The action-packed books also really work as excellent history, Lyle wrote
While Roald Dahl’s books are editing out the word ‘fat’ and sensitive readers and gift tags are available to scrutinize our speech, one of the great heroes of literature has continued to entertain readers for over 50 years after his first appearance.
And thank God.
Sir Harry Flashman is a racist, sexist, bigoted homophobe, Empire builder, Flashy to his friends, and a selfish, cowardly person. And yet, still, readers love it.
Flashman, the hero of the 12-book series by George MacDonald Fraser, began as the irredeemable bully in Thomas Hughes’ classic story about public school life, Tom Brown’s Schooldays.
Unlike the pious Tom, Flashman has no time for church, he would rather roast little boys over the fire. In the end he is banished for being a “drunken beast” and that is the last the world would hear of him.
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Until, that is, more than a century later when Flashman’s memoirs were discovered at an auction house in Leicestershire, and the world finally realized that the decorated, world-famous Victorian military hero was the same Rugby School bully .
That is the great literary vision of Donald Fraser – to take a fictional character from one novel, and throw him into real history. The Scottish author pretended to be the ‘editor’ of the Flashman Papers, as if the books were the secret memoirs of the legendary hero.
But the biggest joke of all is that Flashman is no hero – he’s still the same cowardly bully he’s always been, except through a series of terrible lucky breaks that the world ever discovers. At the end of his first campaign, Flashman is the last survivor of the Army’s disastrous retreat from Kabul.
Located in a small fort with the brave Sergeant Hudson, Flashman leaves him under Hudson to fight in Afghanistan.
That’s the great literary idea – to take a fictional character and throw him into real history
When Hudson dies, Flashman desperately tries to pull down the British flag – to surrender – but ends up wrapped in red, white and blue. And of course, as the rescuers relieve the fort just in time, they assume that the brave young Flashy is wrapped in the flag in a last act of brave defiance.
Thus her legend is sealed, with the thanks of Parliament, a handshake from the Duke of Wellington, and a medal from the young Queen Victoria.
After that, despite Flashman’s best efforts to avoid danger at all costs, he finds himself embroiled in most of the major actions of the Victorian Empire: the first Afghan War, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Sikh Wars, the great Indian Rebellion , the Taiping. Rising, Rorke’s Drift, and on.
Always trembling with fear, always desperate to avoid his duty, he is driven only by a sense of self-preservation and a libido as big as Cornwall.
As Flashman says of himself, his three main talents are “horses, languages and prostitution”
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And it’s not just the empire. Flashman finds himself aboard a transatlantic slave ship (after a card-playing scandal with Disraeli), with John Brown at Harpers Ferry in the incident that started the US Civil War, being ordered by a Danish prince
of Otto Von Bismarck, and deep in the jungles of Borneo with the ‘White Raja’ James Brooke.
As Flashman says of himself, his three main talents are “horses, languages and prostitution” – the latter being how he likes to spend his time. There are things for boys, such as Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe, CS Forester’s Hornblower or Jack Aubry and Stephen Maturin’s adventures on the high seas with Patrick O’Brian, but only for adults who no longer believe in good heroes, but still do. like adventure and thrills in their stories. And best of all, so much of what happens in the books actually happened!
Most of the characters Flashman comes up against, whether they are outsized villains, beautiful heroines or incompetent military commanders, true.
Flashman isn’t just a bit player in history, either, but central to so many events.
As he says: “In my experience, the course of history is often decided when someone has a stomach ache, or doesn’t sleep well, or a sailor gets drunk, or some noble prostitute sneaks in on the back.”
Flashman’s great trait, his only heroic quality, is – at least as a narrator – honesty.
This view of history is reflected in the books. Flashman, for example, inadvertently caused the Charge of the Light Brigade. Worn out by a day in the saddle, his somewhat shrill speech prompts Lord Raglan to issue the famously vague order that leads to one of the Army’s greatest disasters.
Poor Flashy leads the charge of the riders, not because of some courage but because of a severe wind attack caused by the free Russian Champ.
