Friday, March 17, 2023

A reprobate hero

George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman series is surely one of the most entertaining ways to learn 19th century history. This essay explains why, but also why it may be difficult to find the books on library shelves these days.
.... Flashman was born to Lady Alicia Paget and Henry Buckley Flashman MP. After he was expelled from Rugby School at the age of 17, he joined the 11th Hussars under James Brudenell, Earl of Cardigan, and was sent to Afghanistan, where he became one of the few Britons to make it back from Kabul during the First Anglo-Afghan War (1838–42). He subsequently saw action in the First Anglo-Sikh War (1845–46), the Crimean War (1853–56), the Indian Rebellion (1857), the Taiping Rebellion (1850–64), the American Civil War (1861–65), the Second Franco-Mexican War (1861–67), and the Anglo-Zulu War (1879).

He knew or met nearly all the eminent Victorians, including Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold, Chinese Gordon, Lord Palmerston, the Duke of Wellington, Benjamin Disraeli, Oscar Wilde, and Queen Victoria herself. His romantic conquests were no less illustrious. Lola Montez, Queen Ranavalona of Madagascar, and Daisy Greville, Edward VII’s mistress, all, at one time or another, shared Flashman’s bed (or he theirs). He was the only man to survive both the charge of the Light Brigade and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and he was (probably) the only man to sleep with both Lillie Langtry, the actress, and Yehonala, the last empress of China.

If you think that all sounds too extraordinary to be true, you’re right. ....

...[George MacDonald] Fraser insisted that he was merely the editor of Flashman’s memoirs, found in a tea chest during a country-house auction, and he provided footnotes and appendices to prove it. .... Fraser evoked the Victorian era so deftly that many reviewers of the first Flashman novel fell for the ruse, taking the character for a real man. One critic even declared that the pages were the greatest find since the discovery of James Boswell’s diaries.

It was a fitting mistake, for Flashman is a brilliant con artist, capable of pulling the wool over almost anyone’s eyes. ....

Flashman’s list of admirers is nearly as impressive as his list of lovers. Kingsley Amis, Christopher Hitchens, David Mamet, and Charlie Chaplin all confessed to being Flashy fans. P.G. Wodehouse rarely praised other novelists, but when Fraser’s name came up he gushed: “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 [novel].” The character’s appeal derives, in part, from his candor. Though Flashman lies to everyone around him, he never lies to his readers. ....

Fraser was just as good at portraiture. Flashman was his crown jewel, but there are plenty of other gems in the series: the hero’s airheaded wife Elspeth; his cantankerous father-in-law, John Morrison; and John Charity Spring, the half-mad classicist who shanghaies Flashman aboard the Balliol College. Some of the most vivid people we meet are actual historical figures like Lord Cardigan, of Light Brigade fame, and John Brown, the abolitionist whose raid on Harpers Ferry helped precipitate the American Civil War. The most delightful of all is almost certainly the congressman from Illinois, whom Flashman first encounters at a Washington soirĂ©e in 1848: “I liked Abe Lincoln from the moment I first noticed him, leaning back in his chair with that hidden smile at the back of his eyes, gently cracking his knuckles.” .... (much more)
I've posted about the Flashman books before, here and here. If you wish to follow Flashman's career chronologically, there is a helpful chart at the foot of this post.

Graham Daseler, "A Jolly Good Scoundrel," Quillette, March 17, 2023.

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