Reconsiderations February 2020
No flash in the pan
On the beloved brainchild of George MacDonald Fraser.
If ever there was a time when I felt that “watcher-of-the-skies-when-a-new-planet” stuff, it was when I read the first Flashman.
—P. G. Wodehouse
By his own cheerful admission, Harry Flashman was “a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, a thief, a coward—and, oh yes, a toady.” He might have added that he was also a shameless womanizer, an artful seducer who was not above sexual assault. He had lost his virginity when he was only fourteen and, by his own count, he had bedded 480 women by the time he was in his mid-thirties, some of them among the most famous of their day. Although married—in a shotgun wedding, of course—he took his vows, and everyone else’s, lightly at best. He prided himself on being “able to run faster with my trousers round my ankles than any man in England.”
He was also, more than once, taken advantage of himself. A prisoner of the Chinese in 1860, shackled and gagged in a filthy dungeon, he was visited in his cell by “Yehonala Tzu-hsi, the Orchid, the incomparable Yi Concubine.” She was the exquisitely beautiful favorite concubine of the emperor and the mother of the emperor’s only son. She would soon rule China for forty-seven years as the Empress Dowager. As she settled down to work on Flashman, he wrote,“what could I do but close my eyes and think of England?”
Flashman is also one of the most entertaining, indeed fascinating, characters in all of English literature. This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the first installment of the Flashman Papers, entitled simply Flashman.
Flashman is one of the most entertaining, indeed fascinating, characters in all of English literature.
Through the course of twelve books Flashman finds himself, despite his best efforts, at the heart of nearly every major military disaster of the nineteenth century: the First Anglo-Afghan War, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Indian Mutiny, John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, Rorke’s Drift, even Custer’s Last Stand. And, thanks to luck and guile—Flashman always had plenty of both—he came up smelling like a rose every time. By the end of his life he was a brigadier general and a Knight of the Bath. He had been awarded numerous decorations for bravery, including the British Victoria Cross, the American Medal of Honor, and the French Légion d’honneur, all of them richly undeserved.
To be sure, Flashman was not without his good points. He was tall, strong, and handsome. He was an excellent horseman. His black hair and eyes allowed him to pass easily in native costume. His father was rich (at least while he was growing up), and his late mother was a Paget, the family of the Marquesses of Anglesey, and thus very well connected within the aristocracy.
And Flashman had a singular gift for learning languages. “I speak nine languages better than the natives,” he wrote, “and can rub along in another dozen or so.” He learned Hindi in two weeks. “My Latin and Greek had been weak at school, for I paid little attention to them,” he explained, “but a tongue that you hear spoken about you is a different thing. Each language has a rhythm for me, and my ear catches and holds the sounds; I seem to know what a man is saying even when I don’t understand the words, and my own tongue slips easily into any new accent.”
It was only his character that was deplorable.
Flashman was the brilliant conception of the British author George MacDonald Fraser. Flashman had been a minor character in Thomas Hughes’s Victorian classic Tom Brown’s School Days—so minor he didn’t even have a first name in that book. As the school bully at Rugby, Flashman had made Tom Brown’s life hell until he had been expelled for drunkenness.
But Fraser took this thinly fleshed-out character and brought him to life by means of a masterly literary conceit. Had he simply written these books as third-person novels, it is unlikely they would have caught on, because Flashman was apparently devoid of the redeeming qualities that the heroes of picaresque tales always have. Consider Tom Jones, for instance, or, for that matter, Robin Hood.
Instead, Fraser wrote them in the first person, explaining that they were actually the memoirs of Harry Flashman. “The great mass of manuscript known as the Flashman Papers,” he wrote, “was discovered during a sale of household furniture at Ashy, Leicestershire, in 1965. . . . The papers, which had apparently lain untouched for fifty years, in a tea chest . . . were carefully wrapped in oilskin covers.” All Fraser had to do, he explained, was edit them very lightly and supply footnotes and endnotes. As far as I know, the Flashman Papers are the only novels in the English language, perhaps besides Tolkien’s, with extensive back matter, at least back matter written by the author and not an English professor determined, as they always are, to make a good book boring.
These endnotes, the product of meticulous and extensive historical research, are the source of the extraordinary verisimilitude of the Flashman Papers. Indeed they had such a feeling of verisimilitude that no fewer than ten of the twenty-eight American reviewers treated the first one as a genuine autobiography.
