NY: Simon & Schuster, 1980.
Fraser, of course, is well known for the marvelous “Flashman” historicals, but he wrote other novels as well (not to mention stage plays, screenplays, and critical works). This book runs to more than 550 pages, but it breaks neatly into two halves, so it’s almost like a lead-in novel and a sequel; the two sections differ in flavor, too. It’s the summer of 1909 and Mark Franklin, American, disembarks from an ocean liner at Liverpool with very little to his name, apparently, except some rather old clothes, a large quantity of cigars, a pair of six-shooters, and a fancy Mexican saddle.
A day later he’s in London, strolling the streets and drinking it all in. And very shortly after that — following a run-in with a militant suffragette and a much more pleasant encounter with a young actress in a musical revue — he has purchased a modest manor house in Norfolk and is moving in. But, as we eventually discover, this wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment thing. Mr. Franklin (as the author refers to him throughout the book) descends from people who left the village of Castle Lancing in the 1640s to try their luck in the New World. Franklin himself, son of an itinerant schoolmaster in the West, never really had a home; he worked as a ranch hand and miner until he struck it rich, and now he’s come back to where he hopes his roots are. And he’s very, very rich.
He gradually fits himself into the life of the village, though he’s still pretty much a loner, and he takes on a peerless manservant who steers him in the right directions as needed. And, while out exploring the countryside one day, he meets King Edward and his mistress, Alice Keppel. Bertie rather takes to the American gentleman’s polite lack of forelock-tugging and Franklin finds himself swept rather abruptly into the highest levels of society. He also meets Peggy, daughter of a local baronet (friendly but financially straitened), falls in love, and rather quickly marries her. Throughout all this, Fraser shows us a vanished world through the eyes of an astute and observant outsider. And, to act as his own politically incorrect mouthpiece, he brings in at intervals the now 90-year-old retired Gen. Sir Harry Flashman (who is also the great-uncle of the suffragette noted above), who has caustic comments and observations of his own and who revels in creating discomfort among self-important movers and shakers.
But there’s more, because Franklin has another side to his past. He was also a satellite member of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch gang, involved in several hold-ups and shootings, before he reformed and attempted to go straight. And all that comes home to roost when an extremely menacing figure from that darker past shows up on his doorstep one winter night, an encounter that must be dealt with unequivocally.
The second half of the story picks up a couple of years later, early in 1913, with Mark and Peggy living in a nice townhouse in London, visiting Castle Lancing at intervals, and doing all the social things one expects. At least, Peggy, who is nearly fifteen years younger than her husband, is immersed in the social whirl. Franklin himself is beginning to feel too old for that sort of thing — but he’s involved in his father-in-law’s growing stud farm (which he financed), and keeps up with his young brother-in-law (whose military career in Ireland he subsidizes). Until his wife comes to him for a substantial amount of money and he gradually discovers that all is not well in his life. Fraser then shows us the other side of British aristocratic society and its attitudes, the side a “Puritan” Yankee is not going to approve of very much. Though he’s far too canny an author to cast it all in black-and-white. The last part of the narrative, as Franklin tries to decide what to do, whether to chuck it all or what — and all of this against the background of the assassination at Sarajevo and the slow realization by the people around him that Britain is facing its first real war in a century — is almost Shakespearean in its tragic inevitability.
Fraser likes to do extended set-piece scenes and there are a number of those, often centering on Gen. Flashman, but also including a nice courtroom interlude and a fancy-dress ball. My favorite character, unquestionably, is Pip, the jubilant, talented showgirl who doesn’t pretend to be anything she’s not; she’s the most centered person in the story. Franklin himself, while one of the Good Guys, still is rather a cold fish and not always easy to empathize with. But the dialogue and descriptions, the historical scenery and psychological exploration are quite superior. Too bad more of Flashman’s fans haven’t discovered this book.