“ Author: George MacDonald Fraser / Genre: Fiction „
The octogenarian Major-General Sir Harry Paget Flashman VC reminisces on his (in)famous career, beginning, in this first volume, with his expulsion from Rugby School for drunkenness. Pausing only to seduce his father's mistress, he joins the 11th Light Dragoons, commanded by Lord Cardigan, who is brilliantly caricatured as a sneering, lecherous snob. Having become embroiled in a duel over a French tart, Flashman is posted to Scotland, where he meets his future wife, the apparently innocent dumb blonde Elspeth, whose family force Flash to do the honourable thing (for once) and marry her. But marriage to a businessman's daughter leaves his career in a crack regiment in ruins, and he seeks his fortune in India. There his talents for languages and riding (on horseback I mean, of course) lead to his being seconded to Afghanistan under General Elphinstone. The badly botched Afghan campaign proves the very worst place for a coward to end up, and it takes all Flashy's wiles to escape with his skin (and false reputation as a hero) intact.
George MacDonald Fraser's research is impeccable and he creates a real sense of being present at the historic military actions to which Flashy is an extremely unwilling witness, including the retreat from Kabul, the massacre at Gandamak, and the siege of Jalalabad. The plot, as always, moves at a cracking pace.
New readers may be disconcerted by Flashman's behaviour - he is, let's face it, the kind of man one would avoid like the plague in real life - which is if anything even worse than in subsequent novels. Fraser seems to have realised this and Flashman later becomes a somewhat more buffoonish figure who by the end of the series is almost lovable; here, however, he has a harder edge to him. His one redeeming feature is that unlike the bellicose hypocrites he encounters, the cowardly Flashy always tells his readers the truth.
A novel related by so unliveable a narrator is, however, a stroke of brilliance; the Victorian tradition of heroic tales is subverted and the reader wants Flashman to get his comeuppance, which he invariably does, in this case being tortured in a dungeon by the woman he raped. His dastardly character also permits some interesting comparisons: the real villains, in this case the Afghan warlord Gul Shah, make Flashman's cruelties pale into insignificance.
More revealing is the contrast between the minor consequences of Flashy's evil doings as he pursues a life a women, drink and good living, and the death and destruction wrought by well meaning, God-fearing Victorian worthies such as Elphinstone, whose incompetence leads to a whole army being wiped out. Flashman was written before the present Afghan war, and it now seems remarkably prescient. As he lies his way out of trouble on his sick bed after surviving the siege of Piper's Fort, Flashman's commanders shed crocodile tears for the fallen: "all they needed", thinks Flashy, "was an organ and a church choir".
The supposedly 'found' memoirs of the fictitious Lt. Harry Flashman. An officer of the British army in the full bloom of its Victorian era pomp. This, the first in a long running series details the caddish Flashman's exploits in the disastrous Afghanistan campaign (...Now where have I heard that before) of the 19th Century. The narrative is told from the perspective of an elderly Flashman looking back upon a debauched but very eventful life, occasionally opining on subjects as they arise, in his own unique, highly un-PC style.
Right off the bat its does not take long to come to the conclusion that 'Flashman' by George McDonald Frasier is not an altogether serious affair. It may well be that upon glancing at the front cover we find the protoganist standing proud in his natty British Army uniform, eyes twinkling, moustache bristling, one eyebrow fully cocked in Roger Moore-like fashion as a scantily clad 'native girl' literally swoons at his feet. Or it may well be that this is an actual book, called 'FLASHMAN'. Honestly.
Obviously this cover description pertains to the currently published version, which I think this does a much better job of conveying the contents within than the rather more staid cover image shown above as we shall shortly see.
Flashman is essentially a spin-off from the classic Thomas Hughes novel Tom Brown's schooldays, with the premise of taking the bullying antagonist of that story and seeing what became of him after the events of that tale. To those who have read the aforementioned book it comes as little surprise to find Flashman shamefully expelled from Rugby School for drunkenness barely 10 pages into the book. To those that haven't, no matter, its not a pre-requisite to reading this at all.
From there we find Flashman travelling back to his father's London home; fairly unmoved by the ignominy of his expulsion, nor the imminent meeting with his father who surely will be moved. His father of course turns out to be just as bad as he is, if not worse. Flashman does his best to disprove this theory by sleeping with his father's live-in mistress shortly after arriving. Typical.
