After stalling for many unconscionable years, I have finally begun to read the late George MacDonald Fraser’s twelve-volume Flashman Papers, starting with the eponymous first book. A veteran of the British and Indian armies and an ex-newspaperman, Fraser (1925–2008) disguised Flashman: From the Flashman Papers, 1839–1842 as a genuine literary find, the unpublished manuscript of a British officer’s autobiography “discovered during a sale of household furniture at Ashby, Leicestershire, in 1965.”
Such things do exist. By coincidence, Roger K. Miller reviewed last Tuesday what appears to be the long-lost memoir of an early nineteenth-century American sea captain named Charles Tyng—“a captivating memoir that was completed in 1878, a year before Tyng’s death,“ according to Miller, “and had been in his family ever since. His great-great-granddaughter, Susan Fels, brought it to the attention of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., which led to its publication with her as its editor.” That the provenance of Tyng’s memoir sounds so similar to Flashman’s is a testament to the success of Fraser’s pretense. The other evidence of its success is that I don’t believe for a moment that Tyng’s memoir is genuine.
When it was first published in 1969, Flashman gulled several reviewers. One said that, in historical value, the Flashman Papers “rank with Samuel Pepys’s Diary and the Boswell papers”; a classicist at Fairleigh Dickinson University swore they “bear the stamp of authenticity”; an English professor in Pennsylvania described them as “the rarest of all manuscript-in-an-old-trunk discoveries.” The reviewers must have been taken in by the period flavor of Fraser’s style, a perfect mimicry of the “bluff and hearty” officer in Queen Victoria’s army, because many of the incidents are far-fetched. Worse, as Fraser said of Kipling, “He is not, admittedly, a comfortable writer to consider in an age when so many of the themes and values of which he wrote are being called into question.”
Here, for example, is the young Harry Flashman, having been expelled from Rugby for drunkenness and turned down for a second romp between the sheets with his father’s “tart,” Judy Parsons. When he refuses to leave her room, she chucks a dish at him, causing him to lose control of himself:
To begin with, Fraser sets out to rewrite a Victorian literary classic from the other end of the moral bar. The original Flashman was the bully in Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857), the pioneer of the English school novel and a sermon in fictional form that preaches the character and virtues that will, as Tom’s father says, “turn out a brave, helpful, truth-telling Englishman, and a gentleman, and a Christian.” Flashman represents their opposite in every way. An upperclassman, big and strong for a seventeen-year-old, he gets his kicks out of hurting and tyrannizing the smaller boys, even “roasting” Tom over an open fire. “[B]y dint of his command of money, and the constant supply of good things which he kept up, and his adroit toadyism,” Hughes writes, “he had managed to make himself not only tolerated, but rather popular among his contemporaries.” One night, though, he becomes “beastly drunk,” and Thomas Arnold, Rugby’s headmaster and the poet’s father, “who had long had his eye on Flashman, arranged for his withdrawal next morning.”
Candidly describing himself as a “bully and poltroon, cad and turncoat, lecher and toady,” Flashman sets out his own purpose in writing a multivolume autobiography, saying early in the first book that he intends “to show how the Flashman of Tom Brown became the glorious Flashman with four inches in Who’s Who and grew markedly worse in the process. . . .” Fraser’s conceit, that is, is that Rugby’s failure turns out to be England’s success, while “Arnold’s sturdy fools, manly little chaps, of course, and full of virtue,” come to untimely and ignominious ends, dying in the dust on distant battlefields; and that was all their “gallant goodness” did for them.
Even the best critics have been misled by Flashman’s bluff. Brian Glanville, the author of nineteen novels, explained that Flashman is an “antihero” who is “back-projected into an age in which the concept of heroes, maudlin and simpleminded though it might be, was still vigorously alive.” Thomas Flanagan, author of the well-regarded historical novel The Year of the French, characterized Fraser as a “revisionist,” holding that the Flashman Papers present “the cad’s-eye view of war and conduct.”
Neither opinion is anywhere near the target. That Fraser was hardly a revisionist, and that he did not find the concept of heroes maudlin and simpleminded, was made clear when he reviewed a biography of David Livingstone in 1971:
In the Flashman Papers, Fraser seeks to rehabilitate the heroic mode in English fiction, but he knows that he cannot do so unironically, because moderns prefer debunking heroes to building them up. His ingenious strategy is to reestablish it by inversion and misdirection, proving some men and women to be the opposite of an “antihero,” contrasting their heroism to the scoundrel, liar, cheat, thief, and coward who thinks only of tearing them down. By puncturing their smug self-righteousness and their pretense to impossibly high standards, Flashman shows them as genuinely great men and women, not the panegyrical statuary of Victorian literature—and he shows them as such by describing their response to him.
Consider, for example, how Judy behaves after Flashman thrashes her:
So far in my reading—I could end up being wrong, mind you, but I am pretty confident that I have learned Fraser’s secret—every person whom Flashman believes he has got the better of is ennobled and even made heroic by comparison. Fraser may have believed in heroism, Victorian virtue, and gallant goodness, but he also knew his own age, and knew that it would never accept a sermon on their behalf. And so he asked the devil to write it instead, and in the form of gripping adventure.
Update: It is interesting to set George MacDonald Fraser and Patrick O’Brian side by side. The Aubrey-Maturin series was inaugurated the very same year as the Flashman Papers; Master and Commander was also published in 1969. (O’Brian’s multivolume project eventually outstripped Fraser’s, reaching twenty books plus the The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey.) Both Fraser and O’Brian were scrupulous historical researchers, who cinched their stories with exact and telling period details. And both were dedicated to a restoration of the heroic. O’Brian sought to do so directly, however, making Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin admirable and exemplary figures. And he gathered an extensive audience, but I was unable to finish the second volume in the series, Post Captain (1972). Fraser’s strategy is, at least for my money, the more appealing and successful.