A REGENCY STREETFIGHTING MAN; (1) NIGHT & DAY (2) Black Ajax by George MacDonald Fraser HarperCollins [Pounds Sterling]16.99
Byline: DJ TAYLOR
Tom Molineaux, the subject of George MacDonald Fraser's scintillating new novel, was a freed black slave from Virginia who made his way across the Atlantic in the early years of the 19th Century with the aim of becoming the heavyweight boxing champion of England.
Despite a brief career, in the course of which he twice unsuccessfully challenged the reigning champion Tom Cribb, and a premature death in punch-drunk obscurity a few years after Waterloo, his spoor can be tracked through much of the literature of the Regency period, and also through the books of a slightly later date brought out to commemorate it.
Vanity Fair, for example, has a scene in which George Osborne, chaffing Jos Sedley about his riotous behaviour at the Vauxhall pleasure gardens, maintains that `you struck out sir, like Molineaux'. If nothing else, he deserves to be remembered as the first negro to shake hands with a member of the Royal Family.
MacDonald Fraser's method of recreating this chaotic and sparsely documented life is to assemble a range of contemporary eyewitnesses, each of whom recounts his or her version of events to a shadowy chronicler. This person, incidental reference suggests, is writing in the early 1840s.
Molineaux's early ascent from the slave plantations comes courtesy of a depraved Louisiana aristocrat who observes Molineaux's first serious bout (where, in the absence of proper rules, his hulking opponent ends up dead with a broken neck) and abstracts Molineaux's teenage sweetheart (also an eyewitness) for a career in the local brothels.
Paddington Jones - again, a real-life ornament of the Regency sporting scene - dilates on his training regime, while the accounts of his English fights are done in ingenious pastiches of contemporary sporting reportage, in particular Pierce Egan's Boxiana (1811), which has claims to be considered the first collection of English boxing journalism.
Despite the comparative lustre of his alternative career as a Hollywood screenwriter, MacDonald Fraser is undoubtedly best known for the series of Flashman novels (inspired by the arch-villain of Tom Brown's Schooldays), which began in 1969 with Flashman and reached their 10th instalment with 1994's Flashman and the Angel of the Lord.
It should immediately be said that Black Ajax has all the merits of the Flashman chronicles - vivid personalities, an inventive plot and extraordinarily sharp recreations of bygone life. Apart from Molineaux himself (whom MacDonald Fraser paints as a shrewd but touchy figure, ultimately ruined by sheer bumptiousness, who could have beaten Cribb if only he hadn't over-indulged himself), the central character is Flashman senior, Captain Buckley `Mad Buck' Flashman. …