Review: Flashman, George Macdonald Fraser

To kick off – this book is hysterically funny.  The blurb asks  “Can a man who is expelled from Rugby school as a drunken bully, who wantonly seduces his father’s mistress, who lies, cheats and proves a coward on the battlefield, who romps his way through the boudoirs of Victorian Britain to the erotic frontiers of the Empire BE ALL BAD?”  The answer to that question is … uncertain.  Flashman isn’t a mere loveable rogue – this guy is pretty much devoid of any recognisable moral system, yet he is written with such enormous energy that it’s very, very easy to get carried along in sympathy with him even while you’re wincing at his latest piece of skullduggery.   

I’ve thought about reading this for a really long time – I’d actually heard of it before I ever read Tom Brown’s Schooldays and to be honest, it’s way better than the latter.  For people who aren’t super-cool geeks such as my self – Harry Flashman was the primary antagonist in Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays who is expelled for drunkenness allowing Tom Brown to triumph as a generally awesome pupil at Rugby.  Tom Brown’s Schooldays is a fairly didactic work – not unlike The Children of the New Forest and other sturdy British Is Best style children’s fiction but George Macdonald Fraser thought that Harry Flashman had legs as a character and created for him a set of spin off adventures and so another dozen or so novels have been published.

Flashman sets itself up as a collection of recently discovered papers about the life of the well known public figure Harry Paget Flashman, Brigadier-General, VC, KCB, KCIE, Chevalier, Legion d’Honneur; US Medal of Honor; San Serefino Order of Purity and Truth, 4th Class – of course in his supposed memoirs he blithely confesses to all of his misdeeds with historical notes at the end to authenticate his version of events.  Basically – Flashman is too old and far too successful to care what the world thinks of him any more so has nothing to lose from just telling the truth.  Flashman is fantastically ghastly, he drawls that the Flashmans ‘were never quite the thing’ but points out that his mother’s family the Pagets ‘of course sit on the right hand of God’ – he airily dismisses Thomas Hughes’ account of him as a mere ‘sermon’ while Flashman himself is of course concerned with real facts, pointing out that ‘even at seventeen’, he knew better than to mix his drinks so Hughes had got that part of things wrong for starters.  Plus, as Flashman cheerfully notes, Rugby had asked him back to hand out prizes so really, who cares?  

Rugby is just the beginning – Flashman is like some kind of Victorian Forrest Gump – he got everywhere, I learnt a heck of a lot about Victorian military history from this book but I’d be lying if I said I kept track of all of the characters.  His boudoir exploits cause him no small amount of bother – he gets into a duel over a woman which causes Queen Victoria’s strait-laced husband Prince Albert to ask for his dismissal whereupon Flashman is dispatched supposedly temporarily to fight the Luddites of Scotland.  While doing this, he naturally seduces Elspeth, daughter of his factory-owner host.  Elspeth is particularly dear to Flashman, being ‘truly stupid’.  What Flash does not anticipate is being forced to make an honest woman of her by her scary relatives.  This lowly ‘mesalliance’ causes Flashman’s permanent loss of his commission and so he is forced to leave new his wife with his father and father’s mistress and take off to Afghanistan (yes, some things never change).   

Lord Elphinstone, the CO from Hell.

While in Afghanistan, Flashman naturally gets himself tangled up into the First Anglo-Afghan war – yes, the very first – under Lord Elphinstone who Flashman bitterly describes as the worst general he ever served under.  Given Flashman’s military CV this is quite an achievement and Flashman makes clear the level of genius to which Elphinstone takes his incompetence.  I actually looked this up for my own amusement and of course, it’s all true.  Elphinstone was a real man who was just as described: elderly, indecisive and incompetent.  After a lot of dancing around Akbar Khan who Flashman never entirely makes up his mind about, the entire garrison of 4,500 soldiers are wiped out in a massacre and Flashman is one of the only survivors (due to his talent for running away, not his bravery).  This naturally allows Flash to come a hero.  So the Flashman story pattern emerges.  