Of course, he survives – he always survives – but not without another brush or two with the fairer sex, from being fed by
Aunt Sara on the Russian steppes has been drugged with hashish into temporary bravery by the beautiful girl-soldier, the
His talent for tongues, and his swarthy appearance, allow Flashman to sneak around the Empire in James Bond style. Unlike Bond, Flashy trembles with fear throughout his adventures, whether he’s escaping the lustful clutches of Queen Ranavalona of Madagascar, desperately trying to pull General Custer back from Little Big Horn, being kidnapped by Bismarck – with the concession of Lola Montez – or pretending to be in an Indian Army on the verge of mutiny, is only
two things never on Flashy’s mind: survival, and women.
These action-packed books also serve as great history.
And this is because Flashman’s great quality, his only heroic quality, is – at least as a narrator – honesty. As a character he is all the things listed above – racist, sexist and so on – but that is an honest description of the men and systems of the time.
It is far better to see the truth than to gloss over it and learn the history from these books (from how the Koh-i-Noor diamond found its way into the King’s crown, to why America was invaded on Afghanistan, and what really happened. the transatlantic slave trade).
MacDonald Fraser was not only an excellent historian, but a great reporter. Born in Carlisle in 1925, he served in the ranks in Burma during the Second World War then as an officer in the Gordon Highlanders, before taking a job on the Glasgow Herald, where he worked until the stratospheric success of Flashman in 1969. on him. turn to full-time fiction. Apart from the Flashman books, he wrote Hollywood films (including James Bond’s Octopussy), novels, memoirs and short stories. He lived on the Isle of Man and died in 2008 aged 82 with an OBE and legions of fans around the world.
Personally, I wouldn’t be a historical novelist without Flashman. As a 13 year old, I had barely read a book of my own accord until I picked up Flash For Freedom and read it in one day. Soon, I was signing up for A level History and telling my friends and family about the social and political history of the 19th century.
Let’s be honest, these books must be ‘romps’ in every sense of the word to seduce a teenage boy – there’s hardly a woman Flashy doesn’t try to sleep with – eat your heart out Jilly Cooper. Even more exciting, as a writer myself I used the same trick MacDonald Fraser had to take minor characters from classic literature, grow them up and insert them into real historical events. I adopted Wiggins, once of Sherlock Holmes’ band of street urchins, the Baker Street Irregulars, and grew up to become the Secret Service’s first and best agent.
I enjoyed reading Flashman’s interactions with historical figures so much that I love to play the same trick with my own writing – dropping in facts, and people, like little Easter eggs for the reader.
Perhaps Flashman’s best trick of all, however, is that these books are incredibly funny. Flashman sees through the moral hypocrisy of those around him and pierces him every time. Oscar Wilde is described as “an overfed trout in a toupe”.
David Cameron was nicknamed Flashman by Labor when he was Prime Minister.
Flashman himself is called “A warrior who goes so fast that he destroys the wind with his speed” or “Windbreaker” – while traveling with the Apache tribe. For nothing, Labor nicknamed David Cameron Flashman when he was Prime Minister.
Donald Fraser’s wife said life was “one long story” with him. And so are the Flashman books, a joke that goes across
12 books and more than 60 years of rip-roaring history.
He is one of the comic characters of English literature, up there with Bertie Wooster.
But while the other major characters get ongoing novels – Holmes, Bond, Poirot – Flashman has remained firmly in place. As fans know, there is at least one notable event that Flashman served in – the US Civil War, where he was decorated on both sides.
It’s the great unwritten novel Flashy, I know at least one writer who would love to write this novel – the time has definitely come.
If not a new novel, how about TV and film? Sharpe, Hornblower and even Jack Aubry have found an audience on screen – isn’t it time for Flashy?
He hit the screen once in 1975, in Royal Flash, directed by Richard Lester and written by MacDonald Fraser himself – but that didn’t stay well. It’s too corny and director Malcolm McDowell is a waste as a fairly effective and silly Flashman – he should have used Oliver Reed (who was cast as Bismarck) in the role.
Despite being borderline and a total CAD, Flashman is the perfect hero for our lives. If the publishers can’t find it in them to commission another book, surely one of the TV streamers can – and bring history to funny, exciting life for all of us.
More Flashman please!
- To order Spy Hunter by HB Lyle (Hodder, £20) or any of the novels in the Flashman series by George MacDonald Fraser, visit express.com bookstore or call Express Bookshop on 020 3176 3832. Free UK P&P on orders over £25
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