I’ve been complaining for the last few years that most of my favorite writers are octogenarian Englishmen and soon enough, they are either going to drop dead or just stop writing. This includes George MacDonald Fraser (83), John Mortimer (85), John Le Carre (86), John Fowles (82) and Frederick Forsythe (the youngster, 70).
So, I was not really surprised, but definitely saddened, when I saw that I won’t be writing my long planned letter of appreciation to George MacDonald Fraser to tell him how much his Flashman books have meant to me. He died in January, 2008. Just to be sure, I checked on the rest and Fowles died in 2005. But, I wasn’t expecting anything new from him anyway. He may have been the more acclaimed writer among high brows, but, for pure entertainment, he was no Fraser either.
So, no more Flashman books. And I would become a praying man if I knew it would keep whoever owns the rights to his signature series, Flashman, from allowing anyone else to write more in the manner of those horrid James Bond books that still come out decades after Ian Fleming died. Fraser may or may not have taken care of this in his will. He was so upset at the butchery Hollywood made of their one attempt starring Roddy MacDowell that he would not allow any more books to be made movies unless he had complete control, something writers just don’t get much opportunity for in Hollywood unless their name is George Lucas.
For those of you who don’t know who Flashman is, he is the “hero” of a 12 volume fictional memoir of a purported British hero in the Victorian age, who was actually, unbeknownst to an adoring public, every bit the sniveling coward and rogue. Of course, we wouldn’t have liked him so much if he didn’t have his good points too, but they are often hard to see for his uncouth villainy.
The character of Flashman is actually borrowed from Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes, a 19th century tale about life at a famous British prep school. Flashman there was a bully who was thrown out for his bad behavior. Fraser’s Flashman even meets Tom Hughes a couple of times in his life, and, not surprisingly, despises the do-gooder.
Simply put, the Flashman books were the funniest novels I’ve ever read. They were the best action books I’ve ever read. And they were the best historical fiction I’ve ever read, and, yes, I’m including Gore Vidal. No other author I have ever read gave his historical characters such vigorous life, at once recognizable and unique.
Over the years I have lent the first novel, Flashman, to many a friend. I have yet to have a male reader not at least like it a whole lot. There may be someone who didn’t rave about it, but if so, I can’t remember him. Two friends, before they even finished it, went out and bought all of the series (and one of them also bought an entire set for me – see what I mean). How often does something like that happen? I didn’t know exactly know what to say to the couple of women who read the book and were offended by Flashman’s misogynist character. I did try and explain that the author was making fun of Flashman, but to no avail. Here's my remedy. I don't lend it to women anymore. It's a boy book, whether you believe in such things or not.
I will miss Harry Flashman, the most unfaithful man ever to marry (under threat of death mind you), the biggest coward ever to face another man on horse back or with swords or pistols and repeatedly come out on top by sheer accident or duplicity. In doing so, he also managed to always look every part the hero. He was the most timid spy ever to play the great game, the most knee knocking soldier ever to cross into enemy territory, yet also the most arrogant bully ever to kick a servant down the stairs or torment a classmate. He was a rapist (yes), a killer (yes), a savage (yes), a racist (yes), etc. Somehow, though, and I still am amazed how Fraser pulls it off, it is always funny, and you actually root for this bastard to win.
Flashman was married to young Elspeth Morrison after having his way with her, an uneducated young girl with a wandering eye and a really tough uncle who was not at all impressed with Flashman's (completely undeserved) martial qualities. Throughout the years with her Flashman never knew, nor do we, whether she was also rolling around on the sheets with other gentlemen while he was off fighting the Queen’s battles or working on a slave ship, fighting Indians or pirates of the South Pacific or re-working The Prisoner of Zenda with Bismarck or somehow surviving the massacre at Little Big Horn.
