Monday, November 20, 1995

The Flashman Papers

Written in 1995 for Forbes FYI magazine

“When all other trusts fail, turn to Flashman.”—Abraham Lincoln

Boys read different books than girls do: this is why there are soldiers, and freebooters, and pirates, and empires. It is why Sherlock Holmes and James Bond and Tarzan have nothing to fear from posterity, for every man has deep within him a shadow self dreaming of impossibly heroic lives he might have led.

All the same, at the end of this weary century what we need is a hero we can believe in, a hero worse than most of us: a cad, a liar, a bounder, a coward, a lecher, a bully, a cheat, a rogue with no illusions about fighting on the side of the angels; a man who survives to fool everyone except himself, whose many faults excuse our own. And naturally, he should always get the girls.

Any scoundrel should be allowed to introduce himself:

“For a well-decorated hero I’ve done a deal of surrendering in my time—which is doubtless why I remain a well-decorated hero . . . if there’s one thing I’ve learned . . . it’s that the foeman is generally as glad to accept your surrender as you are to give it. Mind you, he may turn spiteful later, when he’s got you snug and helpless (I often do), but that’s a risk you must run . . . .”

In 1969 a novel appeared in England to great accolades—P. G. Wodehouse remarked, “If ever there was a time when I felt that watcher-of-the-skies-when-a-new-planet stuff, it was when I read the first Flashman.” The novel, by a Scots newspaperman named George MacDonald Fraser, purported to be the first packet from a recently discovered trunk of oilskin-wrapped memoirs of a Victorian military hero, Sir Harry Flashman (1822-1915). British critics recognized Flashman as a brilliant literary conceit, for the character appeared as a boy in Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857). He’s the drunken bully who’s expelled from Rugby, rendering the rest of the work dull by his absence.

Flashman begins where Hughes left off, but the brute tells the tale himself. In swift order (1839-42) our man Flashy has seduced his father’s mistress, joined the cavalry, been the target of a shotgun marriage, cheated in a duel, learned Hindustani from an Indian slave-girl, ridden alongside the toughest warrior-horsemen in Central Asia, and come through the First Afghan Wars as the hero of the fearful siege of Jallalabad, the only white man left breathing in the rubble—through his own relentless survival instinct (he calls it cowardice).

What made it all intoxicating was not just the humor, or the vivid prose and period slang, but the tone—praising and damning the British Empire while being pelted with its medals. And likewise condemning its finest leaders as incompetent while sparing no foreign barbarians either.

On our own drowsy shores the novel was taken by many at face value; a gleeful New York Times article pointed out how credulous reviewers—a third out of some thirty-odd—read it as authentic autobiography. (“The most important discovery since the Boswell papers,” said one.) Flashman was born, and now, a quarter century later, with the tenth volume in bookstores (Flashman And The Angel Of The Lord, 1858-9, in which Flash winds up quaking beside John Brown at Harper’s Ferry), the saga is far from over.

The novels are theoretically memoirs, written in Flashman’s old age. In fact they are history with the gloves off, as Fraser—an unsentimental ex-soldier with a scholar’s exhaustive sweep, a journalist’s nose for detail, and a superb comic instinct—roams through the confused pageant of the previous century on a blood-and-female-festooned Grand Tour. “Win gloriously—and the clever dicks forget all about the rickety ambulances that never came, and the rations that were rotten, and the boots that didn’t fit, and the generals who’d have been better employed hawking bedpans. . . .” Flashman is never running too fast to analyze what went wrong on a battlefield, to belittle a superior, or to show an amazed regard for the true heroes he meets, who frighten him.

All he truly wants is to be safe in England, spending his wife’s money drinking or wenching. But after Afghanistan, his military superiors and the English public regard him as a valiant hero and send him once more into the breach. Amid an unexpected liaison with Lola Montez he is kidnapped to Germany by Otto von Bismarck, there to impersonate an imprisoned prince (Royal Flash, 1842-3 & 1847-8). With customary misfortune he soon finds himself first chief of staff to the White Raja, Brooke of Sarawak, and then gets sold as slave, “military adviser and chief stud to a black she-devil”—Queen Ranavalona of Madagascar (Flashman’s Lady, 1842-5). In the Punjab he’s caught spying in the First Sikh War (Flashman And The Mountain Of Light, 1845-6) but manages to charm a nymphomaniacal Maharani and pocket the Koh-i-Noor diamond.

