“Flashman,” by Georgia MacDonald Fraser

15 Sep

“Flashman,” by George MacDonald Fraser (294p)
1839-1842: Lord Cardigan and the First Anglo-Afghan War

What happened to the bully Flashman from Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays after he was expelled from Rugby School? That is the premise of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novel, the first in the series. As an introductory Fraser explains that the novels were discovered in a tea-chest in Leicestershire in 1965, and that he is the editor of the papers. Thus, the Flashman series take on the guise of a false-memoir. The first packet in the series is set in 1839 to 1842 with Flashman as a young man, with most of the action taking place in Afghanistan at the start of the First Anglo-Afghan War.

If you had read Tom Brown’s Schooldays then you will be pleased to know that Harry Paget Flashman (Fraser has given him a full-name while Hughes solely called him Flashman) is every much the bullying, womanising, cowardly sycophant in adult life as he was as a lad at Rugby School. The first chapter of Flashman recounts his expulsion from Rugby, an affair with his fathers mistress, and his first job – after finally convincing his father for a loan, Flashy lands himself a lieutenancy in the most fashionable regiment in all of the British Army, the 11th Hussars (Prince Albert’s Own). From there, he toadies with the best of them by sucking up to Lord Cardigan (of the Light Brigade fame), a man determined to make his regiment as stylish and flamboyant as he by casting out all the proper soldiers. Flashman fits in perfectly.

After a scandal and a piece of typical Flashman luck in a duel, which earns him praise from the Duke of Wellington, he is forced out of London and into a barracks in Scotland. In Scotland Flashman meets his wife, Elspeth Morrison, a beautiful yet spectacularly stupid woman but this again brings him scandal as he is forced to quit the 11th Hussars for marrying below his rank. The Morrison family were not befitting a lieutenant, even if Flashman actually comes from a lesser family than them.

In order to get his reputation and some respectability back Flashman reluctantly departs for India. I say reluctantly because Flashy’s idea of soldiering is getting drunk and playing cards in the mess while sleeping with all sorts of women, so India is far from his liking. It is in India and neighbouring Afghanistan where most of the action in Flashman takes place. After showing off his riding skills and aptitude for learning foreign languages, Flashman is sent to Afghanistan, the most dangerous and unstable frontier colony in the British Empire at the time.

It takes Flashy no time at all to make an enemy in Afghanistan after he rapes – yes, Fraser makes no attempt to write anything but a rape so it is very much that – an Afghan dancer, married to the warlord Gul Shah. Shah wants his revenge on Flashman and takes it out on him as co-existence between Britain and the Afghans crumbles. Following the Massacre of Elphinstone’s Army Flashman is captured and tortured for weeks by Gul Shah in a remote mountain hideout. After escaping Flashman follows the British out of Afghanistan in the retreat from Kabul and the disastrous Battle of Gandamak. Eventually he winds up hiding in the fort under siege at Jellalabad (near modern Jalalabad) to escape Gul Shah, severely injured where he collapses in terror. Incredibly, despite all the death and destruction around him and his refusal to stand and fight, the fort is saved by British forces and Flashman is congratulated for surviving the attack and comes out a hero. Nobody else survived to know the truth.

One of the true successes of the format of these novels is Fraser’s meticulous historical accuracy. Even if you go and look for error there is none. Indeed, wherever Flashman writes an anachronism in the narrative Fraser has inserted an endnote at the end of the book correcting Old Harry where he goes wrong. As far as historical accuracy goes these are probably among the most accurate ever written, especially considering the majority of the people involved them are real people.

Above all else, the Flashman novels are Fraser’s attempt at taking a broad swipe at Victorian morality and clocking it with a haymaker. Flashman is unlike most images of the respectability and properness of the Victorian age. He is a liar, a cad, a womaniser, a coward, unreligious, an opportunist and a down right scoundrel. He is everything that the Victorian age does not represent, and I love it.

They are a great fun because they are so over the top and ridiculous, so they usually make for a very entertaining read. The style is easy to read, told in a very relaxed prose, and not the slightest bit difficult to get into. I will say one thing, however – if the prospect of the types of things Flashy gets up to, which has involved the odd rape as well as unapologetic description of his sexual exploits and the odd racial slur (to go with the timeline, that is), then these probably won’t be to your taste. Otherwise give them a go.

8/10.

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One Response to ““Flashman,” by Georgia MacDonald Fraser”

  1. Michele September 25, 2008 at 1:58 am #

    This was a very nice review – this book has been on my wish list for some time now….guess I’ll have to make it a priority now. 🙂

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