What could Flashy do well? He was an expert horseman and he could speak many different languages, which he picked up vacuum like. Although afraid to fight anyone with any size or ability, he was actually a pretty good swordsman and one hell of a cricket bowler. He was irresistible to women. He could lie his way out of any situation, aided by the fact that when he was frightened, his reddened cheeks made him look like a big formidable fellow and thus credible. Unfortunately for him, his language abilities, his respectable birth and his gallant reputation led to him being repeatedly called upon by the powers that be to fight or spy for Queen and country. As Flashy puts it himself, it is “as fine a record of knavery, cowardice and fleeing . . .”.
Flashman’s abilities have always led me to believe that he was based, at least in part, on the seemingly legendary but real British explorer/scholar/writer/swordman Sir Richard Francis Burton, who could also speak many languages, actually passed himself off as an Afghani native, which allowed him to sneak into Mecca during Ramadan, and was probably, although hard to say for sure, one of the world’s great swordsmen. Just as Flashy was expelled from Rugby, Burton was expelled from Oxford in real life. I was going to ask Fraser about this in my letter, but I moved too slowly. Guess I'll have to wait until the big reunion in the sky. Of course, Burton will be there too, so I'll find out what he thought about him.
Ah, Flashy, accidentally leading the doomed charge of the light brigade at Balaclava due to a crazed horse while he sobs and tries to contain his simmering bowels, surviving the doomed march out of Afghanistan, tied to the front of a cannon by his own compatriots who took him for a native after the Indian Mutiny, fighting alongside Chinese George Gordon and that masterly pirate killer, Sir James Brooke, aka, the white rajah, working for a crazed slave trader and then escaping North with one of the slaves himself. These are just a few of the adventures he found himself in. As Flashy puts it, and unfortunately I have to paraphrase, because I can't find it – The Lord works in mysterious ways, but why does he always have to drag me along with him?
And always, to paraphrase a Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he not only survived, but prevailed. Whenever facing imminent death he was rescued by a lover, or a truly noble soul, or by dumb luck. Tied up and facing an angry knife bearing Afghani woman he had raped (I’m almost embarrassed to say for Flashy that he didn’t think what he did qualified, but he was a brute) he narrowly escapes. Chased by gaining wolves across the snow in a sled, a scene that left me breathless, he barely slips into town and safety.
What women didn’t Harry sleep with? It would be a short list, but you can put Queen Victoria and Mary Lincoln on it. There was the famous mistress, Lola Montes, and scored with Madagascar’s mad Queen Ranavalona and he even nailed the Dowager Empress of China (although when she was a lot younger than you are thinking). That’s just the biggest names. James Bond was a piker compared to Ole Flashy who must have run out of room on his bed posts by the time he was thirty.
Fraser knew his history and laced it throughout the books with ample footnotes explaining how Harry’s memoirs were right about this, or mistaken about that, lending it an air of authenticity as if you were reading history from someone who was actually there. Among the many memorable characters we greet along the way are Lord Cardigan, Bismarck, Lola Montez, Franz Liszt, Wagner, Karl Marx, John Brown, mountain men Kit Carson, Jim Bridger and Tom Fitzpatrick,, Allen Pinkerton (the detective), the Duke of Wellington, William Seward, Gladstone, Disraeli and Palmerston, Oscar Wilde, Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, Lee and Grant, J.E.B. Stuart and Jefferson Davis, Generals Sheridan and Sherman, Richard Burton, Custer, Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill Cody, James Buchanan, Lincoln, John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Sitting Bull, Mangas Colorado and Geronimo. And, of course, that’s just the ones who are still famous. With all the name dropping (and Flashy tells us he is fond of it) you never feel it is gratuitous. There were literally hundreds of historical characters sprinkled through the 12 volumes.
But unlike most historical fiction, the author plays fair. He creates aspects of the historical figures and conversations that never happened, and sometimes has to play around with the timeline a little, but he tells you so in the editor’s footnotes, which for once in a novel, are as interesting as the book.
Take the President Lincoln. He is like no other fictional or biographical Lincoln you have ever met. There is something in his honesty and flawed character that makes him so much more real than Gore Vidal’s celebrated version. Yes, I said it. A comic novel had a better Lincoln than Vidal's. Too bad.