He is by turns a reluctant slaver in West Africa—shanghaied by a Latin-quoting, failed classics scholar across the Middle Passage—and a fugitive abolitionist agent in the U.S. (Flash For Freedom, 1848-9). He escorts a bordello by wagon across the Great Plains as a Forty-Niner and years later ends up as the sole “fleeing survivor” alongside Custer at the Little Big Horn (Flashman And The Redskins, 1849-50 & 1875-6).

Sent against his protestations to the Crimea, Flash becomes “unwilling leader of the Light Brigade” (Flashman At The Charge, 1854-5), farting so loudly his frightened horse plunges him in the wrong direction, straight at the guns. In India he’s a hapless hero in the Mutiny (Flashman In The Great Game, 1856-8). In China it’s the 1860 Taiping Rebellion (Flashman And The Dragon, 1860), running guns and opium and servicing difficult Oriental maidens. Poor Flash! His only hope is to reach home unscathed.

Much of his time is spent escaping perilous women. “There’s a test which I apply to all my old flames, when I think back . . . if she’d been mine to sell, how long would I have kept her?” His geographically diverse list includes Lily Langtry, Duchess Irma of Russia, Takes-Away-Clouds-Woman of the Apaches, Ko Dali’s daughter the Silk One, Mrs. Mandeville the Mad Dwarf, and the dancing-girl Narreeman. There’s Yehonala Tzu-hsi, concubine of the Manchoo Emperor; the Indian mutineer Lakshmibai; and Lola Montez, la grande horizontale. (“An empress, a queen, and the greatest courtesan of her time; I dare say I’m just a snob.”)

He does the deed in a remarkable array of locales: in a Chinese oven, during a battle with Borneo pirates, on furs in a sleigh escaping pursuit on the Russian steppe. He never questions his magnetism to women (“I could see she fancied me; black or white, savage or duchess, they’re all alike”), but Fraser’s deftest irony is that Flashman’s feather-brained, golden-haired, beloved wife Elspeth is probably—certainly—happily cheating on him too. No wonder: he’s rarely home.

One of Fraser's cunning strokes is that the more of a poltroon Flashman seems, the more trustworthy and persuasive a narrator he becomes, since only an honest man would present himself so very unflatteringly. “This story will be completely truthful; I am breaking the habit of eighty years . . . I can look at the picture above my desk, of the young officer . . . it is the portrait of a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, a thief, a coward—and, oh yes, a toady . . . But I am concerned with facts, and since many of them are discreditable to me, you can rest assured they are true.” A man with no illusions about himself, no humbug, no apologies, no excuses: it may be Flashman’s only real virtue.

And Flashman does gain wisdom. “There’s nothing so cheering as surviving a peril in which companions have perished . . . There is great pleasure in catastrophe that doesn’t touch you, and anyone who says there isn’t is a liar.” He sees firsthand how “the course of history is as often settled by someone’s having a belly-ache, or not sleeping well, or a sailor getting drunk, or some aristocratic harlot waggling her backside.” He learns how to look brave (“head up, jaw firm, eyes steady, bowels dissolving”). Ever open-minded, he knows “the heathen creeds, for all their nonsensical mumbo-jumbo, were as good as any for keeping the rabble in order, and what else is religion for?” He never forgets his place among “those to whom I could be rude with impunity—servants, tarts, bagmen, shopkeepers, and foreigners”—at least until he’s at their mercy as a cowering prisoner.

The novels are, in a sense, Bulldog Drummond turned topsy-turvy: the bulldog as fraidy-cat. Flash is the antithesis of 007 or Horatio Hornblower, ever stalwart and brave for England. (Ever terrified, Flashy does share one talent of the traditional British champion—a gift for foreign tongues and native disguise.) If he has a literary predecessor, it is probably Falstaff. As Fraser told me, “The Hornblowers, which I admire, were simply a product of the Thirties and Forties, while Flashman’s a product of the Swinging Sixties.”

The natural comparison is with the Patrick O’Brian novels, set like Hornblower around the Napoleonic Wars, and which have of late become a marketing phenomenon. The approach is entirely different, though. With Flashman you learn a lot about events, participating center stage with him in major battles or political intrigues. The battles in O’Brian, however, are peripheral to the history of the time, nor are they the real matter of the books; instead you're learning the state of medical arts, the social mores on land and sea, the flora and fauna, how people talked, the music they liked. They’re written in a more formal way, with no real comedy but rather a parlor wit, and the sexuality is very understated and offstage.

