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!