When I’m stressed, I take refuge in the comfort of reading. I have a music player, but somehow it provides less shelter than the right sort of book: One that’s intelligent, but light, with occasional outbursts of humor. And I can think of no books that fit this description better than George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman series. I’ve read each of the twelve books many times, and they never fail to provide a refuge.
The conceit of the stories is that Harry Flashman, the bully from Tom Brown’s Schooldays, grows up to be Sir Harry Flashman, VC, one of the great Victorian heroes – all without changing his basic nature. Despite his public acclaim, he remains a bully, a coward, and a lecher. But through a combination of outrageous luck and fast-thinking, only he knows what he is really like.
Flashman, his first adventure, sets the formula. At the end of the book, the young Flashman is in a fort about to be overrun by Afghani hillfolk. Thinking his life might be spared if he surrenders, he hauls down the flag, but, before he can do more, he collapses. Just then, the relief column arrives, and, finding him collapsed over the flag, concludes that his last thought was to defend that symbol of his country. When he awakes, he is a hero with the thanks of Parliament. This mixture of cowardly motivation and fortunate appearances continues throughout the series, broken only by his thought that he might show courage to save his wife – a thought so unsettling to him that he prays that he will never have to choose between saving her and himself.
Flashman is last seen as an old man in Mr. American, being driven in a car through the crowds towards Buckingham Palace on the eve of World War One. The crowd assumes that he has been summoned to consult with the king, but, for Flashy, the palace is simply the nearest place that he can relieve his ancient bladder.
This basic conceit is intertwined with the ingenuity with which Fraser inserts Flashman into historical events. The result is a kind of prototype for Forest Gump; for instance, during the Battle of Balaclava, Flashman manages to stand with The Thin Red Line, and to charge with both the Heavy and the Light Brigades, troubled by flatulence all the way. In similarly outrageous way (but without the flatulence), Flashman is inserted into every major event in British and American history between 1840 and 1901, and meets everyone of note from Queen Victoria and the Duke of Wellington to Abraham Lincoln, Geronimo, and John Brown. In between, he has affairs with every woman from Lola Montez to the future Dowager Empress of China, proud to be “one who instinctively fornicates in the jaws of death.”
And just to add to the veracity, Fraser is forever mentioning things like an obscure figure in a historical painting who resembles Flashman’s known likenesses. He also includes copious footnotes that compare Flashman’s accounts with the primary sources, explaining where it agrees and doesn’t agree, and where it sheds new light upon events. The truth is, Fraser is a history buff, and the series is largely an excuse to exhaustively research events.
Later books in the series become a little too predictable, but these basic principles are enough to carry even the weakest Flashman book cynically along. In contrast to the bombast of the Victorian Age, in Flashman’s world view, there are no heroes – only conventional, hypocritical cant or dangerous madmen like James Brook, the White Rajah of Sarawak, and George Armstrong Custer, whose charisma drives others to do what they would never otherwise consider.
Flashman’s view, of course, is as false as the one it is meant to deflate, but, like Falstaff, his cowardice becomes a sort of humanism. Is the defense of an invaded country really worth going to war for? He asks several times through the series. All that will happen is that more people will die, and for Flashman, nothing (with the possibly exception of his undeserved reputation) is as important as everyone staying alive at all costs. Frequently, Flashman does act and speak in ways that horrify a modern person, but what mainly comes through is a sort of anti-authoritarianism based on a defence of the creature comforts of life.
At its best, the setup has endless comic opportunities, including variations on the formula. For instance, at first, Flashman’s reputation is preserved only because – like those who discover Superman’s secret identity – those who learn what he is really like fortuitously end up dying before they can discredit him. Later, though, when he breaks down, blubbering and pleading for mercy, his opponents believe it is a ruse, because they cannot believe that such a famous soldier is really a coward. Even if he collapsed on the floor, Flashman says at one point, people would only believe his behavior was a joke in questionable taste.
As if all this wasn’t enough, Fraser himself is the master of the deadpan. For instance, he has Flashman describe his future mother-in-law (in a beautifully Wodehousian phrase) as having “all the faded beauty of a vulture.” Similarly, in Flashman’s Lady, his wife Elspeth features as a kind of Victorian Gracie Allen, with her own brand of illogic and a supreme obliviousness to what is happening around her. In her diary, she notes “there is no Emergency beyond the Power of a Resolute Englishwoman, especially if she is Scotch.”
My only wish is that Fraser had written faster, or lived longer. As it is, while many parts of Flashman’s life are throughly documented, we never do learn how he managed to be a major in the Union forces one year of the American Civil War, and a colonel in the Confederate army the next year (although Abraham Lincoln seems to have had something to do with it). Nor do we know, as Fraser once hinted, whether Flashman really did play a role in the Riel Rebellion.
But never mind. Like many of my favorite TV series that have been canceled before their plots were wrapped up, the Flashman series leaves me grateful for what we have. In times of stress, Flashman can distract me with a detailed view of the nineteenth century and clever writing, and make me laugh at the same time. What more could I ask?