Of course, as we all know, historical fiction can be deadly dull, but in Fraser’s hands it is pure excitement, always personal, dramatic and riveting. For those of you who think I might be gilding the lily a little bit, let me add this. Although Flashman was started in the 60s, you can still find the entire series in most decent sized bookstores in America, never mind Britain where he is much more famous. In 1999 the Queen knighted him. There is a large Royal Flashman Society with chapters outside of the United Kingdom in Dixie (a little broad, but down South), Australia, Texas, the Pacific Northwest, New Orleans, North Carolina, Hawaii, Southern California, Superior California, Ottawa, Upper Canada, and to my great delight, Roanoke, Virginia (which, unfortunately for me, is in hiatus for a “suitable period of mourning”). How many modern fictional characters get that? Now, I did find a James Bond Society online, but apparently, there are 11 members.
Many have tried to take a shot at their own Flashman characters including the authors of Fenwick Travers, Yellowstone Kelly, Ciaphas Cain, the Peshawar Lancers and a comic book character, Captain Boomerang. I had to look these up because they are not well known, none having succeeded. Like the Bond or Holmes icons, you can copy the British/Scottish orinals all you want, and call them whatever you like. A spin off is a spin off and so rarely can equal the real thing.
Even without Flashman, Fraser would have been a wonderful writer. His three volume series on a Scottish Highland regiment during WWII featuring, among other things, the world’s dirtiest soldier (Private McCauslan) is a fictional memoir of Fraser’s own WWII service in Burma. For the real thing or almost the real thing , try his celebrated memoir (although he fictionalized the conversations and admits his memory has failed him), Quartered Safe Out here. I have to admit though, despite the great reviews, it is the only thing Fraser ever wrote I didn’t absolutely love.
Pyrates, Candlemass Road (one of my favorite unknown books), Black Ajax (fictionalizing a great boxing match between a black American fighter and the British champ, and even featuring Flashman’s own father) and Mr. American (an American gunfighter meets British royalty and a very old Flashman) are all stand out novels. I don’t think he ever wrote a boring page in all of them put together.
Fraser also scored with Hollywood screenplays like Octopussy, two Three Musketeer movies, Superman (I’m not sure if he wrote the screenplay or doctored it), Force 10 from Navarone and Red Sonja, among others. I believe he was working on a Flashman movie project at the time of his death.
He also wrote The Steel Bonnets, an account of the Scottish-English border wars which I didn’t put down until I finished it (fortunately, I was on an airplane and didn't have anything else to do), The Light’s on at Sign Post and a History of the World according to Hollywood, both non-fiction essays about Hollywood I haven’t gotten to yet. Just recently published was his Reavers, which Publisher Weekly’s review calls “a 16th-century tale of swordplay and gleefully anachronistic wordplay along the Scottish borderlands” and “hysterical”. Can’t wait.
I want to do something no other tribute to him that I can find about him has done and quote a little directly from the Flashman books themselves. Naturally, these selections are out of context, so I don’t expect you to be blown away, but I include them just for flavor.
Here’s Fraser’s Lincoln, who I’ve already raved about. Flashy met him before and after he became president, and here he saves Flashy’s bacon in Flash for Freedom as Flashy escapes into the free state of Illinois with a runaway. Facing down a ruffian slave catcher named Buck who won’t listen to Lawyer Lincoln’s legalistic argument, the big native of Kentucky reverts to the tough country boy he was:
“You hold your gab and stand aside, mister,” shouts Buck. “Now, I’m warnin’ you fair!”
And I’m warning you, Buck!” Lincoln’s voice was suddenly sharp. “Oh, I know you, I reckon. You’re a real hard-barked Kentucky boy, own brother to the small-pox, weaned on snake juice and grizzly hide, aren’t you? You’ve killed more niggers than the dysentery, and your grandma can lick any white man in Tennessee. You talk big, step high, and do what you please, and if any ‘legal beanpole’ in a store suit gets in your way you’ll cut him right down to size, won’t you just? He’s not a practical man, is he? But you are, Buck—when you’ve got your gang at your back! Yes, sir, you’re a practical man, all right.”
