Thursday, January 03, 2008

No More Flashman Novels

George McDonald Fraser has died. The Flashman novels filled a good part of my life many years ago, and did much to teach me the history of the British Empire (and more), as I had never been taught it in school.

Flashman was first published in 1969 and detailed the adult life of Harry Flashman, the bullying schoolboy of the 19th-century classic Tom Brown’s Schooldays. In the books, which included Flashman on the March, the anti-hero was a roguish soldier in the British Army.


Some readers and critics found Flashman’s 19th-century racism and sexism off-putting. But by the time the final Flashman book, Flashman on the March, appeared in 2005, the critical tide had turned in Fraser’s favour.

No doubt the first person narratives of such a scoundrel were a lot of fun to write, and with it the open expression of sexism and racism, but this was also an excellent device that allowed him to describe the historical situations in which the novels were set without having to yield to current relativistic orthodoxies. In 'Flashman and the Redskins' , the redskins are no pastoral sweethearts preserving the environment; they are as hair-raisingly frightening as they surely actually were in the context. Flashman's Geronimo is an utter psychotic, and very convincing. On the other hand, when Flashman waxes more poetically, as he does in a wonderful long passage reflecting on the soldiers fighting the Crimean War, his normal attitudes make these reflections more convincing, and they stand out as well.

Richard Bacon has some nice reflections on the value of the historical background in the novels.

Fraser recreates these scenes meticulously and you come away with a quite impressive historical knowledge. I read Royal Flash, the second in the series, as the Americans waged war in Afghanistan. A lot of the talk was about warlords and the different tribes — just as in the novel.

Flashman is like the James Bond of the original Ian Fleming novels — not the suave smoothie of the films but colder. He is a womaniser, calculating, not serving Queen and country but himself. He is not someone you like but you are intrigued by the way he gets away with it. It’s quite refreshing to read a book in which the main character has no redeeming features.

I had an experience a little like Bacon's when I was visiting China many years ago, accompanied by a Chinese friend. When we were in Nanjing, he began to tell me a story about a strange movement in China from the 15th Century led by someone who claimed to be Jesus' brother; I quickly recognized the Taiping Rebellion from a Flashman novel I had recently finished, and realized that on my trip I was following many of the paths that Flashman had in the novel. Moreover, my knowledge of the history from the novel was certainly more accurate (I knew it was a 19th Century event) and comprehensive than what the Communist government had decided to teach Chinese at the time my friend was being schooled.

Thank you, George McDonald Fraser.


At 8:54 AM, Blogger rondi adamson said...

I must admit I never enjoyed the books because of the way he wrote about women. It was quite a turn-off.


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