With the entirely reasonable justification of thinking he'll cut a dash in the uniform, and all the potential lady-action he believes that entails, Flashman joins the army. More specifically he coerces his father into buying him an officers commission. That was just how it worked back then. From here onwards it plays out essentially like a full-on Victorian Austin Powers adventure and quite literally embodies the notion of a literary romp. It comes as little suprise that this book was originally released in 1969.
As his infamous army career progresses Flashman, an abject coward, somehow manages to maintain the appearance of a distinguished, heroic officer through numerous bizarre twists of fate. Trying to do as little fighting, and as much..erm..fraternising as possible with the lady folk from England to Afghanistan.
As a character Flashman consists of a curious mixture of Rincewind the wizard from the Discworld books by Terry Pratchett, what with his cowardice, talent for languages, and unerring ability to emerge from deadly scrapes unharmed. As well as a sizeable dose of Patrick Bateman, Christian Bale's deranged sociopath from American Psycho. Not the hooker-chain sawing, hobo-stamping part (although...) but more the cold detachment from humanity and pre-occupation with outward appearances and reputation.
One thing this book does brilliantly is recreating all the glorious trappings of the colonial, Victorian era, with the British empire resplendent in all its world conquering glory. Explaining somewhat the myopic cockiness of the officers Flashman encounters. This ingrained sense of British invincibility is very much the pride that cometh before the fall. The rigid archaic attitudes of the time are just as faithfully recreated. This causes regular jarring moments when issues such as racism and slavery arise. The thing to remember though is that however unpleasant it is to read, such details are important in conveying the full nature of the story, and are not at all anachronistic.
This real historical backdrop, with the involvement of people actually alive at the time, and apparently very realistically portrayed is a wholly brilliant way of making history come alive, and seem more interesting. Fiction in a non-fiction setting is certainly a very interesting and underused concept in literature. One that should become more popular now that a novel set in Henry VIII's court has won the Booker prize. And Flashman could certainly share the same praise as Wolf Hall in that;
"It appears a modern novel set in a historical setting".
Indeed, the brash freshness of the story, and the crisp wryness of the writing make this book seem almost contemporary.
This is also a very timely book to read because it details an all too familliar disastrous British occupation of Afghanistan. Its all there; monumental faliures of leadership, a popular rebellion, and a public outcry as the casualties ramp up. Its continuously amazing how many parallels it draws with recent times, imparting a suprisingly educational aspect to this book. One that allows you to nod sagely as you read, thinking to yourself. Ah, we don't learn from our past mistakes. History just keeps repeating itself. And so on.
My only real gripe is that its difficult to know exactly how we're meant to react to the protaganist. Traditionally they are the hero you root for from start to finish. Here though, when the hero is such an eminently dislikable character, its not so simple. Are we supposed to be fulfilling some bizzare sense of wish fulfillment in his merry romp across Asia or just be utterly replulsed at his callous self-seeking disregard for all but himself.
It could be argued though, that it doesn't really matter, because without exception the writing throughout is never less than superb, which in addition to the compelling, easy to follow narrative, makes for a classic thats alarmingly hard to put down. Often because you're laughing too hard.
Underlying this humourist take on history though is the uncompromisingly brutal realities of the actual events on which this book is based. Racism, rape, slavery, the blood and the wholescale slaughter in the latter stages can't help but be affecting when you realise that it all actually happend, lending a definite edge to the unfolding tragedy as you gasp at the dramatic incompetencies of those in charge. The fact that Flashman is never found out requires no suspicion of disbelief whatsoever. But, having Flashman's amusing antics amidst all this can lead to a rather uneven tone. When Flashman rapes an Afghan woman because she refuses to submit to him, one cannot simply say, "Oh Flashman you rougish scoundrel you". However realistic this is in the context of history it can certainly make for some uncomfortable reading.
Flashman is, I suppose, the literal defintion of an anti-hero in that he is the exact opposite of a hero. Not the modern definition of; slightly edgy hero. (See: Mr. V. Deisel in all his illustrious cinematic canon thus far.) And when It becomes increasingly apparent that the elderly Flashman narrating the story, has not changed his ways, and remains defiantly unrepentant of his many mis-deeds, one can be left with a rather bitter taste. However this is a satire and I suppose we're just meant to be laughing at the excess and absurdity of all.
And laugh you shall. This is, all in all a damn good read, managing that rare feat of being both interesting and exciting. Although be warned, if you tell people you're reading a book called Flashman, they will laugh at you.
And so they should.
