And thus it begins: Flashman, aka The Flashman Papers 1839-1842, packet number one of the ‘dozen or so’ found in a chest of drawers at an auction in Ashby, Leicestershire in 1965, and entrusted to journalist George MacDonald Fraser to edit and prepare for publication.
The dated discovery links to Fraser’s original idea. A well-respected journalist, Deputy (and on occasion Acting) Editor of the Glasgow Herald, Fraser conceived of Harry Flashman in 1966, and wrote the book art home, in the evenings. Progress was interrupted by a broken arm, at which time Fraser gave up the idea, but was persuaded to resume work by his wife Kathleen, who thought that what he was doing was too good to abandon.
Having completed the novel, it took Fraser two years to sell it. It was first published in hardback by Barrie & Jenkins and was immediately popular. The book’s impact was astonishing for a first novel, not least in America, where no less than ten reviews mistook the story for genuine memoirs and presented it as non-fiction.
P.G. Wodehouse greeted it, in words still quoted on the last edition of the paperback, with “If ever there was a time when I felt that ‘watcher-of-the-skies-when-a-new-planet’ stuff, it was when I read the first Flashman.” Film Director Richard Lester bought the film rights, though he was never able to get the film made (he would bring Flashman to the screen in a 1975 adaptation of the second novel, with a screenplay by Fraser). This latter success enabled Fraser to retire from journalism and become a full-time writer.
It also enabled him to move his family to the Isle of Man, where he would pay less taxes.
In short, Flashman was an immediate and enormous success, and the foundation stone of a series that would expand to a total of twelve books (one of them a collection of short stories), and extend over thirty-seven years. But what’s it about?
As I’ve already described in the Introduction, Fraser’s notion is that the minor figure of Rugby School bully, Harry Flashman, goes on to be a tremendous success, earning a vast public reputation as a hero, a warrior, the incarnation of the Victorian soldier-hero, whilst still remaining the coward, bully, toady, lecher, rake and cad that he always was. Flashman would be a game, a balancing act between the public character that brought him fame, wealth, honour, attention, women, and the snivelling funk and frustrated attempts to stay out of harm’s way without anyone noticing that was the real man.
And in being at the heart of an almost impossible number of wars, battles and incidents for the next seventy years, Flashman would be an almost unfailingly accurate witness to the reality of the great century of Empire, and the perfect symbol of the tension between public history and private incompetence that those who still worship the Empire either choose to ignore, or else are completely ignorant of.
What Fraser does in the first book is to create Flashman for us as the voice that will lead us through these adventures. The meat of the story, dictated by the history Fraser is adapting, is going to be the latter part of the First Afghan War, but first Fraser takes his time over dropping his man into the first of a great many sticky situations.
The book begins directly upon Flashman’s expulsion from Rugby, with Flash at pains to refute Thomas Hughes’ description – at least to the extent that Flashman was the author of his own ill-fortune. Flashman then diverts into the purpose of these memoirs: that he will be open, candid and truthful about his life, since at his advanced age he no longer cares for maintaining the face he has put on for so long (and is fully aware that after all this time, no-one would believe him anyway).
It’s 1839, Harry Paget Flashman is seventeen and there are a couple of years to fill in before there’s a military engagement for him to tremble through. So, without clogging up the account with unnecessary – and dull – detail, Fraser moves his pieces into position.
Flashman wants a commission in the Army: indeed, he’s chosen a regiment, the 11th Hussars, as they become, under Lord Cardigan. Great uniform, great style, and only just posted back from India so not going into action any time soon. His father’s dubious about the notion but comes round to it quickly (Harry has bedded Judy, his father’s mistress, overnight, though he only gets to do that once, much to his chagrin and anger) and Buckley Flashman seems to have sniffed the wind.
So Flashman cuts a figure with the 11th, the Cherrypickers, receives Cardigan’s favour for his turn-out and his ‘gentleman’s background, lives high, happily and viciously as is his wont, to the extent of stealing a fellow officer’s French prostitute mistress. Unfortunately, being too naïve and bumptious to keep his mouth shut, Flashy finds himself forced into a duel – with the Cherrypickers’ crack shot.
Typically, he saves himself by having a toady, Bryant, palm the ball in the process of loading Bernier’s weapon, but his real fame erupts when he casually fires to one side and shoots the neck off a bottle! This has the counter-effect of the real reason for the duel coming out, so Flashman has to temporarily transfer to a regiment based in Glasgow. He’s billeted with the dull, Presbyterian family of miserly merchant John Morrison, whose third daughter, Elspeth, is a gloriously empty-headed blonde beauty.
Naturally, Flashman takes the first opportunity to seduce Elspeth, who proves to be an exceedingly willing partner, but also too dumb not to refer to it in ordinary conversation. So Flashman finds himself coerced into a shotgun wedding (or maybe a cavalryman’s sabre wedding). It’s not too bad in its own way: Flashman is not one to love, but he has a tremendous affection for his new wife, over and above her willing passion. But by marrying ‘trade’, Flashman has disgraced himself, at least as far as Cardigan is concerned. He must leave the 11th Hussars – Prince Albert’s regiment – and transfer permanently. And this must be to India.