Apart from their obvious quality, part of O’Brian’s mass appeal may be that his books allow people to feel comfortably well-educated. They're delightful but serious-minded—adult Hornblower, less lively perhaps but a definite follow-on to him. (Flashman's a follow-on to no one.) O’Brian is benefitting from our unusually nostalgic era, in which the mores of another time seem more satisfying than our own; his books have echoes of a search for heroes and family values. Fraser’s Flashman simply doesn’t fit comfortably into any of this and, exploding the myths of that nostalgic past on every page, is knottier to deal with.

Here is Flashman on Scud East, a junior classmate he bullied at Rugby whom he later sees murdered in the Indian Mutiny. It is a revealing event: Flash calls Scud one of Rugby’s “sturdy fools, manly little chaps . . . full of virtue, the kind that schoolmasters love. Yes, he was a fool then, and a fool twenty years later, when he died in the dust at Cawnpore with a Sepoy’s bayonet in his back. Honest Scud East; that was all his gallant goodness did for him.” Later Flashman adds, “I’d hated the little bastard, man and boy, for his smug manly piety—but you don’t see a child you’ve known all your life die every day. Maybe that was why I wept . . . I felt it all the more sincerely for knowing that I was still alive myself.” We are a long way from Holmes and Hornblower here: the jingoistic historical fantasy of England is finished.

One strong echo is of Fraser himself. In 1992 he published his own war memoirs, Quartered Safe Out Here, from his guerrilla experiences in Burma in 1945 at age nineteen. Historian John Keegan called it “one of the great personal memoirs of World War II”. The similarity of Fraser’s voice and tone to Flash’s is evident. In it, almost as a statement of purpose, Fraser writes, “You cannot, you must not, judge the past by the present; you must try to see it in its own terms and values, if you are to have any inkling of it.”

After Burma, Fraser trained as an officer in India and earned a commission, serving in North Africa and Palestine until 1947—a time he chronicled in a fine series of comic novels about the unrepentant McAuslan, the dirtiest soldier in the world. “I nearly stayed in,” he says, “but decided I wasn’t a peacetime soldier.” He became a reporter for a small newspaper in northern England, married a reporter on a rival paper, and went to the Glasgow Herald in 1953. After sixteen years as deputy editor, he quit just after the first Flashman debuted, to great success (“written in a few weeks, turned down by every publisher for three years”).

“I was always telling stories,” he says. “I used to tell bedtime stories to my parents rather than the other way around. But it’s like that in the Highlands. Everyone’s telling stories.” He began the second Flashman just before the first appeared. “I didn’t envisage more than three or four. Now they’ve been translated into every language in Western Europe except Greek.” In Who’s Who, as a recreation he lists “talking to my wife.”

Apart from ten Flashmans and the Burma memoir, Fraser has written seven other books, mostly fiction; among them is The Hollywood History Of The World, a survey of the cinema’s accuracy in presenting the past. Fraser has been a genre screenwriter, too—he did one Bond film, (Octopussy), Force 10 From Navarone, and fine versions of The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers with Oliver Reed, Michael York, and Faye Dunaway.

As the memoirs’ "editor" (a nice conceit), Fraser finds Flashy remarkably accurate, with rare slips of detail; the “editor’s” copious footnotes and appendices at the end of each meticulously-researched volume add greatly to the illusion. (This naturally makes his hero seem even more reliable.) Fraser, who has lived on the Isle of Man since the first Flashman was published, originally did most of his research at Trinity College in Dublin. "They were very enlightened librarians who just turned me loose and said help yourself. But about twelve years ago I joined the London Library, founded by Thomas Carlyle. They have a remarkable collection, and they'll actually send books to you. I get the facts, consider the course of a campaign, and try to fit Flashman into it. History itself does the work. The difficulty in dealing with a 19th century character is it takes so long to get him from point a to point b. For example, with the most recent book I was faced with the difficulty of getting Flashman from India at the end of the Mutiny to the States in time for Harper’s Ferry.”

One of the books’ pleasures is this opinionated witness bringing his era’s large personalities to life with flesh-and-blood candor. They’re all here: “cocky little” Disraeli “well into greasy middle age.” Congressman Lincoln had “the makings of as big a scoundrel as I am myself, but his appetites were different.” G. B. Shaw advances “the fatuous opinion that mental anguish was worse than physical.” The incomprehensible barbarians also come to life: Goolab Singh, Yakub Beg, Hsien Feng. Flashman even teaches the young Crazy Horse how to wink.

