Why did I wait so long to meet Harry Flashman? What kind of idiot spends 58 years on planet Earth, partway literate for most of them, without getting stuck into George MacDonald Fraser’s peerless Flashman series? I knew they were out there, yet for some reason (snobbery? indolence?) I neglected what must rank among the best comic writing since Wodehouse. With the bonus of providing a superb history lesson in 19th-century British foreign policy and, in America, the expansion of the frontier and the Civil War. The action is presided over, of course, by one of literature’s greatest antiheroes. I could kick myself. If I’d devoured Flashman 30 years ago I could be on my third re-reading.
I last had the pleasure of unearthing a top-notch pristine protagonist when I discovered Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther, in his case only shortly after the author’s death. The difference being that the Bernie books were all about his conscience, while the Flashy books are all about how he hasn’t got one.
Fraser, as excellent judges from Auberon Waugh to Christopher Hitchens to PG himself have pointed out, is some writer. It’s quite an achievement to create such a total scoundrel then effortlessly persuade the reader to root for him. Flashman is, famously, a bully, as his creator Thomas Hughes made clear in Tom Brown’s School Days. He is also, in Fraser’s taking up of his tale after his expulsion from Rugby School, a snob, racist, adulterer, idler, cynic, liar, coward, cheat, thief, bully and amoral philistine. Yet, as he shags and staggers, betrays and blunders, lies and loots his way around the world, you cheer him on his merry way.
At least, I do. As regards younger readers, I suspect any one of Flashman’s faults would be sufficient to get the old goat canceled in 2022. Dammit, he even smokes! The cover art alone — lurid, hammy, mildly pornographic — would see any student unwise enough to leave Flashy lying around the union bar crucified. Yet I suspect when the pendulum swings back towards a less puritanical outlook, Flashman will still be read. Satire this sharp doesn’t get old.
I suspect any one of Flashman’s faults would be sufficient to get the old goat canceled in 2022. Dammit, he even smokes!
How does Fraser contrive to make this shocking man sympathetic? By making him not all bad, that’s how. He doesn’t give his hero many qualities, but the ones he does bestow are calculated to excite the admiration of most male readers and, who knows, a number of women too. Flashman says he has only three talents: equestrian skill, a facility for picking up foreign languages, fornication. With 478 different partners, by his own count. While many men would love to be able to ride a horse and/or achieve multilingual fluency, all would love to be celebrated for our sexual prowess.
Fraser smuggles in other core male fantasies too. Flashman is tall and broad and boasts, to the consternation of one or two of his lovers but to no one else’s surprise, a considerable penis. He is a talented sportsman, actor and observer. He basks in martial glory. He is clever, equally forensic in analyzing individual motives and diplomatic strategy. For all his toadying to his superiors, he is fabulously rude about some of the great figures of his age. Bismarck, Queen Victoria, Disraeli — they all get an elegant kicking.
While prejudiced against anyone not born English, Flashman is honest about imperial ambition. It isn’t much of a recommendation to say of a man that while he may be a racist he is not a jingo, but in the 19th century the two usually went together. Finally, in an age of often hypocritical piety, Flashman is a convinced atheist, an implacable enemy of the muscular Christianity fed to the products of British public schools from his time and well into the 20th century.
He is, in short, for all his legion of flaws, his own man. Readers admire and envy that. As with all popular heroes — Bond, Reacher, Sharpe — he behaves how part of us would like to behave. Which is not to say all Flashman admirers are secret racists or pervs, simply that a life of licentious leisure and adventurous travel holds an undeniable appeal. Especially if, through good fortune, good looks and occasional ruthlessness, your bad behavior not only goes unpunished but is richly rewarded.
Besides his ability as a writer, Fraser was a gifted historian. His footnotes are a joy, the more so for maintaining the pretense that the foregoing memoir must be true, because Flashman’s account of such and such a famous event is corroborated by the known record. This attention to detail fooled many reviewers on first publication, and indeed Fraser’s employment of matters of historical fact is scrupulously accurate. The whole conceit is a magnificent joke. Don’t leave it as long as I did to share the laughs.
Robert Crampton is a journalist for The Times of London