Certainly the Flashman Papers are as good at storytelling as novels get.
And the endnotes reveal another of Fraser’s literary conceits. For while Harry Flashman is completely fictional, the world he lived in for so long (his dates are 1822–1915) was very real, as were many of the characters and events in the Flashman Papers. Fraser sticks to history as much as possible. Flashman wrote that he met Florence Nightingale, for instance, at Balmoral, Queen Victoria’s Scottish estate, on the night of September 22, 1856, and, indeed, Nightingale was there that day, as recorded in Queen Victoria’s letters.
Even when the action depicted is fictional, such as the attack on Fort Raim in central Asia in Flashman at the Charge, many of the major characters, such as Yakub Beg, the leader of the Tajiks in their fight against Russian imperialism, were very real. (Flashman showed considerable bravery in this episode, but only because he had been served kefir that had been surreptitiously laced with hashish.)
By casting the Flashman Papers as memoirs, Fraser is also able to show his despicable hero’s few redeeming qualities.
First, Flashman is a world-class storyteller (Fraser slyly admits that Flashman “had a better sense of narrative than I have”). Certainly the Flashman Papers are as good at storytelling as novels get. They are beautiful examples of what my mother called “one-more-chapter-and-I’m-turning-out-the-light” books.
Second, he is an acute observer of his fellow humans, from Queen Victoria to Russian serfs. And he is refreshingly and delightfully candid about them. He describes Florence Nightingale, for instance, as “a waste of good womanhood; handsome face, well set up and titted out, but with that cold don’t-lay-a-lecherous-limb-on-me-my-lad look in her eye . . .” He is equally candid about the human condition. The often brutal realities of the nineteenth century—from the conditions aboard a slave runner to the glitter (and often backstairs squalor) of the royal courts of Europe, Asia, and Africa—are depicted unsparingly and often amusingly.
Third is Flashman’s long and, in his own way, loving relationship with his wife, Elspeth. Though he was flagrantly unfaithful to her (and he strongly suspected but never proved that she often returned the favor), she was always his favorite and her supposed infidelities caused him to be jealous. Though the marriage had been forced, they turned out to be a very compatible couple, always linked by a strong mutual sexual attraction. Flashman thought her utterly brainless, not that that bothered him in the least. Most important, he thought her one of the three most beautiful women he had ever met:
Elspeth clothed could stop a monk in his tracks; naked and pouting expectantly over a handful of red feathers, she’d have made the Grand Inquisitor burn his books.
After his often long absences, Harry Flashman was always glad to get home to his Elspeth and this does much to humanize him.
Finally and most importantly, Flashman is absolutely honest and forthright about his manifold deficiencies as a human being. Memoirs are not exactly famous for their warts-and-all qualities, but the Flashman Papers are most definitely warts and all and then some. Flashman knew exactly what a rotter he had been all his life and had no trouble with it.
When he and a native, Muhammed Iqbal, who had taught him Pashto, the most common language in Afghanistan, were attacked by four horsemen, Iqbal turned to confront them. Flashman headed for cover and hid behind a tree. Iqbal got three of the attackers but was mortally wounded, while Flashman got one, but only when he saw it was safe to do so. He bent over the dying Iqbal, who
groaned and fell back, but as I knelt over him his eyes opened for a moment, and he gave a little moan and spat in my face, as best he could. So he died, calling me “son of a swine” in Hindi, which is the Muslim’s crowning insult. I saw his point of view, of course.
With the reader, like Diogenes, having found an honest man, it is impossible not to like him, although you probably wouldn’t want to introduce him to your daughter.
George MacDonald Fraser was born in 1925 in Carlisle, in the north of England, but was of Scottish descent, a fact of which he was proud. He served in the Border Regiment in India and later as an officer in the Gordon Highlanders in Africa and the Middle East. After leaving the army, he became a journalist, working for several papers in Britain and Canada and then, for some years, with the Glasgow Herald, where he served as deputy editor and, briefly, as editor. In 1969, he published his first book, Flashman, which was an immediate critical and commercial success.