It’s the last place Flashy wants to go, with years of separation from his young bride to boot. He conceives a lifelong hatred for Cardigan, which will work its way through other books, though crediting him with, in his own stupid way, wanting to do the best for Flashman. But his real hatred is for his father, who forces him to go to India by threatening to cut him off completely. It’s not the threat, but his father’s callous dismissal of the idea that Flashman has any true feelings for Elspeth that cuts deepest.
Fraser has this, gently, easily and naturally, moved Flashman to India. Once Harry is there, acting of course like an utter brute, flogging the n***ers (the language is that of the times, authentically), he cannot but resist toadying to those in authority, showing off his horsemanship, lacing prowess and – most crucial of all – his knowledge of the local language. The result is that he is seconded as an aide to General Elphinstone, on his way to take command of the Army in Afghanistan. And Flashman is sent off to Kabul, to be right in the middle of a lethal situation.
This preparatory work takes 86 pages of a 294 page book, but it covers two full years of the Packet. It’s a slower start than modern publishers would accept nowadays, and even once Flashman is through the famous Khyber Pass, the tension still has further to go until the disaster begins to fold. But remember that this book is both a drama and a comedy. This extended approach gives us ample opportunity to get to know Flashy and, despite our better instincts, to like him.
Yes, he’s quite simply a cold, callous, self-centred man, without conscience or concern for others. He’s capable of all manner of bad things without ever becoming dishonest in the face of the law. He’s a rake, a cad and a brute. When Judy won’t lower herself to him a second time, Flashman strikes her in his fury. Later in the book, he rapes a dancer, with terrible consequences for himself, though this is not something that gets repeated.
Yet Flashman has charm. He’s unfailingly honest with himself, and is possessed with substantial charm. His writing style is smooth, flowing, conversational, and he is never short of opinions about what goes on round him, and the people he meets. He doesn’t particularly like any of them especially those who, to one degree or another, are good and caring, but he understands and respects soldiering and those who are good at it, and what it is, even if he wants nothing at all to do with it.
And he’s a lecherous brute, who sees women – with the exception of Elspeth – in terms of their beddability and not much else. Not really your New Man.
To some extent, he’s also a wish-fulfilment figure, already, living out his impulses, indulging himself: not without a care for the consequences, but nevertheless without those consequences, ultimately. He might suffer for it, which is only right and proper, but he rebounds from it next to heedlessly, with the narcissist’s only true concern, his own amusement. Flashman is a manifestation of the uncontrolled Id: he does what he wants, which is tremendously appealing to almost everyone at some level, and he gets away with it. By Kabul, you may not approve of Flashman, or respect him, or necessarily like him, but you’re with him, involved with him, and you want him to escape punishment for the things he gets himself into, not because you don’t believe in just desserts, but because you want him to be able to go on to the next thing, and drag you along with him to watch in fascinated horror.
And because you recognise that you are dealing with things that are very close to the reality of what happened then, and you feel the effects, and you want to know more about what the history books don’t tell you. And the First Afghan War is a prime example of that.
In reality, Flashman is joining the war at a very late stage. How late it is, Fraser doesn’t explain because Flashman isn’t really interested in anything but how dangerous it is for him personally. In later books, Flashman and Fraser will give some pertinent background, but here it’s omitted. I had to look up myself that the War had started in 1839, by British invasion as a precautionary measure against the threat of Russian infiltration from Central Asia – the earliest stages of the ‘Great Game’ that would become more threatening throughout the century.
Instead, all we get is Flashy coming in with,and just ahead of the new Commander of that Army, General Elphinstone, who would command that army into ruin, devastation and destruction, through the incredible incompetence of an elderly, unwell, unfit and indecisive man who has to be one of the worst Army Commanders of the century.
Certainly, Fraser is scathing, indeed savage, about Elphy Bey, and not just him but the Politicals, ‘Sekunder’ Burnes and Macnaghten, with their stupid self-confidence and their wilful blindness to the facts. But whereas Flashy is contemptuous of Elphinstone for placing him, personally, in such danger, Fraser, the ex-soldier, the ex-officer, responsible for the men of his company, is furious at the leadership that condemned an Army to death, that wasted the lives of men who were just like those he had served alongside and commanded, in Burma, North Africa and Palestine.
I’m not going to detail those events: even the least military of minds will be shocked at the slow, purblind step towards devastation, so easily foreseeable, with opportunities to act on all sides, yet which inexorably ended up in massacre.
No, these books are Flashman’s story, and it’s more pertinent to focus on his part in this war, and how he gets his completely undeserved rewards.
Right from the start, Fraser establishes that Flashy is going to be everywhere that something happens. At first, this is done via his missions as an aide de camp, delivering messages etc., but then this bleeds over into the flashpoints.
