Remembering 50 Years of Flashman

In 1969, author George Macdonald Fraser introduced the character of Harry Flashman to an unsuspecting literary world, creating an unexpected phenomenon.


In 1969, author George Macdonald Fraser introduced the character of Harry Flashman to an unsuspecting literary world. 2019 is the 50th anniversary of the publication of the first book in The Flashman Papers, and a special review of the phenomenon that is Flashman is required.

In the late 1960s, Fraser was on the hunt for a hero. He’d grown up on the heroic novels of Jeffrey Farnol and Rafael Sabatini, but unfortunately his publishers did not want his pirate novel Captain in Calico, preferring something more humorous and racy that was in line with the tenor of the times. What to do? It seemed to him that what popular fiction was missing was a hero in the old mould: a swashbuckler, a rogue, a scoundrel; but something fun, a parody of sorts, and a nod back to his literary heroes while keeping in touch with the 1960s.

Fraser turned to another old book for solace and within its pages found the perfect basis for a new series. Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays introduced the character of Flashman, the school bully of Rugby, to the Victorian era. Over the next thirty years Fraser would make the character his own, fleshing him out from his one-dimensional origins to become a realistic and sympathetic character. To his legions of fans, Fraser’s Flashman was the only one. Few, if any, ever bothered to read Tom Brown’s Schooldays.

We meet Flashman (or, to give him his full name and eventual honours, Brigadier-General Harry Paget Flashman, VC, KCB, KCIE) at the very point at which Hughes’ novel dispenses with him. We see him expelled from Rugby and returned home to his father who, not wanting him around the house, buys him a commission in the British Army. This touches off a military career which spans six decades, worldwide travel, several duels, a marriage, innumerable maidens seduced, and many a dastardly plot foiled. This last, it must be admitted, happens pretty much by chance.

Harry Flashman is not concerned with the safety and security of the world as much as he is concerned about the safety and security of Harry Flashman. His army service sees him end up in almost every military fiasco of the Victorian era, including some the British weren’t even involved in. Flashman finds himself in the retreat from Kabul, at Roarke’s Drift, and the Boxer Rebellion. At various times he may be found courting the mad Queen of Madagascar, hiding in the greasy grass watching Custer’s Last Stand and (memorably) fighting on both sides of the American Civil War.

The eleventh Flashman book, a collection of novellas entitled Flashman and the Tiger, shows us an older soldier who comes out of retirement to save his daughter from scandal. He disguises himself with clothing gathered during his travels and, in the denouement of the piece, he listens as his supposedly unconscious form is appraised by none other than ‘the great detective’ (in deerstalker, replete with large pipe and medical accomplice). This detective takes in all of the scars and trappings of Flashman’s adventures and delivers a verdict that is, hilariously, wrong. Not even the greats could have any notion of the career Flashman would have.

Even his death was scandalous. Fraser gives Flashman a cameo in his 1980 novel Mr American (set 1909-1914) in which it is heavily implied the elderly General Flashman died in a Parisian brothel after the onset of WW1. True or not, it is a fitting end. Sadly Fraser died in 2008, before he could write those parts of Flashman’s life he had hinted at in the book, such as his role in the Eureka Stockade.

That The Flashman Papers are fantastical is not surprising, but the dedication and research Fraser put into making them as realistic as possible make the books stand out from their contemporaries.

The characters of Flashman, James Bond and Dirk Pitt are of the same mould, but neither Fleming nor Cussler ever gave us a comprehensive series of notes at the end of each book. These serve to heighten the sense of historical reality. Indeed, when the first novel (simply titled Flashman) was released, several reviewers in the US believed it to be a factual account. It looks like it is, and therein lies a large part of the charm. Working under the conceit of merely having been edited by Fraser, the books put themselves forward as having been written by Flashman himself, possibly in about 1905 in the twilight of his career, and hidden in a trunk in the intervening times. Later excerpts show signs of malicious editing and the excision of names by relatives concerned with the family reputation, which all adds to the fun.

Flashman himself appears unapologetic about the things he has done. While the picture he paints of himself is that of a complete cad, he owns his behaviour even as he refuses to condemn it. The books can be a difficult read in 2019 because they show a Victorian cad operating under 1970s licence, with all of the racism and sexism that one might expect. While Flashman is surprisingly liberal in some of his views, he is firmly on the side of Empire in his relations with anyone not born in England.

In The Flashman Papers Fraser found his instant hit, and all the novels of the series may still be found in print. Later works by Fraser would take the Flashman ideal even further into parody, giving us wonderful novels such as The Pyrates and The Reavers. Five years after Fraser’s death we even got Captain in Calico.

Despite Fraser’s other job as a Hollywood scriptwriter (he wrote Octopussy, among other films) Flashman fared poorly at the hands of filmmakers over the years. Royal Flash (the second novel) was made into a movie by Richard Lester but was a critical and commercial failure.

The production company responsible for adapting Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels was sold the rights to Flashman in 2007, but the global financial crisis caused the death of the project.

In 2015 it was announced that Ridley Scott had purchased the rights to the character, but nothing has been heard since.

In Harry Flashman, Fraser found the perfect literary device. Few characters will ever exist like Flashman.

by DC White

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