REVIEW: The Flashman series of books, by George MacDonald Fraiser

Jack GoblinStarred Page By Jack Goblin, 5th May 2014 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Reviews>Books>History

Historical fiction usually focuses on brave, honorable, decent heroes; the Flashman series is a semi-comic chronicle about a coward, reprobate, thug, and bully who fooled the world into thinking he was a hero, too...

Enter Flashman

The character Harry Flashman has had two literary lives. The first was as the cowardly, vicious, bullying upper classman who made life unpleasant for the title hero at Rugby School in the classic 19th Century British book, Tom Brown's School Days, by Thomas Hughes. Fortunately for young Brown, before Flashman's escalating abuse could inflict permanent injury the cad was expelled for public drunkenness, and Hughes spoke no more of him.


The Sun Never Sets...

In 1966 George MacDonald Fraiser, a Scottish journalist and novelist with considerable knowledge of British history, 'resurrected' Flashman and made him the hero - or rather, anti-hero - of a historical fiction. This book, Flashman, was published in 1969 and resulted in a highly popular series of twelve novels and one short story anthology that traced Flashman's career from approximately 1839 (the year of his expulsion from Rugby) through the 19th century and the salad days of the British Empire.

They were - at least, to appearances - salad days for Harry Paget Flashman, too, as he joined the military, became a national hero, had a long and amazingly active career, retired rich and distinguished, and came to be regarded as a man's man. An absolutely fearless adventurer who overcame all odds as he traveled about the world, defeating villains, sweeping numerous women off their feet, and never giving up, a modern day Paladin defending Britain at constant risk of his life.

Truth is the Daughter of Time

Except that was all a lie. As Flashman himself says in the books, which take the form of an autobiography looking back at his life, each book covering a specific period. Being scrupulously honest in telling his story, Flashman admits he was and is actually a craven coward, a convincing liar of epic proportions, a toady, a constant lech, a thief, and a low life reprobate who - through circumstances beyond his control, and which terrified him every step of the way - became a hero by inadvertence, deception, villainy of his own, and by taking credit for the actions of men much better than he, few of whom survived their heroism.

Guilty Pleasures

Flashman's recounting of his story makes for a serio-comic, somewhat bawdy (he's an inveterate skirt-chaser) adventure series. Part of the pleasure in reading the books is seeing how Flashman gets into danger - often by circumstance, or his own missteps - and then, in constant panic, goes through heart stopping trials before he manages to get out of it. Not always unscarred, but usually in a way that adds to his reputation.

Another part of the pleasure is Fraiser's knowledge of British and world history and society of the 19th Century, and his skill in making them come to life. Reading Flashman's adventures is an easy history lesson; history the way it probably really was, warts and worse on full display.

An Officer and a Gentleman. Sort of.

An excellent example is the first book, Flashman. Kicked out of Rugby, Flashman has his wealthy father buy him an officer's commission in the British army. At the time this was a common practice in Britain, apparently under the premise that if you came from a rich and aristocratic family you automatically had what it took to be a commander and lead men into battle. Unfortunately this quaint idea led to an officer corps riddled with incompetents, fools, the dangerously violent... and cowards like Flashman, who wanted the esteem and respect that came with the uniform, without doing any fighting or being exposed to danger.

(Flashman actually had quite a lot going for him all through the books. He was an expert horseman and an astonishing linguist, able to learn languages perfectly and with ease. He could be quite charming, and was tall, muscular, and darkly handsome. This made him extremely popular with the ladies; a fact he exploited to the full, becoming an accomplished seducer. He could think and plan very quickly, especially when his life was in peril. And WHEN his life was in peril, he learned over time to hide his overwhelming terror - at least in public - and actually do heroic things if that was the only solution. Showing mental flexibility that saved him on more than one occasion he paid attention to the mores of foreign cultures and learned how they worked, as opposed to the prevalent English attitude of dismissing anything not British as barbaric and not worthy of notice (a feeling he DID have about America, however). He was agile and athletic, and while his preference was to run away from fighting, when cornered he was very dangerous. In no small part because he was skilled with weapons, fought dirty, and was without mercy or hesitation. He was also an extreme cynic who looked at the people around him - the 19th Century leaders of the British military and political structure, and the general public - and concluded the Empire would be better off with most of them put to work digging latrines rather than being allowed to make or influence major decisions. Especially when those decisions seemed to so often send him into danger.)

