The Flashman novels

We may think that Flashman, the vicious and cowardly bully in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, was a fictional character. Not so. While Thomas Hughes, the author, presents the novel as a fiction, Flashman was real enough. After expulsion from Rugby School, he led a colourful life. Despite being a coward and a bully and an all-round bad egg, he was accidentally mistaken for a hero, and became famous throughout the British Empire. And, despite all his efforts to keep out of trouble, he found himself witnessing some of the most momentous events in history, and even taking his part in them.

Some time in the late 60s, author George Macdonald Fraser came across the Flashman papers – detailed accounts of his eventful life written by Flashman in his old age, in inimitable style. Macdonald Fraser then devoted several years of his life editing these papers, adding scholarly introductions and notes. In these notes, he often corroborates Flashman’s accounts, and adds related points of historical interest; at other times, he points out some inevitable errors in Flashman’s accounts – errors both of historical fact, which may be put down to Flashman’s weakening memory in his old age; and also possible errors of perception: a man whose moral compass is as flawed as is Flashman’s is hardly likely, after all, to see things with the impartial eye of the scholar.

Such, at least, is the conceit that informs the twelve Flashman novels. So far, I have read five of the twelve, and it seems quite obvious to me that as far as adventure stories are concerned, George Macdonald Fraser, whom we may, I think, consider the author rather than merely a scrupulous editor, was up there with the very best: not R. L. Stevenson, nor Arthur Conan Doyle, nor even Alexandre Dumas, surpassed this for sheer panache and excitement. The technical skills are unerring: Flashman’s tone of voice is unmistakable, and never shades into that of the novelist’s; the historical details are scrupulously accurate, without ever becoming pedantic or getting in the way of the narrative; the pacing is immaculate; the sense of place superbly conveyed at all times; and the characters – whether real life people such as the Rani of Jhansi or Abraham Lincoln, or such wonderful fictional creations as the scholarly but psychopathic slave-trader John Charity Spring – are brought to life with tremendous colour and vividness. With most modern novels, I read and wonder what all the fuss is about: these, I read and think to myself that never in a million years would I have had the skill to have written anything like this.

In the five novels I have read so far, we have seen Flashman in the Afghan campaign (Flashman); involved with Bismark and Lola Montez in European intrigue (Royal Flash – a wonderful , affectionate pastiche of Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda, which, to my mind, surpasses its model); Flash for Freedom, which sees Flashman on an illegal slave ship, and, later, in the slave states of America; at the Charge of the Light Brigade in Balaclava (one of the very finest depictions I have ever come across of a scene of battle), and with the guerrilla freedom fighters of Central Asia (Flashman at the Charge); and, most recently, at the Indian Mutiny (Flashman in the Great Game). Future volumes, which I look forward to reading, will see Flashman at the Zulu War, at the Battle of Little Big Horn, in the company of John Brown, etc.

However, it is not possible to speak of these novels purely as adventure novels. And, while much of it is very funny indeed, neither is it possible to speak of them as comedies. These are blood-drenched novels: Flashman is witness to some of the most horrendous events of history, and, while Macdonald Fraser never evokes disgust merely for its own sake, it is hard to read of the slave ship, say, or of the appalling massacres during the Indian Mutiny, without feeling disgusted. Indeed, Flash for Freedom is among the post powerful indictments I have come across of slavery – and all the more so as it is narrated by someone who not only feels no compassion for the slaves, but who even finds enjoyment in bullying them.

Inevitably, perhaps, there is the question of “political correctness”. Flashman, at least in the earlier novels, is a nasty piece of work without any redeeming moral feature: to what extent can we read a narrative from such a viewpoint without becoming implicated in his amorality? In the first novel, Flashman actually rapes someone. True, the person whom he rapes is herself an assassin who had previously tried to murder him; but this hardly mitigates the horrendous nature of the act. I, personally, do not have a problem with this, as Flashman’s voice is clearly not that of the narrator’s: only a reader as lacking in moral compass as Flashman himself could fail to be disgusted by Flashman’s action. To confuse the voice of the first person narrator with that of the author is at best naïve. Yes, it leaves a very nasty taste in the mouth, but the nasty taste is intentional on the author’s part.