The success of the book allowed Fraser to become a full-time writer, and he had a prolific career until his death at eighty-two in 2008, writing not only the twelve Flashman books but three volumes of short stories, two volumes of memoirs, six other novels (in one of which, Mr. American, an elderly Flashman appears as a minor character), and eight screenplays (including the James Bond movie Octopussy, and the 1973 version of The Three Musketeers).
Fraser had a remarkable ability to delineate a character, even a minor one, in only a few words.
Fraser had a remarkable ability to delineate a character, even a minor one, in only a few words. Consider, for instance, the scene where Flashman, still half-drunk, is hauled before Thomas Arnold, the legendary headmaster of Rugby School, to be expelled. (For those who did not go to a boarding school, which in England are called public schools, be advised that a prep school headmaster is the nearest thing there is to a god who walks the earth. All-powerful in his academic domain, he is held in awe by students and faculty alike. To be summoned to the headmaster’s office, even if your conscience is clear, produces an immediate reaction in the pit of your stomach. And Flashman’s conscience—if he actually had one—was, as usual, anything but clear.)
He was standing before the fireplace, with his hands behind looping up his coat-tails, and a face like a Turk at a christening. He had eyes like sabre-points, and his face was pale and carried that disgusted look that he kept for these occasions. Even with the liquor still working on me a little I was scared in that minute as I’ve never been in my life—and when you have ridden into a Russian battery at Balaclava and been chained in an Afghan dungeon waiting for the torturers, as I have, you know what fear means. I still feel uneasy when I think of him, and he’s been dead for sixty years.
Fraser is equally adept at scene-setting. The second half of Flashman at the Charge is not set in Crimea at all, where Flashman had been an unwilling participant in the Charge of the Light Brigade (just recovering from a bad case of dysentery, his flatulence had spooked his horse). Indeed, after Flashman is captured, he is sent to an estate deep in the Russian steppes to be held, comfortably, as a prisoner until exchanged or the war ends. He is appalled at the serfs he sees along the way:
So as we lumbered along, the courier in state in the first telegue [a type of wagon used by Russian officials], and Flashy with his escort in the second, there were always peasants standing by the roadside, men and women, in their belted smocks and ragged puttees, silent, unmoving, staring as we rolled by. This dull brooding watchfulness got on my nerves, especially at the post stations, where they used to assemble in silent groups to stare at us—they were so different from the Crim[ean] Tartars I had seen, who are lively, tall, well-made men, even if their women are seedy. The steppe Russians were much smaller, and ape-like by comparison.
Part of the reason for this was that the Russian serfs had no rights whatever; they were effectively slaves at the mercy of their often brutal landlords. But it was also, thought Flashman, because of the land itself:
The land we traveled through was a fit place for such people—indeed, you have to see it to understand why they are what they are. I’ve seen big countries before—the American plains on the old wagon-trails west of St. Louis, with the whispering grasses waving away and away to the very edge of the world, or the Saskatchewan prairies in grasshopper time, dun and empty under the biggest sky on earth. But Russia is bigger: there is no sky, only empty space overhead, and no horizon, only a distant haze, and endless miles of sun-scorched rank grass and emptiness. The few miserable hamlets, each with its rickety church, only seemed to emphasize the loneliness of that huge plain, imprisoning by its very emptiness—there are no hills for a man to climb into or to catch his imagination, nowhere to go: no wonder it binds its people to it.
Not all of Flashman’s adventures take place in the back of beyond like central Asia, Ethiopia, and the Little Bighorn River. One took place in 1890 in the abiding comforts of an English country house, Tranby Croft. There one of the greatest scandals of the nineteenth century erupted over a game of baccarat. It’s a perfect example of how Fraser skillfully inserts the fictional Flashman into real history.
Because it involved the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, the scandal, which played out over several months, was reported all over the English-speaking world, to the intense embarrassment of the prince, and to the equally intense disapproval of his mother, Queen Victoria. Already saddled with a well-deserved reputation for gambling, high life, and womanizing, the prince was savaged in the newspapers for being involved in the affair at all, and his reputation, never good during his long years as Prince of Wales, sank to its lowest point.
Among the Victorian aristocracy, nothing ruined a man’s reputation more utterly than being credibly accused of cheating at cards. And that was exactly what Sir William Gordon-Cumming was accused of at Tranby Croft. Needless to say, he vehemently denied it and, indeed, it is hard to see why he would cheat. The stakes were modest, at least by the standards of wealthy Victorians, and Gordon-Cumming was very rich. Why would he take such a fearful social risk for so trivial a gain?
