Friday, March 27, 2009

Introduction to Flashman

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Fraser (1925–2008) disguised Flashman: From the Flashman Papers, 1839–1842 as a genuine literary find, the unpublished manuscript of a British officer’s autobiography “discovered during a sale of household furniture at Ashby, Leicestershire, in 1965.”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:

“You bitch!” I shouted, and hit her across the face as hard as I could. She staggered, and I hit her again, and she went clean over the bed and on to the floor on the other side. I looked round for something to go after her with, a cane or a whip, for I was in a frenzy and would have cut her to bits if I could. But there wasn’t one handy, and by the time I had got round the bed to her it had flashed across my mind that the house was full of servants and my full reckoning with Miss Judy had better be postponed to another time.Although the Flashman Papers have earned widespread praise and a cult following, more recent readers have been less impressed. An Amazon reviewer declared, “I do not find the beating of women humorous or entertaining.” Now, this will be recognized as a familiar reaction. Fraser once said that the “most fatuous aberration of criticism” is what “allows appreciation of a man’s literary genius to be clouded by consideration of his political beliefs.” The second most fatuous is the insistence that a writer from an earlier age fall into step with current themes and values. And yet the beating of Judy is admittedly extreme, perhaps even verging upon the obscene. What is Fraser up to?

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:The game of “get the Victorians” becomes more popular all the time; one by one our grandparents’ heroes and heroines are going down before the debunkers. It isn’t very difficult, of course; any society which clothed itself in such smug self-righteousness, and made such a parade of its own virtue, is easy meat to a modern generation which seems to take a particular delight in destroying all legends except its own. The Victorians are especially vulnerable because, while they were as human as anyone else, they pretended to impossibly high standards.Fraser does not march alongside the debunkers. While Flashman himself may seem to derive a certain pleasure from debunking finer reputations, Fraser is playing an altogether different game. He hopes to rebuild those reputations.

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:She was crying—not sobbing, but with tears on her cheeks. She went over to her chair by the mirror, pretty unsteady, and sat down and looked at herself. I cursed her again, calling her the choicest names I could think of, but she worked at her cheek, which was red and bruised, with a hare’s foot, and paid no heed. She did not speak at all.As he leaves her room at last, he consoles himself with the reflection that “she would not forget Harry Flashman in a hurry.” My guess, though, is that anyone who reads the scene is less likely to forget Judy’s dignity, her deep wells of reserve in which she conceals the heart that Harry can never reach to break, than the brute who beats 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.


Jane said...

Thank-you for this insightful post. I've started reading the Flashman series, which I'm enjoying enormously, but not without some doubts. "Flash for Freedom" is particularly troublesome, even though nobody could doubt Fraser's loathing of slavery. I'd like to add to your comments that Fraser's admiration of heroism is not limited to the British, or even white male heroes: Yakub Beg and "The Silk One" in "Flashman at the Charge" are two examples.

Every novel of the 4 I've read so far has contained strong memorable female characters alongside the simpering ninnies who fall for Flashman's charms: Lola Montez, Fanny Duberly etc. The female heroes are beautifully drawn and usually represent Flashman's Nemesis in one way or another.

Dean said...

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Groggy Dundee said...

Really excellent post. I fell in love with the Flashman books in early 2009; I read the first volume in one sitting, and I've been hooked ever since. Having just come off Peter Hopkirk's The Great Game I was amazed at how close Fraser stuck to the historical record. And of course the books have plenty of other charms too. It's always nice to meet a Flashman fanatic.

Chicot leFou said...

Excellent posts all ! I was fortunate to be attracted to the 1st "Flashman " novel back in '69 by the excellent dust jacket painting by the late , great Arthur Barbosa . Reading the flyleaf piqued my interest , so I bought it ; not realizing that I was embarking on a 40 odd year journey of historical novel ( and comedy ) bliss . For insight into the Flashman series , I strongly advise fans to read Mr. Fraser's excellent ( and sadly overlooked )novel " Mr. American ". For once , we get to see the old reprobate through the eyes of another ( and unbiased )character , and it's fascinating . Flash has only 3 scenes in the novel ( which takes place in Britain shortly before the outbreak of WWI and Flashy's death ) but they are priceless . I once had the very pleasant and exciting opportunity to speak with Mr. Fraser for about 15 minutes and asked him if part of his intent was to show that heroism is not approaching danger without fear ( as Flash frequently points out such people , Custer for one , are a bit mad ) , but doing what one must to survive despite fear . Mr. Fraser didn't directly answer but said that he'd never known a soldier whose main goal ( at least 99 % of the time ) wasn't simply surviving . Every combat soldier I've met has told me the same ; it wasn't about the cause or love of country ; they just wanted to get thru it more or less intact and get home . Certainly , much of the character's behavior is appalling ( particularly his attitudes and behaviors toward women and virtually all non- English folk; though these are fairly representative of a late 19th century man of Flash's class and position ) but close reading reveals that on many occasions , the old cad did do some rather heroic things and , occasionally , some actions that weren't totally narcissistic. The fact that he reveals that he was terrified and worried exclusively about himself ( in his head ) at the time doesn't change that . At the beginning of the 1st novel , Sir Harry tells us that he will be unflinchingly honest and he is about himself . Much of the hilarious humor in the books comes from Flash's self excoriating admissions of his selfishness and in the way Fraser expressed them . Anyhow , read all of the man's books ( his personal WWII memoir , " Quartered Safe Out Here " is one of the best and most honest I've ever read ). Maybe part of Mr. Fraser's intent was to show us that there's a bit of Flashman in all of us .

Anonymous said...

I too discovered Flashman when the first book came out, and I've been a fan ever since. (I'm also a great admirer of the O'Brian Aubrey/Maturin series.)

The lead article and the comments pretty well capture what Fraser was about in the Flashman series, but I think the point is proven out even more by reference to my favorite Fraser series, the three novels collected in the omnibus tome, "The Complete McAuslan."

The McAuslan books are semi-autobiographical and detail Fraser's experiences in a Scottish Highlands regiment just after World War II.

In tone, the McAuslan books couldn't be further from the tone of the Flashman series. They are realistic and extremely humorous, but in a sweet and direct way, without any of Flashman's irony and sarcasm.

The point, though, is that in the McAuslan books, Fraser salutes virtue and heroism in a way that is every bit as direct as his "salute" is inverted and indirect in Flashman.

Fraser was a complex man, not without his flaws, but he was a great and deep writer. I'm so happy to have made the literary acquaintance.