Flashman’s great genius comes from how Macdonald sets him up as someone who everyone believes to be a hero, who had all of these adventures, but Flashman himself explains very candidly and with no embarrassment at all that they are all products of unfortunate misunderstandings, a lot of luck, the fortuitous result of Flashman’s schemes or now and again a combination of all of these.  An example would be the duel  when he pays someone to disable his opponent’s pistol then manages to hit a bottle by a fluke, thus giving himself the impression of being the better man – this incident even merits a mention in the House of Commons.  What is clear is that despite being hopeless on the battlefield, Flashman has a very strong desire to live which sees him through a lot of the hairiest situations.  He lacks courage, kindness, loyalty or indeed any kind of consideration for anybody other than himself but if you were in a tight spot, you’d cling on to him for dear life because he’s pretty amazing at keeping himself alive.

Flashman is also quite the ladies man – this is the polite way of putting it.  There are a very many other adjectives which could be applied but I am a lady and so I shall refrain. One does rather feel however that the word “Phwoarr” is somehow synonymous with him.  He starts off with his father’s mistress who is unimpressed with his prowess and refuses a second tumble – so Flashman tries to take her forcibly.  Later he does indeed rape a woman who has been given him by his host – this event earns him a lasting and dangerous enemy, still Flashman notes to the reader that this was the only time he ever did this since he ‘preferred willing women’.  As a woman, anybody who commits rape or anything in the rape family does tend to fall under the label of ‘Bad Guy’ in a far more indelible way than someone simply guilty of all of Flashman’s other misdeed … larceny, theft, treachery, cowardice, manslaughter, murder … undsoweiter.  Later however, Flashman enters into a misunderstanding with the wife of one of his comrades who was entirely happy to be groped but drew the line at intercourse and on this occasion, Flashman let her be despite being absolutely furious.  My own feeling is that Macdonald Fraser wrote the rape incident because it is important to remember what a low life Flashman is deep down – he may hide it and with his wit and humour it might otherwise be all too easy to forget.  

I have heard George Macdonald Fraser speak on the radio and he is lovely, every book I’ve ever read of his is dedicated to his wife so I was at first puzzled about how he had become so attached to this utterly corrupt individual.  As a side bar, for complicated reasons I am very against judging somebody else’s morality and although I know that Flashman is created to be a morally ‘bankrupt’ character and more to the point he is fictional, I still can’t bring myself to call him that.  In any event, I finally realised that Flashman’s utter lack of conscience actually makes him the ideal commentator – he has no loyalty to anyone so is in no way biased.  He is also writing with sufficient hindsight to be objective, although in his summation of Lord Elphinstone, Flashman comments that time had indeed changed his feelings, ‘Whereas I would have cheerfully shot him then, now I would hang, draw and quarter him for a bungling, useless, selfish old swine’.  In that way, for an author so clearly passionate about this historical period, Flashman is the perfect protagonist because his basic function is to behave disgracefully and get away with it wherever he goes.  No historian could speak so bluntly but Flashman can say what he likes because he just doesn’t care.

So … would I read another?  To be totally honest, probably not.  I have loved this one but I don’t see myself settling down for the other twelve.  I can see how the humour goes but I have a feeling Flash is a wee bit of a one trick pony which would be all right if Victorian military history was an interest of mine but it isn’t – I’m a social history geek instead.  Flashman is great fun though and through him Macdonald Fraser makes a lot of very astute comments not only about war in general but about the British in particular.  For the kind of book it is though it is wonderful.  Go Flash!

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Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser
Published by HarperCollins UK on 1999
Pages: 299
ISBN: 9780006511250

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3 thoughts on “Review: Flashman, George Macdonald Fraser

  1. Thank you for an excellent review, it was even handed, but gave an entierly logical reason that Flashman does not chime easily with modern female sensibilities. That said, you did not give the old reprobate too much of a kicking.
    In your review, you said it was unlikly that you would read another. While I would not suggest you read them all (every author varies a bit). I would like to recommend three.
    1, Flashman in the Great Game, In which there is one episode of vented anger, and one of uncharacteristic charity.
    2, Flashman and the Redskins, in which there is an action of shocking betrayal, well my jaw dropped and another of convincing pathos.
    3, Flashmans Lady. in which Flashy has to fight off his Better nature. Elspeth is an endearig heroin with a toug victorian streak.
    All of them teach history so it sticks, I wish I could say as much about my schooling.
    If you do read them I hope you enjoy them.

    1. I have read Royal Flash since this and I did find a few in a second hand shop a few years ago so I rule nothing in or out. I will definitely take a look at the ones you recommend – I agree that the writer does have a talent for making history stick. And it is very funny. And I would emphasise that I don’t think that the author was writing Flashman to be likable.

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