The other point that is often raised is that Macdonald Fraser’s view of history is reactionary. That may be so: I don’t see why that should disqualify his novels. But, reactionary or not, his view of history does seem to me scrupulously fair. He can show in all its brutal detail the horrors of slavery in the southern states, but he is perfectly clear that the West African societies from which slaves were captured also practised slavery, were extraordinarily cruel, and took a very active role in the transatlantic slave trade. The British Empire, too, seems to me to be depicted fairly, and if Macdonald Fraser has any ideological axe to grind, he certainly does not make it obvious. He loves history, and quite clearly takes immense pride in depicting the past accurately, witout fear or favour.

In depicting the Indian Mutiny, Macdonald Fraser does, as he himself admits in a note in the appendix, step into potentially sensitive territory, as, some 150 years and more after the event, feelings on both sides remain high. There was appalling bloodshed on all sides, borne of intolerance and wanton cruelty, and, once again, Macdonald Fraser strikes me as scrupulously fair. Flashman reports on the horrendous atrocities at Meerut and at Cawnpore (now Kanpur), and, while he doesn’t think of these events in wider moral terms, he does make it clear that equally savage “reprisals” were visited on innocent Indians. Ultimately, what Macdonald Fraser admires most, no matter whom it comes from, is heroism: the spirit of heroic defiance that was apparent amongst the besieged British at Cawnpore, he tells us, was the same spirit that was shown by the besieged mutineers at Gwalior; and, whatever the extent of the Rani of Jhansi’s involvement in the Mutiny (both in history, and also in Flashman’s narrative, the exact nature of her involvement remains unclear), her heroism is never in question; and Macdonald Fraser honours it.

And this, I think, is why he had to make someone like Flashman the narrator. A Victorian writer could celebrate heroism openly; nowadays, we can’t: we are more suspicious of it. So heroism is depicted here at a remove, as it were, from the perspective of one who is far from heroic himself; from the perspective of one who can, perhaps, admire heroism from a distance, but who nonetheless feels it to be essentially foolish.

Not that Flashman is necessarily a coward, as such: he will not willingly risk his life, true, but most of us perhaps will fall in that category; he perhaps goes further than the rest of us in that he is quite happy, without any moral scruple at all, to betray even those close to him for the sake of his own skin. But Flashman is far from the Bob Hope figure in The Paleface, say: when he is in danger, he keeps his head, and often escapes with no little courage and ingenuity. But yes – he would much prefer to be boozing and whoring rather than to be playing the hero.

I have been told that Macdonald Fraser softened somewhat towards Flashman in the later novels. Perhaps that is inevitable: the Flashman character, utterly amoral and unscrupulous, was a marvellous protagonist in the earlier novels, but to repeat the same thing over twelve novels can, I suppose, become tiresome. It is not, though, that Macdonald Fraser begins to admire qualities he had previously deplored: rather, Flashman is not quite, perhaps, the complete cad that he had previously been. In the marvellous ending to Flashman in the Great Game, he shows an unexpected streak of humanity. This can partly be explained by the circumstances: he has just been saved at the last minute from a terrible death, and he naturally has some compassion for the others who are still facing that fate; but it shows also a certain deepening of characterisation. I look forward to seeing how the character develops in the later novels: Macdonald Fraser was, I’m sure, too fine a writer merely to go on repeating himself.

***

For anyone who has a taste for adventure stories written with dash and panache and humour; for anyone who has grown up, as I have done, with the likes of Dumas and Stevenson and Rider Haggard; the Flashman novels of George Macdonald Fraser can be recommended without hesitation. In this genre, he is up there with the very best, and sometimes, I think, even surpasses them. And those who object to his alleged “political incorrectness” could perhaps do worse than read this. As he himself says of his own ancestors:

My forebears from the Highlands of Scotland were a fairly primitive, treacherous, blood-thirsty bunch and, as Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, would have been none the worse for washing. Fine, let them be so depicted, if any film maker feels like it; better that than insulting, inaccurate drivel like Braveheart.

