Review by David Flin
Illustration for George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman.
Picture courtesy Gino d'Achille.
One of the constant debates that goes around is whether the views and attitudes of the author should affect the enjoyment of a book that author wrote. The Flashman series exemplifies that. Brilliantly written (although not without major flaws, as I shall note in due course) by an author whose views were utterly reprehensible to anyone who has a trace of decency.
I’m going to try to and summarise the personality issues briefly, as that’s not the focus of this review.
I shall do so with two quotes from his memoir The Light’s on at Signpost, published in 2002.
The first references his views on the British Government and Society in general.
“Who would have believed, fifty years ago... that we would have a government... encouraging sexual perversion by lowering the age of consent and drug abuse by relaxing the law on cannabis... falling over themselves to destroy our institutions simply because they are afraid of hostile aliens, seeking to deny the right of habeus corpus, pandering to the bigotry of black racists and encouraging racial strife by their timid stupidity, letting foreign interests wreck our farming and fishing industries, and allowing the children of those wonderful people who gave us Belsen and Dachau a vital say in making our law and undermining our constitution.”
The second quote is referring to Europe, with specific reference to the EU.
“...whose polities have shown themselves to inferior to ours (Britain’s) at any time in the past millennium. Consider how willingly they accept dictatorship, whether of Louis XIV or Napoleon or Hitler or Mussolini or Franco, and compare their pathetic record with ours, who tolerated even such an enlightened despot as Cromwell for a bare decade. Europe is simply not fit to have any say in British affairs, and if one recalls Kipling’s line about ‘lesser breeds’ it is not a racist slur but a simple truth...”
One may choose to give Kipling some leeway; he was writing in 1897 and such views were not uncommon. MacDonald Fraser was writing in 2002, and has no such excuse.
Beyond that, I’ve leave those thumbnails of the sort of person MacDonald Fraser to stand without comment. This article is to look at the Flashman series.
The series consist of 12 books, of which one, Flashman and the Tiger, consists of three short stories. In publication order, the books are:
Flashman (1839-1842: First Afghan War).
Royal Flash. (1842-1843 and 1847-1848: Send-up of Prisoner of Zenda).
Flash for Freedom (1848-1849: the Slave Trade).
Flashman at the Charge (1854-1855: Crimean War).
Flashman in the Great Game (1856-1858: Indian Mutiny).
Flashman’s Lady (1842-1845: Borneo)
Flashman and the Redskins (1849-1850 and 1875-1876: American West).
Flashman and the Dragon (1860: Burning of the Summer Palace)
Flashman and the Mountain of Light (1845-1846: First Sikh War)
Flashman and the Angel of the Lord (1858-1859: John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry)
Flashman and the Tiger (1878-1894: three short stories)
Flashman on the March (1867-1868: Abyssinian War).
This is a series I have very mixed feelings about. Apologies in advance if this review is somewhat mixed and confused; I’m mixed and confused about it.
The books are well-written and give an evocative picture of the early- and mid-Victorian era. We get some wonderful descriptions and some excellent examples of worldbuilding. The series is very informative about the eccentrics and the odd events. No-one writing straight fiction would dare invent something like the First Afghan War. The copious use of footnotes make for fascinating reading, and the series gives a vivid viewpoint of the British Empire in this period.
And yet many readers assume that the Flashman character is an anti-hero or a lovable rogue or a scoundrel. He’s not. He’s a villain, impure and anything but simple. A rapist (the character and author claim “only” once; but I count at least four. Dozens if you include those who weren’t in a position to refuse), a murderer out of petty spite, a sadist who enjoys torturing others, a betrayer, a coward... From my viewpoint, the character has literally no redeeming qualities.
And yet through these eyes we get a clear picture what Empire meant, and that the best one can say about the British Empire was that it was, on the whole, overall, not as bad as things like the Belgian Congo or German Southwest Africa. Which is a pretty low bar to clear.
Still from the Flashman film, with Roddy McDowell doing deeds of daring by accident.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
And yet the author is clearly of the view that the British Empire was pretty much entirely a force for good and that the concept of native people governing themselves was ridiculous.
I could go on like this all day. However, one thing that strikes me hard from the series is not the racism or imperialism, but the classism.
The viewpoint we get is entirely from the upper class. Everything is seen from the top looking down. Those from the lower classes we meet are soldiers, servants, and prostitutes. Even when Flashman is undercover as a soldier or servant, usually among Indians of that class, we only ever get his interactions with the upper classes and rarely anything with his peers in that role. The big exception to this is when he is in his role as Makarram Khan in Flashman and the Great Game, where he observes and remarks on the sepoys.