The Frying Pan

Flashman's military career started out as calm and safe as he could have wanted, with him being well regarded by his fellows and commanders, and in a unit that would remain in England and out of danger for the foreseeable future. But his hidden pettiness and cruelty, and lust for women, began a chain of events that wound up with him being sent halfway around the world from England and assigned to the British military force occupying Kabul in Afghanistan. A powder-keg, just about to explode.

The Fire, and Back Out Again

In 1839 England had taken over Afghanistan, seeking to create a buffer state between the growing Asia power of Russia and the crown jewel of the British Empire, India. Unfortunately through ineptitude, arrogance, cheapness, and military and diplomatic failures they had so mismanaged things that by 1841 the whole country was on the point of revolt. Flashman got there in time to understand the situation, be thoroughly terrified of the possibilities - which he saw coming - and then nearly killed repeatedly as things went out of control. The First Anglo-Afghan war was such a disaster that out of thousands of occupying British troops and hundreds of British and Indian civilians who were their support staff and dependents, only a small handful made it alive out of Afghanistan to the safety of India. In the book Flashman was one of these, because in the crunch he deserted his post and ran.

And because those who could have revealed his cowardliness died during the fighting or were on the other side, and he - inadvertently - made a spectacular return that make him look like a brave and stalwart warrior, he became a public hero. He loved the acclaim and benefits, of course. But as he found to his horror in later books, once the public and your superiors think you're a hero who can beat the odds, they tend to keep sending you to war or off on missions that might get you killed. And any refusal might lead not only to a loss of reputation, but also to people looking more closely at what you'd done in the past... At a time when the penalty for desertion and cowardliness in the British army was to be shot...

And Back INTO the Fire. Again, and Again, and Again.

And so Flashman - usually with his insides turning to water with terror - stands with the Thin Red Line and charges with the Light Brigade during the Crimean war. Becomes one of John Brown's men and helps him capture Harper's Ferry (the U.S. government, rabid Abolitionists, AND the precursor to the Ku Klux Klan all forced him to do it, although for different reasons). Lives - barely - through the Sepoy Mutiny. Is a slave, slaver, slave driver, and slave runner in the pre-Civil War American South, all in the same book. Is forced to impersonate a Danish prince - and marry a German princess - in an adventure that would be the basis for The Prisoner of Zenda (this story, Royal Flash, was made into a movie with Malcolm McDowell). And becomes a sex slave to the future Empress of China during the Taiping Rebellion. It would be enough to turn a man's hair white. Except that Flashman was scalped by his Native American son during the Battle of the Little Bighorn as he fought along side - and maybe shot - General Custer.


Fraiser died before completing the series, so we'll never know how it was that Flashman wound up fighting on both sides during the U.S. Civil War, or what other devilry he got involved in. Flashman's adventures may be incomplete, but what we've got is quite entertaining, and paints a picture of a thorough cad. Who is, nevertheless, oddly like-able.

Link to Wikipedia's page on Harry Flashman

Media Source: Wikimedia Commons


19Th Century, Anti-Hero, British History, Flashman, George Macdonald Fraiser, Historical Fiction, John Brown, Tom Browns School Days

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author avatar Jack Goblin
Was born. Haven't died yet. Don't intend to anytime soon.

Thank you much for reading my articles. I hope they brought you pleasure and enlightenment. :)

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author avatar Lady Aiyanna
5th May 2014 (#)

Well, I love to read so will check it out. Check out SINwriter, she was going on about Macdonalds yesterday and would love to know more about it from you.

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author avatar cnwriter..carolina
5th May 2014 (#)

you are the biggest Ass on this site assyanna and you have no sense of decency or reality...

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author avatar cnwriter..carolina
5th May 2014 (#)

fascinating piece n,c,. thankyou

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author avatar Phyl Campbell
28th May 2014 (#)

Keep up the good writing. I enjoyed the images -- thanks for including them.

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