Buck was mouthing at him, red-faced and furious, but Lincoln went on in the same hard voice.
“So am I, Buck. And more—for the benefit of any shirt-tail chawbacon with a big mouth, I’m a who’s-yar boy from Indiana myself, and I’ve put down better men than you just by spitting teeth at them. If you doubt it, come ahead! You want these people—you’re going to take them?” He gestured towards Cassy. “All right, Buck—you try it. Just—try it.”
This next excerpt is from my favorite Flashy tale, Flashman at the Charge, the third in the series, from which I might take dozens of examples. This is a perfect example of what Fraser does. After taking us through the hair raising, heart pumping charge of the Light Brigade as if we were there at Balaclava with them, for which Flashy was the least willing of participants, and his mocking of the British officers who brought the travesty about, he is now in captivity facing a Russian officer dumbstruck at what he believes must be courage in a bottle. Flashy, recovering from his usual state of terror with which he usually meets enemies, manages to exult in Britain’s military traditions with stereotypical British understatement and bravado, while acknowledging to us with a wink his own undeserving cowardly manipulation. No wonder the Brits love him. I feel like hoisting the Union Jack just reading this:
“Now, I didn’t know, at that time, precisely what we had done. I guessed we must have lost three-quarters of the Light Brigade, by a hideous mistake, but I couldn’t know that I’d just taken part in the most famous cavalry action ever fought, one that was to sound round the world, and that even eye-witnesses could scarcely believe. The Russians were amazed; it seemed to them we must have been drunk, or drugged, or mad—they weren’t to guess that it had been a ghastly accident. And I wasn’t going to enlighten them. So I said:
‘Ah, well, you know, it was just to teach you fellows to keep your distance.’
At this they exclaimed, and shook their heads and swore, and Liprandi looked bewildered, and kept muttering ‘Five hundred sabres! To what End?’, And they crowded round, plying me with questions—all very friendly, mind, so that I began to get my bounce back, and played it off as though it were just another day’s work. What they couldn’t fathom was how we’d held together all the way to guns, and hadn’t broken or turned back, even with four saddles empty out of five so I just told ‘em, ‘We’re British calvary,’ simple as that, and looked them in the eye. It was true, too, even if no one had less right to say it than I.”
Don’t worry. Ole Flashy finds himself right back in the fire pan. You need only turn the page.
As bad a man as he is, there is something about him that makes you understand why the women swooned and the men revered him. Even though a phony par none, he seemed to always know what was important (demonstrated by running away from it as fast as he could) and he recognizes (but reviles) true heroism in others. Yet, how could such a wimp (he often cries at the first sign of trouble) come out on top time and time again? There must be more to him than meets the eye. When he miraculously strikes out three of Britain’s best cricket players in a row or accidentally survives enough massacres to make a cat jealous, you start to think – he may just be a little more accomplished than he lets on.
But, it also may be this. However he may have lied and cheated his way through life (never mind some heinous and many lesser crimes) and garnered his fame through better men’s efforts, he is entirely honest and therefore humble with us, much more so than any real man could be, and reading his "memoirs" is the only way we get to know him.
With the real famous men and women in the world always changing their history to make themselves look better, our imaginary Flashy can afford to stuff it all and exposes his quaking heart as if doing so were his guiding light. As for those other haughty and undeserving celebrities who enter his world, Flashy repeatedly takes down their drawers and spanks them.
If you can't read them all try Flashman and Flashman at the Charge then Flash For Freedom, Flashman and the Indians, Flashman and the Great Game and Flashman's Lady.
In the last thirty years I’ve tired of many of my favorite movies, music and even some books. But not Flashman. Never good ole Flashy. It would be like being tired of the whole 19th century. You take with you a great creation, but have left behind his story, more real to me than a whole stack of biographies about eminent Victorians.