two share a quietly poignant parting that doesn’t really belong between two such secondary characters in such a goofy story. After reading Captain in Calico that, too, makes a lot of sense. Trust George MacDonald Fraser to get sentimental in a satire, particularly sentiment for something that, until now, no more than a dozen people had ever read.

  1. Informed taste, too; setting aside the insight of people who grew up in houses full of books, Caro Fraser is a successful novelist in her own right.
  2. And if you have not read Flashman, throw your computer in the garbage and remedy that problem right now.

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