So I can look at the picture above my desk, of the young officer; tall and handsome as I was in those days, and say that it is the portrait of a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat; since many of the stories are discreditable to me, you can rest assured they are true…..
The Flashman Papers is not one book but twelve – the story of the bully and coward from Tom Brown’s Schooldays grown up and in the British Army. The first book begins as Flashman is kicked out of Rugby School for getting drunk, seduces his father’s mistress and then joins a regiment. What follows are countless adventures spanning six decades and several continents, taking in Crimea and the Charge of the Light Brigade, the China war, the Indian Mutiny, the Kabul retreat, the First Sikh War and the American West. It’s a shame Fraser died before he could fill in the gaps – how did Flashman end up in the French Foreign Legion, what exactly happened with Emperor Maximilian in Mexico, and why did he become Wild Bill Hickok’s deputy? We’ll never know, now.
Despite getting through these conflicts mainly by running away, crying for mercy, playing both sides off against each other and selling other people out to secure his own freedom, Flashman emerges from each episode with massive credit and military honours. His reputation is sealed at age nineteen, when he is thought to have been the last defender of Piper’s Fort in Afghanistan: in fact he was having a panic attack under a blanket while other men kept the Ghazis at bay. So begins his ‘lifetime’s impersonation of an officer and gentleman.’ This impersonation endures until his death, and the books are first-person memoirs, written by Flashman in his old age.
But the problem of being a hero – and looking one; he is six-two and handsome – is that Flashman is continually expected to live up to his undeserved reputation. If there’s a mission or campaign, however ill-conceived and suicidal (the commanding officers are of the Melchett mould) Flashman will be volunteered. A man who likes nothing better than to relax in the fleshpots of Victorian London, Flashman instead finds himself continually thrust into the chaos of history as it happens. But there are compensations: Flashman is physically irresistible to women, and has seduced 480 by one count. (A classic running joke in the Flashman novels is that his beautiful wife Elspeth pays him back in kind, carrying on multiple affairs while her husband is on foreign service, affairs that Flashman can never prove on act on.)
Fraser writes a fantastic prose line; a constant traveller, he can evoke the thick, bustling beauty of New Orleans or the stark terrors of the Kabul march. But what comes through above all is his love of history. The novels are footnoted and appendicised. The events in which Flashman takes a reluctant part and most of the characters he meets – including Bismarck, John Brown, Lincoln, Wilde, Sekundar Burnes, James Brooke – are real. (The best fictional character in the Flashman Papers is John Charity Spring M.A, a psychotic naval captain who shanghais Flashman aboard a slave ship: a failed scholar, he peppers his high-volume rants with bits of Ovid. As Flashman says, there were some strange fellows around in the earlies.) I knew little of the Victorian Age or the British Empire before Flashman and the books opened my eyes. Did you know, for example, that most of the Cabinet were asleep at the crucial meeting when it was decided to invade the Crimea? Speaking of a relevant historian, Fraser writes that ‘he was too tactful or charitable to mention the obvious conclusion, which is that they had had too much to drink.’
Fraser was a military man who served in India and the Middle East. A frothing reactionary, he can rightly be described as an apologist for British imperialism. Yet his books show us that the history of empire is more nuanced than current readings permit. The view that Third World societies were all peaceful and harmonious before the Brits took over was naive, to put it mildly. Captured as a slave and forced into an eight-day march across Madagascar, Flashman snarls:
God, what I’d have given to get Gladstone and that pimp Asquith on the Tamitave road in the earlies; they’d have learned all they needed to know about ‘enlightened rule by the indigenous population.’
He also points out the hypocrisy of white Christians campaigning against black slavery when many of them owned factories that kept working-class children labouring in similar conditions. And he also says that ‘England contains this great crowd of noisy know-alls that are forever defending our enemies’ behaviour and crying out in pious horror against our own.’ The response to the Russia/Georgia conflict from what passes for Britain’s intelligensia, defending imperialist aggression in the name of anti-imperialism, would have amused Flashman greatly.
Yet at times, Flashman can seem anti-establishment, even revolutionary. He is almost like a radical trojan horse infiltrating the ruling class. ‘When I think of the number of eminent men and women,’ he says in amused exasperation, ‘who have taken me at face value, and formed a high opinion of my character and qualities, it makes me tremble for my country’s future. I mean, if they can’t spot me as a wrong ‘un, who can they spot?’
A lifelong atheist, he has great fun with the sexual puritanism of the age: ‘the age of the prig, the preacher, and the bore.’ When a young prince is placed under his guardianship, Flashman swiftly introduces the royal virgin to the whores of St John’s Wood. Later the young man is killed in the Crimea (few of Flashman’s comrades last long) and the commander Raglan rhapsodises about the photograph in the locket around the corpse’s neck – ‘that fair, pure face’… which belongs to the prince’s favourite hooker. ‘Well, if I’d had my way,’ Flashman comments, ‘he’d still have been thumping her every night, instead of lying on a stretcher with only half his head. But I wonder if the preaching Raglan, or any of the pious hypocrites who were his relatives, would have called him back to life on those terms?’ Doubt it.
His attitudes to war are also ambivalent: while he likes nothing better than to watch soldiers go off to battle at dawn (as long as he’s not going with them) Flashman also realises the horror and futility of it all. Visiting a casualty hospital in Russia, Flashman says:
I’m harmless, by comparison – I don’t send ’em off, stuffed with lies and rubbish, to get killed and maimed for nothing except a politician’s vanity or a manufacturer’s profit.
Fraser might have had this in mind when he wrote these words about the march on Abyssinia:
Flashman’s story is about a British army sent out in a good and honest cause by a government who knew what honour meant. It was not sent without initial follies and hesitations in high places, or until every hope of a peaceful issue was gone. It went with the fear of disaster hanging over it, but with the British public in no 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 and lies, just a decent resolve to do a government’s first duty: to protect its people, whatever the cost. To quote Flashman again, those were the days.
This was published in 2005, the year of Fraser’s death. I wonder if he went on the London demo.
Finally, Flashman gives us remarkable insights into human nature. He shows us that people are far more willing to look for redeeming features in the most diabolical sinner than to reward the straightforward and just: ‘if volume of prayers from my saintly enemies means anything,’ he gloats, ‘I’ll be saved when the Archbishop of Canterbury is damned.’ By passing mentions of his childhood victimisation at the hands of Bully Dawson, Flashman puts his own tormenting of Tom Brown into context. At Rugby School ‘you took your choice of emerging a physical wreck or a moral one, and I’m glad to say I never hesitated.’
Finally, our generation is maybe just the second for which war is not a certainty. Who knows how any of us would react in a battle situation? Would we be brave? Or would we wave the white flag and shriek for quarter? Wellington said that the soldier who is not scared is only half a soldier. Perhaps, in a sense, we are all Harry Flashman.
Update: George MacDonald Fraser died in January 2008 – not 2005 as I’ve said above.