A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
And, it must be said, their knickers. For this is Brigadier-General Harry Paget Flashman, VC, KCB, KCIE and, inter alia, Order of the Elephant (Denmark), US Medal of Honor, San Serafino Order of Purity and Truth, present at every major campaign of the British and other armies, hero of the Victorian public and monstrous fraud. His only published work during his life, Dawns and departures of a soldier’s life, told of his exploits in the service of his country and, occasionally, on loan to its allies. The matter of his expulsion from Rugby school, well known to his public from Tom Brown’s schooldays, was of minor import compared to his adult life.
Flashman first appeared as a bully and drunkard in the fictional memoirs of Tom Brown and seemed to have disappeared from literature when he was expelled from Rugby. Macdonald Fraser’s decision to make him a hero of the Victorian age, without changing his behaviour, makes Flashman a genuinely interesting character, certainly a lot more entertaining than Tom Brown. If Flashman really had been a hero, he would be dull at best and instructively noble at worst. If he were a cynic, he would be equally boring. Instead, he is coward and a bully who knows himself for what he is.
It was only when George Macdonald Fraser decided to discover his confidential papers that the caddishness of the man was revealed. Shamelessly, brazenly, he told the truth of his exploits: the cowardice, the treachery, the whoring twice round the world. He takes the first ever hat trick (three wickets in three balls, by cheating of course) after witnessing a hanging and laying down the rules of bordello cricket. A man who would cheat at cricket is capable of anything.
At the charge of the Light Brigade, he is in the lead, hoping to find some way to dodge the Russian guns as last night’s feed of Russian champagne thunders away at the rear and he rues the day he tried to get Cardigan to stop a bullet, merely because his lordship had tried to cuckold him. His beautiful wife Elspeth, dim though she might be, should still look after his reputation. Afterwards, however, with the British prisoners who suggest fighting their way out (a plan quickly terminated by our hero) and who worship their commander Cardigan (“who’d have flogged them for a rusty spur”), he concludes that:
Mind you, 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. Oh, I’ll sham it with the best in public, and sport my tinware, but I know what I am, and there’s no room for honest pride in me, you see. But if there was-just for a little bit, along with the disgust and hatred and selfishness-I’d keep it for them, those seven hundred British sabres.
Thoughts like this are the reason the Flashman books are worth reading. If they were no more than a pastiche or a parody of Victorian derring-do, Carry on up the Valley of Death, they would be worth a laugh and a single read. Flashman is a coward, a bully, a cheat and a rampager through the fairer sex, which makes the books funny (waking with a hangover he is advised by his wife that a canter might help clear his head: “I damned her advice and called for a horse.”) He is also a talented linguist with a genius for deception and a clear-eyed observer of reality: he knows the whole game is a fraud but he intends to come out of it alive and richer. This is some of the best satire you will ever read and the fact that it is written by an author with an affection for (an idea of) the British Empire makes it all the better: would Blazing Saddles have been funny if Mel Brooks had not actually liked westerns? The detail is perfect, it feels right, even in the small things: on a mission to impersonate a German prince, he comes across a meeting addressed by a bearded radical who can be no other than Karl Marx (as the `editor’ points out in an endnote).
Flashman manages to carry off the running away trick at every battle you’ve heard of, fleeing the scene of disasters brought about by incompetent heroes: Custer, Elphinstone, Lucan, Cardigan. At the Little Big Horn, he takes a runner and is saved by a faked scalping by a Sioux who turns out to be his son from an earlier expedition a-rogering down the Mississippi. At the sack of the Summer Palace, where he regrets the departure of the empress he has been squiring after his ignominious surrender, he is offended by the common soldiery’s destruction of priceless porcelain but not so much that he is above slipping a black jade chess set into his pocket. The chess set pays for the London apartment, as earlier loot had paid for Gandamack Lodge. He somehow, almost convincingly, manages to dodge his rightful deserts, get some dusky doxy in a half-Flashman, and emerge from events survived by no other, with his reputation enhanced.
The Flashman books are very funny, which is as much recommendation as they need, but they are also very intelligent and very well-informed. Great learning is carried lightly by a writer who knows how to entertain (Macdonald Fraser wrote the screenplay for Octopussy) without being witless. At its best, this is high quality historical fiction, not just as history, but as fiction, too. After witnessing a lynching of rebels during the Indian `mutiny’, where civilians make a point of inflicting as much suffering as they can on the hanged, placing bets on which will live the longest, Flashman reflects:
It’s the usual way, with civilians suddenly plunged into war and given the chance to kill; for the first time, after years spent pushing pens and counting pennies, they’re suddenly free of all restraint, away from wives and families and responsibility, and able to indulge their animal instincts. They go a little crazy after a while, and if you can convince ’em they’re doing the Lord’s work, they soon start enjoying it. There’s nothing like a spirit of righteous retribution for kindling cruelty in a decent, kindly, God-fearing man-I, who am not one, and have never needed any virtuous excuse for my bestial indulgences can tell you that.
Think on that when you see the mad glint in Tony Blair’s eye or hear the liberal case for empire.