Flashy escapes with Sekundar Barnes when his Residency is attacked by mobs, and is witness to the Resident overplaying his hand in native dress, and his arrogance bringing down the mob and their knives.
He’s captured by his enemy Gul Shah, but passes into the custody of the man behind the Afghan rising, Abdul Khan who uses him as a messenger to Macnaghten, to test his capacity for treachery. Needless to say, the Governor chooses to go with his desperate desire that his enemies be more stupid than him, and Flashy gets to be present when he too is hacked to death.
He’s there for the negotiations that lead to the British Army throwing away every last advantage it has, due to Elphinstone’s weakness, haplessness and an approach to choices against whom Hamlet would be the poster boy for the decisive.
Recognising a ship that’s sinking, Flashman utilises his competent subordinate, Sergeant Hudson, to set up a way out for him personally. Hudson’s the first, but not the last good soldier Flashman comes across, a natural soldier, a sergeant to his boots, competent, straightforward, brave and committed to his duty. Flashman sneers at him, but Fraser makes us see that beneath the contempt Flashy has for one who has fallen for all the old ideals, Hudson is the kind of man upon which Armies are made: without his competence, Flashman, young and very naive, would never get a foot clear.
Fraser’s very good on the atmosphere of the terrible dying retreat. When it gets beyond a certain point, Flashman cuts and runs, telling Hudson they’re on special orders from Elphinstone. Their flight brings them at one point into sight of the last cutting down of the Army, but it also sees them captured and Flashy back in the vengeful hands of Gul Shah.
But still he gets clear, thanks again to Hudson. But their flight comes to an end at Jullulabad, where General Sale’s Army are besieged. No access to Jullulabad, but the pair reach Pipe’s Fort, a small isolated fort in a strategic position, being defended by a diminishing garrison against capture by the Afghans.
Flashy’s gone. He’s completely and utterly broken and doesn’t care if anyone sees his utter cowardice. It’ll be his lowest point, born of inexperience and the utter conviction of inevitable death, relieving him of the final shred of responsibility to his reputation. Hudson finally sees him as he is, setting aside the doubts he’s loyally been trying to maintain. As the siege rolls on, Flashy cowers, until Hudson forces him into aiding the defence, right up to the final attack. The fort is breached. Flashy grabs the flag, trying to hand it over, to surrender.
But in the grand Flashman tradition, this isn’t invaders, it’s a relief force, and of course they take his actions as Flashman the warrior preserving the flag to the last extreme. Hudson, the only possible survivor of the defence who might have been believed, is dead, and Flashy has everyone’s goodwill is interpreting the facts to his credit. Out of everyone else’s goodwill, or at least their urge not to think a soldier could be such a poltroon, they read the events as they want to read them: that Flashy got himself up off his death bed, not his coward’s pit, to give his failing strength to the cause.
This is the template that Fraser established from the outset. Flashy’s reputation would grow and grow from book to book. No matter how disastrous his performance, or especially everybody else’s, his powers of dissemblement, his quick thinking and eye for an opportunity would see him come out with credit, but as much if not more of this would be this case of give a dog a good name. People would flock to Flashman’s reputation, and shield their own eyes from the dodgy moments. It would only get easier. And for his exploits in this opening volume, Flashman gets two great rewards on his return to England, as practically the only ‘hero’ in the whole thing: an extremely rare medal pinned to his chest by the young Queen Victoria – and a handshake of thanks from the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington.
Of course, there would always be those who would see through Flashy for what he really was. Some of them were rogues themselves, and some had roguery in them. Over the course of the next eleven books, we’ll meet a hell of a lot of them.
History and Memories
This little section will follow each blog. It will focus on those moments in each book where Flashman’s reminiscences touch upon periods of his career not directly related in The Flashman Papers, and those moments when Flashman’s memory lets him down and contradicts his ‘official’ record.
This being the first novel, Fraser stays primarily in the present, with only a couple of moments where he escapes from the immediate story to reflect on times lying ahead.
p.34 In discussing his opinions of Lord Cardigan and his character, Flashman recalls the aftermath of the Charge of the Light Brigade, the solemn roll-call beneath the Causeway Heights as the names of the Brigade are read out and the extent of the dead are slowly discovered, with Cardigan denying any responsibility. This is however a failure of foresight on Fraser’s part: by the time we come to the Crimea, in Flashman at the Charge, Flashy is captured by the Russians at the end of the Charge of the Light Brigade, and cannot be present at this moment. We would have known of it, indeed discussed it with others who were present, but he was not himself the witness he implies himself to be.
p.220. The only other instance in Flashman comes when he and Sergeant Hudson are in Gul Sha’s jail, and Flashman compares it, in passing, to other jails he’s known in his life: Mexico, Australia, America, Russia and England. It’s easy to place these as references to his experiences during Emperor Maximilian’s reign in Mexico, the American Civil War (where Flashy was imprisoned by both sides), the Australian Gold Rush, his capture after the Charge of the Light Brigade and any number of jailings at home for drunkenness etc. when young and irresponsible. Only the Crimean War experiences will be detailed.