Flashman Novels: Bawdy, Irreverent Romp Through the 19th Century

Published: 02nd March 2014 10:20 AM  |   Last Updated: 02nd March 2014 10:20 AM   |  A+A-

Deemed a military hero, Major General Sir Harry Paget Flashman's autobiographical accounts tell of his exploits in the First Afghan War, the Anglo-Sikh War, the 1857 "revolt" and military campaigns of Queen Victoria; of carrying out missions for Bismarck and Abraham Lincoln, and his presence in almost every significant event of the 19th century across five continents.

During the course of his colourful life, Flashman tangles up with slaves, pirates, Thugs and Red Indians, saves the Kohinoor diamond, causes the Charge of the Light Brigade, fights on both sides in the American Civil War, achieves the first hat-trick in cricket, and even encounters Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson... the last gives it away, doesn't it?

If you thought Flashman was a real person, you would be in august company. In 1969, when the first of the Flashman papers came out, a third of over 30 expert reviews studied by The New York Times thought so too, with some of them terming it the most important literary find since the Boswell Papers.

But to be fair to the general reader, the works are presented in such a manner that they can easily be taken in - the 12 volumes of the Flashman papers seek to chronicle real events and even have appendices seeking to clarify some points, as well as fairly exhaustive footnotes.

The character as well as the concept was the brainchild of George McDonald Fraser (1925-2008), a soldier, journalist, author and screenplay writer. Taking a minor character from "Tom Brown's Schooldays", McDonald Fraser - in a stunning interplay of fact and fiction - elevated him to the status of a most jaundiced and politically incorrect but very perceptive observer of the 19th century.

It was a hard feat to pull off - Flashman is the quintessential anti-hero. A self-admitted coward, cad, debauch as well as a bully/toady (depending on whom he is dealing with), the tall, well-built Flashman's main objective is to save his skin and enrich himself. His only skills are his talent for languages, his expert riding - and his mastery at seduction.

He is embroiled in his adventures most reluctantly - by blackmail, or to save being exposed (and the consequent social disgrace) or, more often, when his attempts to escape miscarry. He comes perilously close to being unmasked twice or thrice but luckily for him, the probable whistle-blowers don't survive.

Despite all this, the series was avidly read, being both critically acclaimed and commercially successful. The credit must go to Fraser, who skillfully creates the framing plot, insinuates Flashman in a crisis, provides a narrative with plenty of humour, sparkling dialogue, incisive pen-portaits of real characters, enough cliff-hanger moments to grab interest, and then finds a way to ensure Flashman survives with reputation intact or even enhanced.

What makes Flashman a delight to read is that he is himself not concerned with anyone's reputation, or the "higher purpose" of events and they come in for some quite caustic but witty appraisals.

In these pages, he meets Queen Victoria, the Rani of Jhansi, Maharani Jind Kaur and Maharaja Dhuleep Singh, Florence Nightingale, Lincoln, Bismarck, Ulysses Grant, and Gen. Custer (of Custer's Last Stand) to mention some prominent historical figures.

Along with what he thought of them, his views on the first British invasion of Afghanistan, the Sikh War, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Indian Mutiny, the destruction of the Summer Palace in then Peking, American attitudes towards slaves or Red Indians, are decidedly provocative.

Adding to the attraction are those whose exploits may seem highly inventive fiction but are the truth - James Brooke, the White Rajah of Sarawak, who fought piracy in the Malay Straits; Josiah Harlan, an American adventurer who served both Ranjit Singh and Afghanistan's Dost Mohammad and became prince of Ghor (when he unfurled the American flag on the Hindu Kush); and his contemporary and countryman Alexander Campbell Gardner, who had hair-raising adventures in Central Asia and Afghanistan before serving (as Gordana Khan) Ranjit Singh and his heirs.

The 12 installment of the papers (in chronological order) are "Flashman" (Britain/Afghanistan), "Flashman's Lady" (Britain/Borneo/Madagascar), "Flashman and the Mountain of Light" (the Punjab), "Royal Flash" (Europe), "Flash for Freedom" (Britain/West Africa/America), "Flashman and the Redskins (part I)" (America), "Flashman at the Charge" (Crimea/Central Asia), "Flashman in the Great Game" (India in 1857), "Flashman and the Angel of the Lord" (South Africa/America), "Flashman and the Dragon" (China), "Flashman on the March" (Ethiopia), "Flashman and the Redskins (part II)" (America) and "Flashman and the Tiger" (stories). They appeared between 1969 and 2005.

The next Flashman paper was to see him either in Australia (the only continent which he had not visited yet) or shed light on his activities in the American Civil War - hinted at in several of the books but only known to him and President Lincoln. McDonald Fraser's death in 2008, however, ensured we will never come to know what exactly happened or how the chronicles of this most unlikely "hero" finally end.

(Vikas Datta is Senior Assistant Editor at IANS. Views expressed are personal. He can be reached at vikas.d@ians.in)

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