When he died in January 2008, I never expected I would read a new George MacDonald Fraser book again. As well as The Flashman Papers, I had read everything else he had published, and had my own copies of all but a small number of his books.
But in researching the background of Flashman to write about it recently, I discovered that not only was there was one last Fraser novel, but that it had been published in September 2015 without my ever hearing of it.
Captain in Calico, rather than being one last Fraser book, is actually his first: a novel written in, it appears, 1959, and rejected for publication, but never destroyed by the fastidious Fraser. Following their mother’s death, Fraser’s three children discovered the complete manuscript in one previously undiscovered fireproof safe and, after much consideration, offered it for publication.
In doing so, they have made plain that Captain in Calico is not vintage Fraser, indeed, far from it. It is an early novel, predating Flashman by almost a decade, a straightforward, adventure novel, historical in form and impulse and, in keeping with Fraser’s lifelong interests, centred upon real figures. But it’s also a lightweight novel that wears its influences – Sabatini, Scott, Wren and Henty – on its sleeves, to the extent that there is far more of these writers to it than there is of George MacDonald Fraser.
To that extent alone, it’s a weaker book, more naive and yet in its way perhaps more whole-hearted than the books that made Fraser’s reputation, because it’s Fraser writing ‘one more story’ by the authors who fascinated him. The writing is deliberately formal and archaic, the plot fast-moving but basic and simple. It’s a pleasant read, but it’s stengths lie in what we know its writer will go on to do rather than in its prentice pages.
The central figure – as anyone familiar with Fraser will have instantly recognised – is the real-life pirate, Calico Jack Rackham, and the book also features the equally real-life female pirate, Anne Bonney, a notable redhead. Fraser would return to this pair for his spectacular comic spoof of a swashbuckling novel, The Pyrates in 1983 (the book is a delight from start to finish, and was Fraser’s own favourite among all his novels).
Here, though, they are real and serious figures, standing on their own ground. They are interesting in their own respect, though they bear little resemblance to the exaggerated pair of the later book.
The storyline is straightforward. Rackham gives himself up to the Governor of Jamaica, Woodes Rogers, in return for a pardon. Rogers exacts the surrender of Rackham’s crew and their hefty cargo of booty as part of the deal, but plays Rackham false. Rackham’s motivation is that he was in love and engaged to 17 year old Kate Spencer before he was pressed to see without word to her: he has heard that she is still unwed and hopes, with his Pardon, to reclaim her love.
What Rackham does not know, until it is too late, is that the lovely Kate may be unwed, but she is engaged – to Governor Woodes Rogers.
A distraught and drunken Rackham falls into the clutches of the lovely, amoral Anne Bonney, who is married to a vicious and dissolute old planter whom she loathes. Through him, she has become aware of Rogers’ plans to send half a million in goal and jewels to England, on a single, seemingly-innocuous ship.
Rackham wastes no time in turning pirate again and raising a crew to pursue the treasure ship. But the whole thing is a decoy, the real treasure ship having taken a different course. Bonney faithlessly abandons him and Rackham is deposed in favour of a blundering Yorkshire loudmouth and oaf (accurate characterisation there), named Bull, who is so useless a captain that the ship is easily captured and all the pirates condemned to hanging, drawing and quartering. Except for Mistress Bonney, who claims to be pregnant and goes off to become the corrupt Judge’s mistress.
However, at the last, Rackham is secretly released through the offices of Kate Spencer, not from love but rather from honour, over how Rackham was treated and revulsion for the execution process. Rackham slips away (though in real life he later is captured and hung).
Not a lot happens, though Fraser takes great delight in creating the atmosphere that surrounds piracy and sailing and the Caribbean (the book includes reproductions of three letters, one a Reader’s Report, from the Author’s Alliance, that criticise the book for such detail, as well as denigrating its commercial possibilities.
I’m glad to have had one last chance to read a ‘new’ George MacDonald Fraser, though it is only a curio: I’ll retain the book but can’t see it being reread often. Would that he’d left one complete outstanding ‘Flashman’ novel, even though the one we would all have wanted was the one that he forcefully expressed himself as being completely disinterested in writing.
But I can’t chide this book for not being what it was never asked to me, for not being the mature, confident, bravura Fraser. At least I’ve had another evening with the old man.