And I, for one, wouldn’t argue with that!

20 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Erika W. on July 11, 2012 at 11:32 pm

    I have been idly thinking of re-reading a Flashman or two quite recently–nice coincidence. I had a soft spot for Mrs. Flashman if I remember rightly.

    Reply

    • I’m glad you’re a fan of these novels! Mrs Flashman doesn’t appear too often, but she is superbly characterised, isn’t she? Of the 5 I’ve read so at, if I ad to pick a single favourite, I think I’d choose Flash for Freedom, but they’re all superb, and I certainly look forward to reading the rest of the series.

      Reply

  2. Posted by alan on July 11, 2012 at 11:38 pm

    You are not the first to compare Fraser with Dumas.
    The “unreliable narrator” is a very convenient way to avoid criticism.
    Flashman has clearly been softened in this book.
    I think that you are right about about Fraser’s celebration of heroism, and I also believe the faux celebration of cowardice is Fraser’s cynical way of dealing with what he perceived to be the climate of the times. He created a celebration of empire while pretending that it was a critique.
    I agree about the quality of prose. However, when Fraser tries to show Flashman’s more human side (which also appears in “Flashman and the Angel of the Lord”) I wonder what Fraser’s purpose is, and I am still not sure – it is more likely that Fraser wants Flashman to doubt his cowardice rather than doubt his prejudices.
    Fraser, on the whole, shows a very unsentimental view of humanity, except in the article of courage, where he is very sentimental indeed.

    Reply

    • Macdonald Fraser is compared to Dumas partly because he wrote the screenplays for the Dick Lester films The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers, but mainly, I think, because Dumas was the finest practitioner of Macdonald Fraser’s chosen genre – the adventure story.

      These novels do not pretend to be “critiques” of the Empire; and neither, I think, are they celebrations. Indeed, one of the reasons for choosing Flashman as narrator is that doing so saves Macdonald Fraser from making any moral pronouncement, one way or the other, on imperialism: whatever his own personal views may be, passing moral judgement on i perialism is not what these novels are about. These are adventure stories.

      Of course, Macdonald Fraser’s own views do show at times through Flashman’s narratives, but the only two authorial stances I can discern (from the five that I’ve read so far) are an abhorrence of cruelty, and an admiration of courage; and he does not regard either quality as a monopoly of any particular people.

      I personally do not regard admiration of courage as “sentimental”. Why should it be? A great many people throgh history from various backgrounds have displayed admirable courage; why should this not be depicted, and admired? Of course, in our modern age, we label as “sentimental” any emotion we do not feel comfortable with, and we have all learnt to be cynical about the concept of heroism: this is another reason why Macdonald Fraser had to depict this quality indirectly.

      As for Flashman’s character, yes, in the 5th novel, I can see it developing: Flashman is more here than an amoral coward and bully. I think this development is inevitable: if he is to take centre stage in a series of novels, then presenting him throughout merely as a nasty piece of work and no more would become merely tedious and repetitive.

      The five novels I have read so far have been superb, and I have found nothing in these books in the least bit offensive. As adventure stories, they are up there with the very best.

      Reply

  3. Posted by alan on July 12, 2012 at 9:50 pm

    I didn’t say that the admiration of courage was sentimental, but that in his admiration of human courage he was sentimental.

    Reply

    • Sorry Alan, I didn’t pick up that distinction. Could you explain what it is you find sentimental about his admiration of human courage?

      Reply

      • Posted by alan on July 14, 2012 at 11:46 pm

        I think that it is because only in his description of acts of heroism does Fraser express any sense of mystery, or awe; the sublime, if you will. In other respects, apart from the inherent plot absurdities, he is very straightforward about human nature.
        I have read Fraser’s memoir of his time fighting the Japanese and his admiration for some of his comrades; it has a similar quality. If I were to put Fraser on the couch I would suggest that he had a certain measure of ‘survivor guilt’ and an absurd feeling that he was lacking in some way. In this fantasy psycho-babble view of Fraser, Flashman becomes a vehicle for exploring those feelings.