George MacDonald Fraser's 'Flashman' is part of the Flashman Papers, the alleged life story of one Harry Flashman, bully from Tom Brown's School Days. In reality there are no secret papers which Fraser has compiled for the reader, but rather this book (and others in the series) are Fraser's own creation. The author has taken the character of Flashman and has created him a life story starting with his expulsion from Rugby school; he has created a series of novels set in various campaigns from the Victorian era.
This first outing follows Flashman's rather reluctant involvement in the British campaign in Afghanistan. I say reluctant because rather than being a traditional hero, Flashman is very much concerned with his own image and safety, doing everything in his power to look after number one. Despite his caddish behaviour, things tend to work out in his favour and he becomes somewhat of a hero. Of course this only fuels his passion for living the high life. His deeds leave little to be desired, and sometimes make for awkward reading, but all in all this is a well written adventure story harking back to old values. It has the added bonus of being remarkably well researched and thus historically accurate, often presenting multiple interpretations of an event. In the midst of it all is this lovable rogue sleeping his way across England, India and Afghanistan.
I consider this book to be the best of the series and one that should be on every man's bookshelf.
For anyone whos read Tom Browns Schooldays, Thomas Hughess Victorian classic or seen any screen adaptations of it they will have come across the character of Harry Flashman the fag-roasting sadistic bully that terrorises the other younger pupils at Rugby Public school, but what happened to Flashman at the end of the book? In 1969 George MacDonald Fraser provided us with the answer in the form of the Flashman papers, Flashman being the first instalment. The papers are a detailed account of Flashmans life and adventures after he left school written by the man himself. Reportedly found during a house clearance in Ashby Leicester in 1965 and subsequently authenticated by a relative of Flashmans they were compiled and annotated by George MacDonald Fraser and published in instalments over the last thirty years.
Of course this story although believed by a few gullible souls around the world is all fiction. Flashman never existed but the book is presented as fact and the illusion is maintained throughout.
Now Harry Flashman did not change his ways after leaving Rugby, in fact being expelled from school, he remained a cowardly bully who had no moral decency whatsoever. Flashman is a complete cad to use the language of the time. Certainly it is difficult to find any redeeming featured to him, he abuses women, beats servants, lies to everyone, he shows no loyalty to his friends, he is completely self-obsessed and selfish. So how can it be that Flashman comes across as the archetypal loveable rogue, the ultimate anti-hero? Actually I think loveable is probably too strong you actually think that everything he does and says is despicable but he does it with so much bravura and in such an unashamed manner that you cant help but admire his gall.
The book starts with Flashmans expulsion from Rugby school for drunkenness from there he turns to his father who seems to be a thoroughly despicable chap in his own right and after proceeding to bed his fathers live-in mistress he end up joining the army not for any wish to help build the British empire of defend his country but purely because he thinks he would cut a dashing figure in a uniform, which always helps to get a shag.
Flashman thinks he can play the army system and get a cushy appointment and maybe rapidly rise through the ranks doing as little as possible apart from gambling, drinking and whoring. Unfortunately for Flashman but fortunately for us his plans dont quite work out as he had planned. After a number of hilarious mishaps and after entangling himself in a duel with a jealous lover and deflowering a few more innocent young ladies as well as mastering the 97 ways of Hindu love-making he finds himself in Afghanistan at the time of a great native revolt. Through a series of fortunate events Flashman becomes a hero and makes a name for himself as the Bloody Lance in the Indian regiment all this despite displaying shameful cowardice at every possible opportunity.
The book is written as a direct dramatisation of Flashmans journal told in the first person. To complete the air of authenticity various passages are annotated with useful historical noted explaining where Flashmans account might differ or complement know historical accounts of events. Because the journal dates back to the 1830s the language and attitudes displayed by Flashman are definitely of their time and might be uncomfortable to many more politically correct readers. Women are treated very badly and often physically abused, servants are looked upon with disdain and frequently thrashed to teach them a lesson and coloured people are often referred to as niggers. I found this a little off putting at first but you have to see the attitudes in context of the papers being written when they where and the words being spoken by a totally despicable man very much of his time.
I found the Flashman Papers enjoyable, often making me laugh out loud at the sheer audacity of Flashman and the total immorality of his actions. The story steeped as it is in historical fact often introducing real life historical figures such as the pompous and incompetent Lord Cardigan makes it a fascinating way to learn a bit more about the event that set the background to the story.