It is hard to say why the books (all ten in print) haven’t quite achieved bestseller-dom here, as they have in Britain—though Fraser’s U.S. audience is extremely avid and loyal. (A disappointing 1975 film, Royal Flash, with a screenplay by Fraser, starring Malcolm McDowell, has yet to appear here on video.) It may be that we have neither the British historical sense nor their self-scrutiny, though we have no shortage of famous scoundrels. Or it may be that 19th-century India, China, and Central Asia simply aren’t our favorite cup of java.

Still, I know one prominent historian who counts Flashman’s misadventures with the Sioux and Apaches as the single finest historical novel of the Wild West. Here’s how Flash puts it, having been scalped: “You see, it’s been the great illusion of our civilization that when the poor heathen saw our steamships and elections and drains and bottled beer, he’d realize what a benighted ass he’d been and come into the fold. But he don’t. Oh, he’ll take what he fancies, and can use (cheap booze and rifles, for example) but not on that account will he think we’re better. He knows different . . . And it doesn’t help when the two sides regard each other respectively as greedy, brutal white thieves and beastly, treacherous red vermin. I’m not saying either was wrong.”

What gives the books more torque than the very finest genre writing they apparently resemble? It’s partly that beneath that inspired voice roving the 19th century, beneath the ribald humor, the books remain remarkably even-handed and difficult to place politically. Fraser is a severe critic of empire as well as an admirer; Flashman has no illusions about so-called civilized Englishmen being any better morally than wild Apaches or Tajiks or mutinous Indian Sepoys. And as novels of war they are unromantic, probably because Fraser’s own hand-to-hand battle experience resembled a 19th-century conflict.

Thus Flashman has no patience with the preachiness that surrounds war. With him there can be no soapbox illusions or sham moralizing. It’s no surprise that Fraser calls the Victorians “mere amateurs in hypocrisy compared to our own brainwashed, sanctimonious, self-censoring and terrified generation.” He adds, “One review from the States pointed out that Flashman is politically incorrect—absolutely true, I’m glad to say. It astonishes me that people there are banning Huckleberry Finn—haven’t they got the sense to see Twain was writing truthfully and critically about his own time? It’s equally bad in this country—this tendency to refuse to recognize the past for what it was. Fortunately Flashman’s had a very intelligent American readership who don’t confuse the present and the past.”

If the books weren’t so well written—Fraser (b. 1925) handles action as well as Stevenson or Graham Greene—the Literary Establishment could dismiss them as mere entertainments. But there is something deeper, a peculiarly autumnal feeling as the old charlatan ranges back in memory across a world long gone. Here is Flashman recalling the destruction of the Summer Palace of the Empress of China (with whom he’s had a love affair) by British soldiers set loose at the end of the Taiping Rebellion:

“I’m a bad man. I've done most wickedness, and I'd do it again, for the pleasure it gave me . . . and I don’t feel regret enough to keep me awake at nights. I guess, if drink and the devil were in me, I could ruin a Summer Palace in my own way . . . breaking windows and heaving vases downstairs for the joy of hearing ’em smash, and stuffing my pockets with whatever I could lay my hands on . . . But I couldn’t do it as it was done that day—methodically . . . It burned for almost a week, with a vast pillar of smoke. . . like some great brooding genie from a bottle . . . Pekin was a city in twilight, its people awestricken to silence . . . with the Summer Palace in flames they couldn’t doubt the truth—the barbarians had won, the Son of Heaven had been humbled to the dust, and there was the funeral pyre to prove it. . . .”

“But didn’t a tear mist my eye, or a lump rise in my throat; didn’t I turn away at last with a manly sob? Well, no . . . it was a shame so many pretty things were spoiled—but I'm no great admirer of objets d’art, myself . . . But even you, Flashman, surely to God, must have been moved at the destruction of so much beauty, in a spot where you had spent so many idyllic hours? Well, again, no. You see, I don’t live there; I’m here, in Berkeley Square, and when I want to visit the Summer Palace, I can close my eyes, and there it is, and so is she.”

And what next? Fraser promises more Flashmans, and at age seventy he seems to be going strong. He has completed a novelette, Flashman And The Tiger, which takes place in South Africa and England and may grow into a book; there should also be a volume recounting Flashman’s role in the Civil War, purportedly fighting for both sides.

Meanwhile, some readers refuse to accept that Flashman wasn’t an actual person—or at least go along with Fraser’s game. “Often people write me to say they’re descendants of his—so I write back and congratulate them. And a few correspondents even claim that Flashman borrowed $50 from their grandfather and would I . . .? Then I reply that I simply can’t assume his debts.”

[George MacDonald Fraser died in 2008.]

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