      • Hello Alan, I think you have the advantage over me in this matter: I have not read Macdonald Fraser’s autobiography, and it may well be as you conjecture. But going by the internal evidence alone of the fFashman novels, I can see neither celebration nor critique of the Empire (and this refusal to pass a moral judgement on the Empire may in itself be seen by many as suspect); and neither can I see evidence of sentimentality. But then again, sentimentality – as discussed elsewhere in this blog – is a difficult term, as there appears to be no generally agreed definition of what it constitutes.

  4. This is a great summation of the oeuvre; I think I’ve actually read all of them, and I don’t think Fraser’s treatment of Flashman changed all that much as the years went by. My overwhelming favorite, of course, is “Flashman at the Charge” (the only one I still own), *that* scene possibly the series’ greatest achievement. There are also a few introspective moments on our “hero”‘s part that don’t often occur elsewhere. Though I sense a *lot* of nostalgia for empire in the Flashman novels (and I think this is borne out to an extent in G-Mac’s other writings), I do think Fraser makes a commendable effort to see the “subaltern” side, as it were. He certainly doesn’t think much of the “improving” impetus that characterized much of the British Empire’s early growth (though that can also be spun as reactionary). On the other hand, he does write, especially in the later novels, with a self-conscious desire to satirize what he doubtless sees as “political correctness.” The tendency occasionally undermines the otherwise brilliant evocation of the Victorian era *and* threatens (for me) to conflate character and author. My inner historian was probably more irked by his (likely related) unwillingness to use any secondary source (as listed in the excellent footnotes) later than, say, the First World War. That said, I do love the novels. I wonder if perhaps my reservations regarding Fraser’s intent actually make them *more* compelling (wouldn’t be surprised). It’s also fascinating to see how Elspeth turns into a striking, independent character almost in spite of events. If one can find them, Fraser’s fictionalized “McAuslan” memoirs (based on his postwar army service in the Gordon Highlanders in North Africa) are superb (and arguably demonstrate many of the interests and preoccupations that led to his “discovery” of the Flashman papers). I find I reread those maybe once a month, whereas I’ll reread “Charge” once a year (“McAuslan in the Rough” is probably my favorite of these).

    Reply

    • Hello Wendell, I have, unlike you, read only the first five of the novels, I think I can sense the character changing: the Flashman who shows a moment of compassion at the enf of Flashman in the Great Game is not the same Flashman who delighted in bullying the slaves when he was overseer at a plantation in Flash for Freedom. But I don’t object to that; it is only reasonable for a character to develop across a dozen novels – it would have been tedious f he hadn’t.

      I think i can honestly say that, as far a I have read, I don’t have any reservations on Macdonald fraser’s intent – as far as i can judge them, at any rate. Flashman himself is, obviously, frequently morally reprehensible: I can’t see that the author’s outlook is ever such. or if it is, then I have missed it.

      Of teh five that i’ve read, Flash for freedom is possibly my favourite. In the first novel of teh series – Flashman – Macdonald Fraser was getting into his stride; the four following novels that i have so far read are uniformly brilliant. Adventure writing simply doesn’t get any better than this.

      Early on in Flashman in the Great game, Flashman is in Balmoral, and, during a hunt, realises that the sinister Count Ignatieff is actually hunting him. really – does adventure writing get better than this? Even a Dumas or a Robert louis Stevenson might have envied this!

      Reply

  5. Posted by W. Wild on November 20, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    One of the last items written by Fraser prior to his death essentially explains his own personal views regarding history and current society http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-506219/The-testament-Flashmans-creator-How-Britain-destroyed-itself.html . In itself it will enlighten the reader of the Flashman series as to the behavior of most of the characters and their actions in the books. Fraser detests most of the Victorian era hypocrisy but, more to the point, he detests our current culture and its insistence on judging the actions of the past on the basis of “political correctness.” He hates our refusal to accept historical fact because it upsets our modern sensibilities.

