For better than three decades, The Flashman Papers by George MacDonald Fraser were some of my favourite light, popular reading, a relationship that only ended with the author’s death on 2 January 2008. By then, Fraser had written a dozen Flashman novels, coincidentally more or less the number of packets supposedly discovered in a chest of drawers, damaged in a country house auction way back in 1965.
The first Flashman novel I read, from Central Ref General Readers Library, in the mid-Seventies, was Flashman at the Charge, Fraser’s fourth volume of the notional Papers, which concerned itself mainly with the Crimean War. It wasn’t as sexy as I had been left to believe at a time of my life when I had just turned eighteen and was busy trying to fumble my way into adulthood, but it was good, flowing reading. It taught me more about the Crimean War than I’d learned in School (and I had a Grade A A-Level in History), not to mention opening my eyes to other historical areas I hadn’t even begun to think of. I borrowed the first three, not necessarily in that order, and by the time the fifth book rolled into paperback, I was buying my own copies.
It’s less than a decade since Fraser died, and Flashman is slowly starting to fade away from literary consciousness, now that there are no further adventures to be had (though the more louche episodes of our excuse-for-a-Prime-Minister, David Cameron, in Parliament are doing a good job of keeping the image alive). There are many gaps in General Sir Harry Flashman, V.C., K.C.B., K.C.I.E.: Chevalier, Legion of Honour; Order of Maria Theresa, Austria; Order of the Elephant, Denmark (temporary); US Medal of Honor; San Serafino Order of Purity and Truth, 4th class’s career, almost as many as there were people wanting to write their own versions once Fraser was no longer there to tell the tales, but his family, thankfully, made it plain that there would be no literary necrophilia here. What Fraser didn’t write, or at least hint at, will remain unknown.
During his life, the books were never looked upon as anything more than light entertainment, very high quality light entertainment, but not of lasting value. That’s an opinion that I, and many of Fraser’s fans worldwide, can’t subscribe to. That they are adventures, first and foremost, can’t be denied, but they are very thoroughly researched historical adventures, with a clear sighted point of view that recognises that the glory years of Empire were anything but, and that beneath the romantic surface, Britain’s history was a tale of accident and incompetence that somehow worked to create one of the biggest empires the world has ever seen.
And Harry Flashman was the perfect symbol for that history. Fraser’s original conception of genius was what if Flashman, the school bully of Rugby, from Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays grew up to be a great Victorian soldier-hero, lionised wherever he went, famous, successful, a Boy’s Paper dream – but remained the same liar, cheat, bully, coward and lecher he was at Rugby?
The Flashman Papers are the story of how Flashman earned great fame and wealth, the whole of it completely undeserved, whilst managing to conceal his real nature from everyone when it mattered. Fraser’s conceit is that, at the end of his life, when it no longer mattered, Flashman sat down to write his true memoirs, completely unvarnished. After his death, these were discovered by his horrified family who, instead of burning them, concealed them until the accident that revealed them in 1965.
Ownership of the Papers was traced to Flashman’s only living relative, Mr Paget Morrison of Durban, South Africa who, knowing of Fraser’s interest in this subject, entrusted him with preparing the papers for publication.
Thus The Flashman Papers are written by Flashman himself, a natural raconteur, possessed of a very robust memory, determined to be completely honest for the first time ever, and Fraser merely the editor, who corrects minor matters such as spelling, and supplies footnotes for all those areas where Flashman’s recollections require confirmation that Fraser is not merely making this up.
What makes the series more than just historical adventures is the combination of Fraser’s creation of the grotesque Flashman, his making such an unreconstructed reprobate an actual likeable characters (female readers responding to Flashy’s attitude to women, especially the unpleasantly brutal elements of his very early career, may differ vehemently), and his attention to historical detail that enables him to insert Flashman into the most improbable of situations – most famously the Battle of the Little Big Horn, as we will see in due course.
Fraser has the ability to take us into these times, to experience them first hand. And not only can he capture the essence of the time, and clearly present details that go beyond anything we are taught in History, but he is a master of evocation. He can conjure up scenes that are both breath-taking and heart-touching, scenes that differ from Fraser’s own war experiences (in Burma) but which are inevitably drawn from his appreciation of military history.
The dozen packets of the Flashman Papers cover different times from Flashman’s expulsion from Rugby in 1839 to 1894 and nose-tweaking involvement with Sherlock Holmes. Most of Flashman’s career from 1839 to 1860 is covered in detail, with three periods of greater and lesser length excluded: after 1860, Flashman’s exploits are more fragmented, with widely separated adventures recorded in the Papers.
What Fraser also offers, throughout the twelve books, are asides and recollection by Flashman from all points of his career, so we are able to trace a certain amount of his career in these gaps from references in other books: one such crops up many times in passing but was fated never to be explained in full because Fraser had no interest whatsoever in writing about Flashman’s adventures in the American Civil War, during which he fought for both sides.
So, as well as the books, there are the non-books to try to reconstruct. But for now, let’s go back to the very beginning of Flashman’s career, and see just how appropriate the word career is, in every sense.