Flashman obviously satirises the British class system and the colonial past, it portrays the incompetence and inadequacy of the people running the empire and highlights the hypocrisy of the Victorian view of morality. In many ways because the whole of the system is so corrupt the reprehensible Flashman come out of it all as seeming quite honest, at least to himself since he is always candid in the journal about his motivation for everything he does. The book is a clever parody of the rip roaring Edwardian adventure novels of the likes written by John Buchan, spoofing the Boys Own tales in a similar if more subtle way that Ripping Yarns did on TV in the 70s.
Flashman is a great literary creation and his charisma is what makes the story enthralling and compelling but the supporting characters also play their part; Akbar Khan the devious and enigmatic leader of the Afghan rebels, the murderous Gul Shah Flashmans nemesis and the doddering General Elphinestone whose incompetence leads the Afghan regiment to disaster.
Another interesting point about the historical events portrayed is the comparisons that can be made with the present. The British foreign policy adopted in Afghanistan in Victorian times is remarkably similar to that that we see today by that other modern imperial power the USA. The British tried like the Russian in the last century to impose an unpopular leader onto an disgruntled native population, then as now the whole enterprise ends in tears but nothing ever seems to be learnt from this.
George MacDonald Fraser writes in a clear uncomplicated style always adopting an authentic tone to match the time at which the memoirs are set. The story moves along as a fair pace and I found it quite compelling reading, avidly waiting to find out how Flashy would manage to ignobly get out of yet another deadly scrape.
Despite its Boys Own credentials you dont have to be a boy to read this. The book and Flashman himself have enough roguish charm and spirit to win over any type of reader and for anyone with an interest in the history of this period it will have added appeal.
Flashman (The Flashman Papers I) 1839-1842 is the first instalment of the Flashman Papers, which run to at present twelve further publications and chronicle his adventures around the world. You can pick up a copy from Amazon in paperback-304 pages, published by HarperCollins (ISBN: 0006511252) for £6.39 (+p&p).
© Mauri 2006
For those who don't know, Harry Flashman was the bully from Tom Brown's Schooldays. You don't have to have read Tom Brown's Schooldays in order to enjoy Flashman though. What exactly was he like? Let me quote a small part from the cover of Flashman. "What kind of man grew out of the foul-mouthed, swaggering, cowardly toady who roasted fags for fun and howled when he was beaten himself?" One simple sentence tells us so much about the character of Flashman. And this book tells us just what kind of man grew out of the foul-mouthed, swaggering, cowardly toady. And he hasn't changed much either. After being expelled from Rugby School in drunken disgrace, he returns home to his father, who is less than overjoyed to see him. Harry, however, has a plan. He desires his father to buy him some colours, so that he may embark on a career in the army. Has he learned his lesson? Is he about to turn over a new leaf? Not likely! For this tale is related in Harry's own words, from 'papers which were discovered in a Midlands sale-room and which were later verified as authentic'. He freely admits that this is the first and only time he has been completely truthful and honest. Flashman has decided to join the 11th Light Dragoons because they "were at Canterbury, after long service in India, and were unlikely for that reason to be posted abroad". His father is happy to oblige, especially since it will get young Harry out from under his feet. Perhaps he also suspects what his son has been up to under his own roof, with his own mistress no less. Soon enough Flashman is serving in the Dragoons and making himself generally popular, especially with the Earl of Cardigan, his commander. Not universally popular though. For he has managed to estrange himself from fellow officer Bernier, a noted swordsman and a dead shot with a pistol. This is surely of little importance to Flashman though, with his pos
ition as one of Lord Cardigans favourites secured. So he continues to cut a dash, in the new uniforms of their re-named company, the 11th Hussars, now under the patronage of the young Queen Victoria's husband. Life is easy for Flashman. He has plenty of money, drink and women. So it could of course only be malice, which prompted him to turn his attentions to Bernier's mistress. The result of this 'jolly jape' is the duel which first establishes Flashman's (undeserved) reputation as a hero. Prince Albert however is less than impressed by such actions (or at least, the reason behind such actions) and Flashman must leave the Hussars, temporarily at least. And so our 'gallant hero' is sent to Scotland to instruct local militia and deal with Chartist riots. Here is where he lays eyes on his wife-to-be. And not only his eyes, I might add. Which is pretty much how she came to be his wife, at her family's insistence. Not that they particularly wished for Flashman as a son-in-law. They'd much rather he'd fought the duel they offered. But without the means to cheat on this occasion, unlike the last, our Flashman is not going to risk actually being shot. Ah, but all is not running smoothly for poor Flashy. Lord Cardigan does not approve of his new bride, her father being only a mill owner. This is considered much too lowly for the wife of a Hussar and since wife she is, it is the Hussars who must bid farewell to Flashman. Leaving Elspeth (his bride) behind under his father's care, he embarks for India, where he has been posted. And thence to Afghanistan, armed with his talent for languages and horsemanship, to play his ignominious part in one of history's greatest military blunders. And that, dear folk, is all I'm prepared to tell you of the story. But of the style, I have plenty to say. George Macdonald Fraser's writing is a pure pleasure to read. It flows easily across