    Flashman is a cad and a bounder, but because the character is honest with himself about his character he is more capable than his peers of accurately weighing and evaluating the actions of the historical personages he encounters. He sees that some of the persons viewed as “heroic” and “virtuous” by persons today were responsible for some of the most appalling actions in history. And that ordinary people were more responsible for the victories of the past that seem incredible to people today. One example from Flashman and the Mountain of Light, regarding the 1st Sikh War, the English/Indian army faced the Sikh army and was outnumbered five to one. The Sikh army was arguably the best equipped and trained army the English ever fought in the first half of the 19th century. There is no way the English should have won. Instead of giving credit for the victory to the generals and officers or downplaying the abilities or courage of the enemy, Fraser, through the eyes of Flashman, replies “that phenomenon which I still don’t understand but which I’ve watched too often to doubt: the British peasant looking death in the face, and hitching his belt, and waiting.”

    In the course of his adventures Flashman sees it time and again, from Afghanistan, to the Sepoy Rebellion, to the Crimea, China, Africa from Egypt to Rorke’s Drift. He always thinks those soldiers are daft but he never questions their courage.

    The Flashman novels are hilarious and horrifying simultaneously. They are very accurately based on actual events. They’re “human” rather than “humane.” When you read about a middle aged Army wife trudging hundreds of miles through the snows of Afghanistan, surrounded by a dying army and hordes of enemies and cheerily noting that it wasn’t too bad because she “only had one (rifle) ball in my arm” it makes you ponder our current civilization where we run to an ER when we have a broken nail or a superficial cut on a fingertip. The lady in question is not a fiction; Lady Florentia Sale, the wife of Sir Robert Henry Sale.

    If you want to be entertained AND get a very good grip on what life was like during the Victorian era, read the Flashman novels. And try not to cringe because they hadn’t yet invented “political correctness.” After all, they had “Victorian morality” with which to cope.

    Reply

    • Hello, and thank you for that: teh flashman that you describe is very much the Flashman I recognize from what I have read so far. I do, however, sense that, in the “Great game” novel at least, that Macdonald Fraser’s characterisation of Flashman had begun to “soften”, as it were: although he is still a cad and a bounder, there are also unexpected moments of humanity and fellow-feeling that had not been there in the earlier works. (The ending of Flashman and the Great Game, where he orders the condemned prisoners to be freed, is a case in point.) Some may take this to Macdonald Fraser becoming more sentimental with age, but I think it more likely that the character was deepening: it would have been very tedious, both for author and for the reader, to read more or less the same thing over and over again across twelve fairly lengthy novels.

      As for Macdonald Fraser’s hatred of “refusal to accept historical fact because it upsets our modern sensibilities”, I have absolutely no quarrel with that at all. My own background is Indian, and I am quite proud of the culture into which i was born – irrationally so, of course, since the circumstances of one’s birth are entirely accidental. I have heard the Flashman novels decried by some as racist, and it has struck me that those who say so have not the slightest idea of what “racism” is.

      Macdonald Fraser does admire heroism, and he finds it frequently amongst ordinary soldiers rather than amongst the top brass. (I like to think that the influence of Tolstoy can be seen here: certainly, it’s hard to imagine that he could have written that superb recreation of the Battle of Balaclava without having Tolstoy’s depiction of Austerlitz in War and Peace somewhere in the back of his mind.) But sometimes, he even sees (and admires) the heroism in the officers also. I love that moment at the battle of Balaclava, in which Campbell, seeing the massed ranks of the Russian cavalry launching a charge on his men and knowing that they mustn’t retreat, stops behind a frightened lad – “a boy with [a] trembling lip”: “Ye never saw the like o’ that comin’ doon the Gallowgate!”

      It is quite clear also that he is quite in thrall to the heroism of the central Asian freedom fighters in the latter pars of Flashman at the Charge. He admires also the courage of the mutineers at Gwalior, saying quite explicitly in his notes that “the spirit that inspired the last stand of a handful of unnamed mutineers in Gwalior fortress was the same as that which held the wall of Wheeler’s entrenchment at Cawnpore”.

      As I said, I have only read the first 5 out of the 12, but I really do think that George Macdonald Fraser was among the very finest novelists of his generation.