After the accusation was made, the Prince of Wales summoned Flashman, who was a member of the house party along with his wife. The other characters in this story, “The Subtleties of Baccarat,” are all historical figures. The prince’s one concern, of course, was to make the scandal go away for the sake of his own reputation. “See here, Flashman,” he wailed, “you must get me out o’ this. God knows what Mother would say.”
Flashman doubted the truth of the accusations, and tried his best, but it was decided that Gordon-Cumming was guilty, and the prince asked, “how is it to be hushed up?”
They stood mum, so I put my oar in again. “ ’Fraid it can’t be, sir . . . unless you and Williams [an army officer and one of the guests at Tranby Croft; the prince was a field marshal] are prepared to risk a court martial.”
If I’d said “are prepared to steal the Crown Jewels and make a run for Paraguay,” I couldn’t have provoked a finer display of consternation . . .
Before the prince could erupt, it was decided to make Gordon-Cumming sign a paper swearing never to play cards again while everyone else swore to keep the matter a secret, and Gordon-Cumming, seeing no alternative, signed. Naturally the story leaked (as Benjamin Franklin wrote in Poor Richard’s Almanac, “Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead”), and Gordon-Cumming sued. The trial was a sensation, especially as the prince had no way to avoid testifying, but Gordon-Cumming lost the suit and was ruined, dismissed from the army, cut dead by his friends, and forced to resign from his clubs.
The story has lived on—the latest book on the Tranby Croft affair came out in 2017. And it has lived on just as the Lizzie Borden and Jack the Ripper cases of the same era have lived on and for precisely the same reason: the truth will almost certainly never be known for sure. Except, of course, Flashman learned the truth and obligingly tells his readers what really happened.
Some of the finer literary touches in the Flashman Papers are the offhand remarks by Flashman and other characters that catch the reader by surprise and make him roar with laughter.
Major-General William Elphinstone, for instance, was the hopelessly incompetent commander of the British army in the First Anglo-Afghan War (the British army was utterly destroyed—except, of course, for Flashman). He was loathed by his staff for his endless dithering. Before one staff meeting, Elphinstone’s servant dropped a pistol he had been loading, and it discharged, hitting the chair Elphinstone was sitting in and grazing his buttocks.
His second in command, hearing about the incident, said,
“The Afghans murder our people, try to make off with our wives, order us out of the country, and what does our commander do? Shoots himself in the arse—doubtless in an attempt to blow his brains out. He can’t have missed by much.”
When Flashman is being held a prisoner of war after his capture in Crimea, he is comfortably billeted with Count Pencherjevsky, and one day the local priest and an agitator named Blank (Fraser points out in the endnotes that Blank was the name of one of Vladimir Lenin’s ancestors, but thinks it a coincidence) come to see the count, hoping he will pay a tax that is due but which a widower with two sons can’t afford. After a fierce argument, the count sends them packing and orders one of his Cossacks to go after them and teach Blank a lesson. When the Cossack returns, however, the count learns to his horror that Blank had escaped but the Cossack had flogged the priest to death:
“My God! . . . What will this mean?” says East [a fellow prisoner and former classmate at Rugby].
“Search me,” I said. “They butcher each other so easily in this place—I don’t know. I’d think that flogging a priest to death is a trifle over the score, though—even for Russia. Old man Pencherjevsky’ll have some explaining to do, I’d say—shouldn’t wonder if they kick him out of the Moscow Carlton Club.”
Each of the twelve Flashman books stands alone and can be read independently in any order. They were certainly not written in chronological order. But if you are new to Flashman, I’d advise reading them in chronological sequence, though not one right after another. Like a rich and delicious dessert, the Flashman Papers should be consumed one portion at a time.
Note that Flashman and the Redskins is in two parts, widely separated in time. Flashman and the Tiger is in three, each a self-contained short story. Royal Flash has two episodes separated in time, but they are one story.
And one final note of caution: these wonderful books are best read either alone or in the bosom of the family. For if you read them in a public place such as a suburban commuter train or a doctor’s waiting room, you will, from time to time, burst out in helpless laughter and everyone will turn around and look at you.
You have been warned.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 6, on page 39
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