Musical Accompaniment: “The Rake’s Song”, by The Decemberists
Harry Paget Flashman is basically a real asshole, but he’s an entertaining one to say the least. After getting kicked out of Rugby School in the late 1830s for “excessive drunkenness”, the young, rich and completely cowardly Flashman joins the army in relative peacetime with the hopes of getting a nice easy job with a pension (the uniform’s attractiveness to the opposite sex is a nice bonus). Unfortunately for our cad of a hero, he soon finds himself in the position of having to marry a relatively rich Scottish man’s daughter, Elspeth, after hooking up with her after a carriage ride. As he’s obviously married below his station, Flashman loses his cushy position in the 11th Hussars and finds himself instead in Afghanistan. Like every military adventure in Afghanistan, this works about as well as expected and Flashman finds himself present at the disastrous retreat from Kabul in 1842.
Flashman is the first of the “Flashman Papers”, a series of memoirs written by the eponymous hero long after his retirement from his Majesty’s service. This is an entertaining narrative conceit, as real-life author George Macdonald Fraser adds footnotes to go alongside the main character’s systematic dismantling of his sterling(ish) reputation of being a hero and a true-blue Englishman. A parody of the classic English military hero, Flashman is a coward, a toady, and a lecher; he’s greedy, lustful and doesn’t care for the social mores of the time unless they help him get a leg up (or over). Flashman exists in a kind of liminal space for the reader, who are themselves presumably pretty ignorant of early Victorian social culture, but he’s also capable of some pretty abhorrent things, including buying slaves, allowing comrades to die without lifting a finger, and, at one pivotal juncture, rape.
Flashman has its origins in the novel Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes, which to my knowledge has faded into the distance much more than the Fraser books, which started in the late Sixties. There, Flashman is a relatively minor character who’s most notable for being a bully, and for the drunkeness incident. (Rugby School is actually where the sport was invented, and it’s a pretty posh Grade 4-12 facility these days). So imagine if Biff Tannen from Back to the Future went on to star in a series of movies where he never really became a better person, and instead kept on being a douchebag who ends up covered in unearned glory for accidental military exploits. That’s kind of what we’re dealing with here.
I found Flashman very interesting in light of the current vogue for discussing “likeability” in fictional characters. While he does some terrible things in this book, the confessional tone and the snappy writing makes you like the guy in spite of yourself. That being said, I completely understand how other people might not be able to get over some of the events as presented, though, and I’m interested/kind of dreading to see how equally delicate topics like slavery (Flash For Freedom!, 1971) and Settler/Aboriginal relations in North America (Flashman and the Redskins, 1982) are handled in the subsequent novels. (Myself, I couldn’t get over Thomas Covenant’s similar actions in Lord Foul’s Bane, so I know from experience that this kind of material doesn’t work for everyone.) The tone of Flashman reminds me somewhat of Ian Fleming’s early Bond novels, but while we’re supposed to kind of like the brutish Bond, and be shocked by the shitty things he does, with Harry Flashman it’s the exact opposite. The greedy, cowardly and lustful Flashman kind of shines a new light on England’s colonial adventures in Afghanistan, and invites the reader to wonder why we’d root for any of these people, much less our “hero”. If one of Queen Victoria’s most beloved, most rewarded subjects is completely undeserving of any of it whatsoever, what does that say about his contemporaries?
Still, the research that went into this book was occasionally confounding to me, as I don’t really know much about English military history from this time. I confess, some of the names and dates got really confusing once Flashman made it to Kabul, and I felt the book drag a little there. I much preferred the sneaking around and trying to sleep with other mens’ wives to the back-biting among the English commanders.
I’m absolutely positive that Terry Pratchett and Jasper Fforde must have been fans of the Flashman novels, as the use of well-researched and archly funny footnotes comes up often in their books as well. A cursory Google search tells me that the meta nature of this story has made its insertion into other Steampunk, Victoriana and alternate histories like the Anno Dracula series by Kim Newman and The Peshawar Lancers by S.M. Stirling a fun Easter egg for those who are in the know.