the page, bringing to life, true events in Victorian history, though some with a slight twist, as Flashman recounts what 'really' happened. Let me however, point out at this stage that Flashman is a fictitious character. Despite GMF's claims to have merely edited The Flashman Papers, the same which turned up in a Midlands sale room, he is entirely responsible for the work within these pages. Much of his humour is ironic, but the crowning irony must have been when at least one American professor believed the papers and Harry Flashman really existed. As a Borderer, with a Borderer's sense of humour, that must have tickled him immensely. One wonders also, if the Cohen brothers had not been reading Flashy when they proclaimed Fargo, as being based on a true story, which of course it wasn't. Flashman may be fictitious, but the historical events he recounts are not. GMF has researched these events extensively and all are represented as accurately as possible. Where Flashman's account differs from the official version, we are given notes by GMF explaining what those differences are. These are few and unobtrusive. There are some laugh out loud moments within the book, but as I say, much of the humour is wry and ironic. Non more ironic than Flashman himself. The hero, who is no hero at all. An anti-hero. Between these pages he is cruel, cowardly, treacherous, despicable and an incessant philanderer to boot . All in all, he is rotten to the core, yet relates his appalling actions with aplomb, and a disarming honesty. Do we empathise with him? Not exactly! It's more that we warm to his style, as he relates his tale of a charmed life and we follow his adventures with morbid fascination, wondering all the while if he can stoop any lower. He usually doesn't disappoint. Even in this first instalment, he casts up with some famous and infamous characters from the Victorian age, meeting as he does, the
aforementioned Lord Cardigan, Dr Arnold of Rugby School (at the risk of showing my ignorance, this one meant nothing to me), Elphy Bey (General Elphinstone) and even Wellington himself, not to mention his being presented to Queen Victoria. Flashman carries it off with all the finesse of the true cad, modestly accepting accolades to which he has no right. Throughout it all, Flashman's thoughts and cares are for one and one only. That one being Flashman. He is completely selfish and utterly callous. So why then, is this book so popular? If I knew for certain the answer to that one, I would not be here writing for pennies. I'd be recreating my own Flashman with a devotion to self-promotion which Flashy himself would admire. The answer I think though, lies in the beautiful descriptions created by George Macdonald Fraser. Whether it be a landscape, a person or an experience, GMF does not merely tell us what they were like. He paints for us a picture out of words, so that we can actually envision it all in our mind. 'Ah', I hear you cry, 'so he rambles on does he?' Not at all. By careful and judicious use of just the right words, he gives us this portrait of Victorian life with a pace and style, which is never long-winded or superior, but instead draws us in and puts us at our ease. That, I think, is the secret of the book's success. It's very accessibility. That and the humour of course. As with my reviews on Pratchett books, I'm not going to quote any of the funny lines because I think it spoils their impact when you come to read them. But I have to say, however much you may disapprove of Flashman's morals, there are times when you cannot but laugh at his outrageous and sarcastic train of thought. He may be a coward, but he's certainly not a stupid one. Be warned though, that reading Flashman is not for the faint-hearted. If you are at all easily offended, then this is not the book for you. Much better to s
tick with the other Harry. The one of Potter fame, who is far less outrageous than our Flashy. Where can you find him? Running away from trouble usually, but that aside, Amazon stock the most recent edition of The Flashman Papers for £6.39 (list price £7.99), or their Marketplace has used copies from £2.45 and new copies from £5.00, p+p extra. However, the best place to get him, in my opinion, is Ebay, where you can pick up a copy for a few pounds. Don't be tempted to bid on a first edition (hardback) though, unless you're prepared to dig deep into your pockets. Two copies recently made £133 and £68 respectively. As you can tell, he's VERY popular. Which is just how Flashy would have wanted it. Thankyou for reading! Update! I've abandoned the original title of HARRY ROTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE EMPIRE because too many people thought it was about Harry Potter! Serves me right for trying to be clever! lol! :o)