The Flashman series -- a wonderful story on a set of great books
November 11, 2005 - New York Times
An Agile Hero in Reputation, Not Action
By CHARLES McGRATH
George MacDonald Fraser is now 80, or almost as old as his great creation Sir Harry Flashman was when Flashman - self-proclaimed cad, poltroon, card cheat and serial fornicator - began writing the multivolume autobiography that we know as "The Flashman Papers." Mr. Fraser has just published the 12th installment, "Flashman on the March," which, like its author, and like Flashman himself, for that matter, shows no signs of flagging.
In this volume, Flashman, finding himself in a bit of bother after seducing an underage Austrian princess, eludes her angry guardians by joining the 1868 British mission to rescue the European hostages held by King Theodore of Abyssinia, who happens to be insane - or as Flash might say, not quite 16 anas to the rupee. While cowering in typical fashion, trying to save his own neck, Flashman nevertheless manages, also in typical fashion, to get credit for saving the whole operation.
Along the way, he is suspended in a metal cage over an abyss, sends a princess to her death over the Blue Nile Falls and is a more than willing participant in an orgy.
Readers of "Tom Brown's Schooldays," if there are any left, will recall that by far the most interesting character in that otherwise preachy novel is also named Flashman: he's the bully who mercilessly persecutes Tom until finally being expelled for drunkenness. It was Mr. Fraser's genius to see that such a fellow, a bully, a coward and a liar, far from coming to nothing, as his headmaster predicted, could go a long way in the days of the empire.
This revelation came to Mr. Fraser in the late 1960's, when, after a wartime stint in the British Army, he embarked on a career as a journalist. He had taken a job at The Glasgow Herald, Mr. Fraser recalled in a recent telephone interview from the Isle of Man, where he lives now, and after five years as deputy editor, he was promoted to editor in chief. That assignment lasted three months, and then he was demoted to his old job.
"Facing 20 more years as deputy, I thought, who needs this?" he said in a voice that still retains a hint of his parents' Scottish burr. "I said to my wife, 'I'm going to write my way out of this.' "
He decided to write a Victorian novel, he explained, and out of the blue he remembered Flashman. "It seemed to me obvious that he would go into the army," Mr. Fraser said, which is exactly what Flashman does in Mr. Fraser's first novel, called simply "Flashman" and published in 1969.
Flashman buys a commission, survives a duel (by tampering with his opponent's cartridges), reluctantly acquires a wife - the sweet but brainless Elspeth, who is possibly more of a philanderer than he is - and winds up in the Afghan war, where, in spite of passing out with fear, he is acclaimed as the hero of Jalalabad.
Though Mr. Fraser hadn't planned on a sequel, one followed a year later, and then another, and soon he had hit on a best-selling formula: Flash behaves abominably, turns up at some historic battle or event, where, despite his cowardice and treachery, he somehow lands on his feet and is hailed as a hero.
As book follows book, Flashman's star keeps rising, and the little Who's Who entry at the front of each volume grows longer and longer, piling up awards and accomplishments: a knighthood, the Victoria Cross, the Congressional Medal of Honor, a governorship at Rugby (the school from which he was expelled), the honorary presidency of something called the Mission for Reclamation of Reduced Females, a project no doubt dear to his heart, since over the course of the novels Flashman also beds numberless women - 480 by his rough count in "Flashman and the Angel of the Lord," and that's only Volume IX.
You might suppose that as a prefect at Rugby, Flashman would also have acquired a taste for what Thomas Arnold, that school's famous headmaster, called "beastliness" with young boys, but Mr. Fraser will hear none of it. "No, no," he said adamantly. "Quite the opposite."
What saves the Flashman books from repetitiveness or predictability is that they are also genuine historical novels, meticulously researched from original sources and full of authentic period detail.
Flashman sooner or later meets everyone who was anyone in the 19th century - the Queen, Prince Albert, Bismarck, Lincoln, Oscar Wilde, Lily Langtry, Florence Nightingale - and appears not as a Zelig but as a full-fledged participant in most of the century's great events: the Indian Mutiny, the Boxer Rebellion, the Charge of the Light Brigade (which he leads, in fact, spurred by an attack of flatulence brought on by drinking too much inferior Champagne), the Siege of Khartoum, the raid at Harpers Ferry, the Battle of Little Big Horn (where it's likely that he inadvertently shoots Custer), the Mexican Revolution and the execution of Maximilian.
Mr. Fraser has a reputation in England for being a bit of a curmudgeon and a knee-jerk Tory - a member not so much of the Old School, an article in The Sunday Telegraph put it, as of the school they knocked down when the Old School was built. But the Flashman books actually add up to a revisionist critique of received British history, at least in its romanticized imperial phase.
Time after time, the great policies and campaigns turn out to be based on folly or misunderstanding or disguised self-interest, and the great victories are a result less of heroism than of chance or mere stubbornness. Legendary generals like Cardigan and Raglan, seen up close, prove to be not much firmer in moral purpose than Flashman, and a good deal stupider besides.
For the first time in the series, the new book also includes an explanatory note that is a little nod in the direction of contemporary history. Writing about the Abyssinian campaign, little known today but immensely controversial at the time, Mr. Fraser, an outspoken opponent of Britain's role in Iraq, points out that the expedition was sent out "in a good and honest cause by a government who knew what honour meant," and adds: "It was not sent ... until every hope of a peaceful issue was gone. It went with the doubt that it was right. It served no politician's vanity or interest. It went without messianic rhetoric. There were no false excuses, no deceits, no cover-ups or lies ... To quote Flashman again, those were the days."
As the series goes on, the books actually get better, in part because Flashman grows into his character and his language, which is judiciously laced with Victorian slang. He uses the expression "knuckle the walnut" for knocking on a door, for example, and "pump the fin" for shaking hands, and he has an inexhaustible supply of synonyms for the female breast.
He sometimes sounds the way P. G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster would if Bertie had a libido - which makes perfect sense when you realize that Bertie and Flash derive from the same source, the derring-do adventure stories of Victorian writers like G. A. Henty and Thomas Mayne Reid. Mr. Fraser read them all, he said, because his father was "a very clever boy at school" and won those books as prizes.
Some critics have suggested that as the series has evolved, Flashman has also become wiser and mellower. "I suppose he's grown up a bit," Mr. Fraser said. "That's my own aging process no doubt. But I don't think he's getting nicer. I was delighted when my daughter read the new book and said he's back to being nasty."
He added: "I've gone from my late 40's to my 80's with Flashman. I have a great sort of feeling for him, though I don't think I would have liked him very much."