      Reply

  6. Posted by andy stewart on January 28, 2013 at 10:32 pm

    Just been surfing for GMF information after completing all othe Flashman series and stumbled on your site. Very interesting stuff, most of it thought through and well presented.
    For my part, having read all of them, Flashman represents the feelings of any and all souls who have been placed in mortal danger, with the reactions they would like to have if acting on their inner, animal instincts, rather than conform to the heroic ideals and reactions that those of us of a certain age, brought up on tales of empire, have been programmed to feel.
    Flashy is no coward. He is a cold hearted bastard who thinks and acts faster than everyone around him, usually to his own advantage, and with an intelligence that is so advanced that it constantly reminds him to act only, and instantly, in his own interests.
    When cornered, Flashman always comes through with flying colours, if somewhat soiled underwear.

    Reply

    • Hello Andy, and thank you for that.

      Flashman is certainly no coward, I agree: when he needs to save his own skin, he shows considerable physical courage. But whether acting solely in one’s own interest is indicative of an “advanced intelligence” is, perhaps, debatable. Flashman cannot see the point of altruism, or of self-sacrifice; and while his openness about this is certainly refreshing, especially in thecontext of various myths relating to the Empire, it also means that his vision of life is necessarily limited. The sort of “real” heroism as displayed, say, by the guerilla fighters in the latter half of Flashman at the Charge, or by the infantry officer Campbell at Blaclava as he tries to keep his troops’ spirits up in the face of a cavalry charge,
      is well beyond Flashman.

      I am looking forward to reading the rest of this series.
      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

      • Posted by andy stewart on February 5, 2013 at 10:33 pm

        Himadri
        Thanks for the reply.
        Regarding Flashmans “advanced intelligence.” Painful life experience teaches me that those with the most advanced intelligence are those selfish folk who always come out on top, generally by thinking only of themselves first. Some of us less advanced in our thinking usually come out with what we locally refer to as, “the shitty end of the stick.”
        I don’t advocate his “advanced intelligence” but am a little jealous.
        As for the real heroism and altruism of the freedom fighters, I will agree that given a choice we would all choose the romanticised versions as our model.
        I would also however, settle for Flashmans limited vision as long as I could have his wild experiences too.
        By the way, one mans freedom fighter is another mans terrorist and the strange thing is that historically, freedom fighters tend to win out and become everybodies despot.
        I think that having applied my own narrow intelligence, Flashman appeals more and more.
        Do read the rest of the books, they get better and better with the very odd exception, Read them in order too!
        Stay in touch.
        Andy Stewart

      • I think Flashman’s Lady is the next one in the series. I look forward to it!

  7. Posted by Rob J on May 27, 2013 at 3:07 pm

    I first read “Royal Flash” in 1974 for the pricely sum of 35 pence, and was utterly
    smitten by his (mis) adventures. I have recently purchased the entire series again,
    after losing them through house moves etc but what struck me about them was the
    astonishing attention to detail. GMF makes Dan Brown look like the laughable fraud
    he really is. My personal favourite is “Flashman In The Great Game” which is a
    true masterpiece. Without him, there would be no Falco by Lindsay Davis.

    As good as the Flashman novels are, GMF’s finest moment has to be “The Pyrates”.
    Hollywood missed a golden opportunity to put this book on the siver screen.
    It also predates Jack Sparrow by twenty years. Beg, borrow or steal.

    Reply

    • Thanks for that. I have browsed The Pyrates in the bookshop, and looked very interesting. I must give it a try some time.

      It doesn’t take a writer of the calibre of Macdonald Fraser to make Dan Brown look bad: even i could do that! :)

      I think of the ones I have read so far “Flash for freedom” is my favourite. I really must get round to the others.

      Reply

  8. Posted by ripin on January 7, 2014 at 10:53 pm

    nice,
    i was wondering what the possible themes can be?
    thanks in advance

    Reply

    • Hello and welcome,
      I must admit that am not at all sure what it is you are asking. These are quite straight-forward adventure novels, and what there there are, are quite clearly expressed. I don’t think there are any hidden themes or motifs.
      All the best,
      Himadri

      Reply

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