When George MacDonald Fraser sat down to pen Flashman, the first volume of what would eventually become a thirteen-book series known as ‘The Flashman Papers’, one doubts he knew how enduring his titular character would become. A minor figure in Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s School Days, Sir Harry Paget Flashman may have remained just that had Fraser not plucked him from the pages of the earlier novel and used him as the anti-hero of his own.
In Fraser’s vision, Flashman went on to become a decorated war hero, with a Zelig-like capacity to get tangled up in every great conflict and diplomatic intrigue of the second half of the 19th Century. The discovery of his memoirs in an auction house in Ashby, Leicestershire—a ruse repeated with the straightest of faces at the beginning of every volume—revealed his reputation to be entirely unearned: in the twilight of his years, in an attempt to set the record straight, Flashman gleefully revealed himself to be a lying, cheating, philandering coward who owed his reputation, accolades and knighthood to a cold-hearted willingness to betray his friends, look out for himself, and, when in doubt, run away. (Fraser died before Flashman had the chance to write down everything he had to say. The character’s oft hinted-at role in the American Civil War—all we know is that he was at Appomattox and that Lincoln softly whistled ‘Dixie’ to him at the war’s conclusion—regrettably never got the novel it was promised.)
If it’s surprising that the character has endured, it’s at least partly because there’s something decidedly old-fashioned about the books he appears in (though the prose in which they’re rendered remains timeless). Their rollicking, boy’s-own plots, their inimitable bawdiness (Fraser has a list of synonyms for ‘breasts’ as long as your arm), their political incorrectness (he has a list of racial epithets twice as long). All seem perfectly out-of-date today. Indeed, it’s easy—too easy—to dismiss the books on such grounds.
This isn’t because the usual fallacies surrounding authorship—the assumption that a character’s views are his author’s and so on—don’t apply here. If anything, this is a case in which they do. After all, Fraser was a right-leaning wingnut with a soft spot for imperial folly. ‘I talked to him by phone on his 80th birthday,’ Christopher Hitchens wrote upon Fraser’s death in 2008, ‘and found him suitably reactionary.’
But Fraser was also willing to examine his biases. In many cases, he found them wanting.
It’s true that the books walk an incredibly fine line on this front and don’t always do so successfully. The examination in question is intended to amuse as much as it is to offend, and the reader is too often expected to disregard the character’s most glaring shortcomings as a bit of harmless, off-colour fun. But Fraser’s work never fails to contain within it an implicit, and sometimes fairly explicit, critique of Flashman‘s assumptions about gender, race and empire, which is to say a critique of the author’s own.
Take the books’ female characters. Fraser spends too much time dwelling on their physical attributes, and his obliviousness to the issue of consent will strike many as troubling.
But from Queen Ranavalona II of Madagascar to the future Empress Tzu-hsi of China—not to mention Flashman‘s wife Elspeth, who’s much smarter than she ever lets on—Fraser’s female characters are consistently independent, strong-willed and intelligent where their male counterparts are glory-hunting psychopaths and hypocritical simpletons to a man. Fraser attacks supposedly masculine ‘virtues’ like honour and courage with a relish that one can’t but relish, making sure that such ‘virtues’ are credited to a titular character who lacks them entirely and that anyone who actually believes in them winds up dead for their troubles.
In the same vein, Fraser may have called the British Empire ‘the greatest thing that ever happened to an undeserving world’, and made Flashman an inveterate racist into the bargain, but there’s no denying that that the books add up, by design or otherwise, to one of the most sustained and damning condemnations of imperialism in popular literature. This is no mean feat: some of the terms he puts into his character’s mouth to describe Afghans, Indians, Native Americans, Africans and the Chinese are truly vile. But extended diatribes against the likes George Custer, Lord Raglan and James Brooke show how little time he had for his own side as well.
In most cases, however, Fraser doesn’t take sides so much as condemn everybody equally. In Flashman in the Great Game, about the Indian Rebellion of 1857, both the Siege of Cawnpore and the British retaliation to it are afforded ample pages, the atrocities of both sides aired in full. In Flashman and the Dragon, Fraser’s descriptions of the Manchu torture of Allied prisoners during the Second Opium War is immediately followed by his description of the Allies’ wanton destruction of the Summer Palace. These latter are two of the series’ most devastating passages, and they’re pushed right up against one another with hardly room to breathe between them. It makes for a devastating one-two punch.