Whenever GMF describes characters from the lower social classes, they are flat and uninteresting. Calling them one-dimensional caricatures is an insult to one-dimensional caricatures.
To take an example of the complete poverty of portrayal of the Lower Classes, this speech from a Troop Sergeant Major taken prisoner after the Charge of the Light Brigade in Flashman at the Charge:
“You’re bein’ treated proper yourself, sir, if I may make so bold? That’s good, that is: I’m glad to ‘ear that. You’ll be gettin’ exchanged, I reckon? No – well blow me! Who’d ha’ thought that? I reckon they doesn’t want to let you go, though – why, when we ‘eard t’other day as you’d been took, old Dick there, ‘e says: ‘That’s good noos for the Ruskis, ole Flashy’s worth a squadron any day,’ beggin’ yer pardon, sir.”
I’m sorry, this is nonsense of the first order. GMF had been a soldier. He would know how a sergeant major talks to an officer in front of other ranks, and it’s never like that; this is just painful servility.
Kipling phrased it best:
“But the Backbone of the Army is the Non-commissioned man.”
Kipling knew it. GMF knew it. What’s more, Flashman knew it; he references it back in Flashman.
It runs throughout the series. All prostitutes are elegant and enjoy their work, even the slaves who had no choice in the matter; all Other Rank soldiers are variations on the Cheerful Cockney Sparrow (accents may vary); all tradesmen are careful with cash and will cheat their customers with shoddy work; all female domestics have a saucy eye, a wanton look, and are happy to grapple with the protagonist at any moment.
It’s complete and unmitigated nonsense by an author who hasn’t bothered about the Lower Orders. To be fair, this is exactly how Flashman would view things. Others, such as Harold McMillan, freely admit that prior to WWI and the enforced mixing between social classes in the trenches, he’d never actually interacted with the Working Class or seen them as being fully human.
It may be how Flashman would have viewed things, but it does result in the Flashman series being very Downton Abbey-esque in that literally everything is viewed through the framework of the Upper Class. The working and serving class only exist in so far as they serve the Upper Class. As far as the Flashman series goes, the Lower Order consists solely of interchangeable non-entities.
And yet the first half dozen or so books in the series are unquestionably good fun. They’re well-paced, evocative, full of interest, shining a light into new areas. They are, quite simply, brilliantly written.
Then there are the latter books, those that come after Flashman and the Redskins. In these, the formula becomes more apparent, the authorial voice dominates over the character and the setting, and the grotesque is introduced simply for the sake of it. I very much get the impression that in these later books, GMF was no longer writing for fun, but was going through the motions and prosletysing his own views. The last book, Flashman on the March, is especially bad for this. I get the impression that by now, GMF simply didn’t care, and it shows.
The execrable Flashman on the March
Image from Amazon India, where the book is available.
The series is unquestionably well-written. GMF was an excellent writer: his history of the Anglo-Scottish borderers, Steel Bonnets, is one of the most readable history books I have comes across. His memoirs of his experiences in WW2, Quartered Safe Out Here, is brilliant. His historical fiction Mr American (aside from the cameos by Flashman, whose inclusion was a jarring misjudgement) is an excellent evocation of Edwardian England. His fictional comedy The Pyrates is a hilarious send-up of the pirate films of yore.
The man could write, and write well. For example, in Mr American, after the first days of the start of hostilities in the First World War, two wounded soldiers are in a train in England, talking with some civilians. One of the soldiers is asked if he thinks it will all be over by Christmas.
“It’ll be over for some.”
Five simple words, and with a profound depth of meaning in them, and a phrase that sticks in the brain. Great writing doesn’t need exotic words or complex structures.
So I remain with very mixed feelings about the Flashman series. I intend to leave the last word with another member of this forum, Liam Connell:
“That’s the curious place of Fraser; he’s utterly brilliant, but he was also a reactionary imperialist even when he started. That’s part of what gives the books their power – Flashman gives an often damning portrayal of the Empire, warts and all, and then you realise the author actually loves it anyway.”
I would also add in a huge slice of classism to the mix, but otherwise, that’s the conundrum in a nutshell.
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David Flin is editor of the anthology Ten Years Later, where all proceeds go to help rebuild Ukraine, the author of the AH series Building Jerusalem and Six East End Boys, and the owner of Sergeant Frosty Publications.