It’s the books’ unlikely anti-imperial bona fides that make them surprisingly relevant today, not least because the same old adventures continue to take place on the same old battlefields. Indeed, the books are arguably more relevant now than they were when they were published. The original Flashman, which details the events of the First Anglo-Afghan War, was published in 1969, a good decade before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and more than 30 years before our own involvement. It should have been required reading at the beginning of this low, dishonest century: as described by Fraser, the retreat from Kabul through the Hindu Kush makes the phrase ‘graveyard of empires’ sound almost quaint, and the warmongers might have thought twice in the face of it. Flashman at his worst may out-Trump even Trump, but he would have blanched at the latter’s commitment of new troops to the conflict. Which is to say that he would have cocked an eyebrow, bitten his lip to ensure his reputation didn’t suffer, and then wound up on the front line to his dismay.
Given the era in which they are set, the books don’t always speak to current concerns. Royal Flash, the second, most farcical book in the series, deals with the now-forgotten Schleswig-Holstein Question. (It’s the only book to take place in a fictitious location—a point against it, in my view, possibly because I have no knowledge of Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda—and also the only one to have been made into a film, though here have been reports that Fox is developing a new one with Ridley Scott’s production company.) The Southeast Asian and Malagasy events of Flashman’s Lady (and the over-determined manner in which they allowed to co-exist in the same book) are largely irrelevant today. But on almost every other front, Flashman speaks to us across the years: on relations between black and white America (Flash for Freedom!), the uncertain status of Crimea (Flashman at the Charge), China’s relations with the rest of the world (Flashman and the Dragon), and so on. In the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, one might even have been able to hear an echo of the problematically-titled but otherwise brilliant Flashm
Everyone knows Marx’s famous line about history, tragedy, farce and the rest. Writing for the most part at the height of the Cold War (only four of the books were published after the fall of the Berlin Wall), Fraser attempted to demonstrate that something altogether different was true: that history happens as farce, then as farce, then as farce again. Or, to cast his project in a more serious light, that tragedy follows tragedy follows tragedy, or will do, should we choose to not learn from it. Which, of course, is in itself farcical.
Fraser very clearly wanted people to learn from the mistakes of the century that preceded his own and left few prisoners in the endeavour. The character’s racial slurs aside, Flashman and the Dragon warns us as much against the Chinese leadership’s sense of racial superiority (now practiced in a more furious and psychotic way by North Korea) as it does against the woefully misguided West’s. (Of course, that book focuses on the Manchurian version of this racialism, rather than on China’s current Han version of the same.) Flashman‘s Lady struggles against the semi-racist (because still self-centred) denial of the other’s capacity for brutality by showing Ranavalona’s for what it was. And he does so while always snickering loudly at the ideas that sat festering beneath the British Empire’s sense of self-importance.
This is not centrism in the anaemic sense of the word, the kind that suffers from its own pathetic relativism. It’s a radical centrism, a clear-headed willingness to call out inhuman bullshit wherever it happens, and by whomever’s hand, not merely regarding the other as poison, as in the conservative or nationalist view, or one’s own side as worse, as too often defines the progressive one. It is to effect what Pulitzer Prize-winner Việt Thanh Nguyễn describes as “just memory”.
The only character Fraser doesn’t afford this courtesy—even when he perhaps deserves it—is his lead. The most ethically unequivocal of the books remains the third, Flash for Freedom!, in which Flashman finds himself running slaves to the Americas and then helping one of them escape to the north. To this day, Flashman’s betrayal of the slave in question, Cassy, strikes me as his most cowardly act. With the free states only a stone’s throw away, he reverts to form and leaves her to the mercy of slave hunters, escaping to safety across a frozen river on his own. Luckily, Cassy makes it, too, which redeems the narrative if not the character.
But it’s nevertheless the only decision Fraser has Flashman make in the books that I don’t think the character would have made, the author unwilling or somehow unable to allow his creation to be anything other than an unreconstructed cad, unwilling or unable to follow him where he, for once in his miserable life, wants to go. The fact is that Flashman cannot be contained by his author, cannot be defined by the self-denunciations that his author puts in his mouth. He is occasionally actually capable of good. It’s important that he should be so, too, if there is to be any hope for the rest of us.
Fraser atones for his betrayal of Flashman, and Flashman for his betrayal of Cassy, by ensuring in later novels that Cassy is one of the few women whose strengths Flashman recalls fondly when compared to the spineless men he encounters on his travels. Indeed, it’s those men, rather than Flashman himself, we should really be worried about. If the character finds himself time and again in the mire, it’s because monarchs, generals and useful idiots—hypocrites all, when not true believers, who are worse—keep throwing him unwillingly into it. His bullshit may be toxic, but theirs is radioactive, keeping the wheel turning where it deserves to be broken. As ‘The Flashman Papers’ make abundantly clear, we do ourselves no favours forgetting its previous, bloody rotations.