Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Flashman Forever!

By Cornelia

Some years ago, in celebration of an online friend's birthday, I was asked to write up an author who has greatly influenced me. As I am finishing my copy edits today, I'd like to share my thoughts on that author with all of you.

At the time of the invitation to write this, thoughts of Ian Fleming, Hunter S. Thompson, and Maya Angelou enjoyed my fleeting consideration. Ditto Eldredge Cleaver, Nora Ephron, P.J. O'Rourke, and Winston Churchill, but in the end it was no contest: George MacDonald Fraser was hands down the author I wanted to be when I grow up--or rather I want to be Flashman, his most beloved and enduring creation.

Let me explain the profound manner in which I have been inspired by Fraser's most well known fictional creation: Harry Paget Flashman, Brigadier-General, VC, KCB, KCIE, Chevalier, Legion d'Honneur; US Medal of Honor; San Serafino Order of Purity and Truth, 4th Class, who has been referred to by no less than the Boston Review as "the most outrageous poltroon, liar, bully, blackguard, womanizer, and cad of his or any other age."

You can keep your James Bond, your Scarlet Pimpernel, your Musketeers, your Reilly, Ace of Spies... Flashy leaves 'em all in the dust. Of course, it's because he's running at full tilt away from any hint of danger that he manages to do so, but that's really the point.

Originally penned by Thomas Hughes in Tom Brown's School Days, Hughes' 1857 celebration of the English public school, Flashman was a notorious bully who, Tom Brown himself claimed, "never speaks to one without a kick or an oath."

Hughes went on to call Flashman "a formidable enemy for small boys. [He] left no slander unspoken, and no deed undone, which could in any way hurt his victims." But his sadism is matched only by his cowardice in the face of anyone bigger or stronger than himself, and ultimately he's expelled for getting "beastly drunk" and disappears, so far as Hughes is concerned, from the face of the earth.

But for the tender ministrations of Fraser, the great Flashy might thence have perished unheralded. Thank God it wasn't so, because the readers of the world have been blessed with splendidly ribald and cynical retellings of everything from the Charge of the Light Brigade to the manner in which Queen Victoria acquired the Koh-i-Noor diamond. As a raconteur, Flashman is matched only by Roald Dahl's "Uncle Oswald," and even he is a pale contender for the title.

Of his time at school Flashman says:

I was a miserable fag at Rugby, toadying my way up the school and trying to keep a whole skin in that infernal jungle -- you took your choice of emerging a physical wreck or a moral one, and I'm glad to say I never hesitated, which is why I'm the man I am today, what's left of me. I snivelled and bought my way to safety when I was a small boy, and bullied and tyrannised when I was a big one; how the devil I'm not in the House of Lords by now, I can't think.

Fraser "discovered" the Flashman Papers in a Leiscestershire saleroom in 1966. Acting as "editor," Fraser released the first packet of these papers as the novel Flashman in 1969. Published by Herbert Jenkins, which numbers among its authors P.G. Wodehouse, the series has spawned devoted fans worldwide. Nine more Flashman books were to follow.

There is a touch of Little Big Man to all of this: somehow Flashman, the most amoral coward who ever lived, was up close and personal for every major military engagement of the English-speaking peoples between the Khyber Pass in 1842 and Rorke's Drift in 1879.

The incredible career of Harry Flashman was neatly summarized by Andrew Klavan in his article "Flashman and The Tragic Sensibility":

He rode, farting with terror, in the charge of the Light Brigade, was the only white man to survive Custer's Last Stand... and fought on both sides of the American Civil War. Along the way, he also managed, through lies, luck, betrayal, and a deceptively manly aspect, not only to cover himself in glory, but also to roger every half-willing piece of tail he met, whether monarch or bint, with the (possible) exception of good queen Vic herself.

The man is my hero.

This is also the blackguard who, in Flashman at the Charge, throws a recent amorous conquest from his sled to gain speed while he is being pursued by wolves across Russia, commenting "For an instant even I was appalled -- but only for an instant."

He handles all crises in this same inimitable style: "Blustering hadn't helped me, and a look at Rudi's mocking face told me that whining wouldn't either. Robbed of the two cards that I normally play in a crisis, I was momentarily lost," he reports in Royal Flash. While in Flashman's Lady he complains "if there's one thing I detest more than any other it's these hearty, selfish, muscular Christians who are forever making light of your troubles when all you want to do is lie whimpering."

But Flashman is also an astute and incisive historian who manages to shed light on such characters as Lord Cardigan and General Elphinstone:

Only he could have permitted the First Afghan War and let it develop to such a ruinous defeat. It was not easy: he started with a good army, a secure position, some excellent officers, a disorganised enemy, and repeated opportunities to save the situation. But Elphy, with a touch of true genius, swept aside these obstacles with unerring precision, and out of order wrought complete chaos. We shall not, with luck, look upon his like again.

Coming, as I do, from a long line of military men, I have found in Flashman great reassurance. This because he is the embodiment of my own conviction that I would fold up like a wet house of cheap cards if gunfire were ever to come in my direction. Before making Sir Harry's acquaintance, this was a source of some embarassment to me, but now I take heart in his personal creed:

"That's what you young chaps have got to remember--" he advises, "when you run, run, full speed, with never a thought for anything else; don't look or listen or dither even for an instant; let terror have his way, for he's the best friend you've got."

Truer words were never spoken.

Which writer has most inspired you?


  1. Blustering and whining. My two favorite character traits.

    My votes for most influential go to: Vonnegut and Barbara Kingsolver. Fantasists both, but they opened different worlds.

  2. When I was in college I was fascinated by Hunter S. Thompson. As I got older and learned about people a little more he fell off my radar.

    As a writer, Elmore Leonard is my biggest influence. Not only reading all of his books, including the westerns, but in helping shape my prose.

    Dutch is the tops as far as I'm concerned.

    And Cornelia, I love Falshman as well. Eeven the tacky movie the Royal Flash with Malcolm McDowell.

  3. I'll buy you a beer at the next con if you can guess.

  4. I have been a Flashmaniac since 1970, since a friend of mine lent me his battered paperback copy of Flashman! (And Jim, the screenplay for the tacky movie was penned by Fraser himself--it was Richard Lester, usually a reliable director, who screwed things up, especially since he got the casting backwards: Alan Bates should have played Flashy, and Malcolm McDowell should have been Rudy.) A new instalment of the Flashman Papers will cause me to drop everything until it is devoured.

    Yes, George MacDonald Fraser is absolutely one of the main reasons I write historicals. Patrick O'Brian and C.S. Forester are right up there, too. My detective owes a more than a little to Arthur Conan Doyle. Isaac Asimov showed me how to plot a story. Certain smartass aspects of my writing are lifted from Raymond Chandler. But My Number One Guy, especially with regard to influencing my prose style and increasing my awareness of the power of language, was the science fiction author and fantasist Fritz Leiber, who in my view is the most under-appreciated American writer of all time.


    ...but you left out my favorite disgusting deed of Flashman's: that of taking Cleonie and selling her to a group of Indian braves strictly for the cash, in Flashman and the Redskins.

  6. Donald Barthelme.

    The fact that I came damnably close to studying under the late great Don B at UH (before his maddeningly ill-timed death in a small plane crash) is one of the few moments in my life to which I look with serious and heartfelt regret.

    Others I've read who've made me mumble "wow-- I really need to get better" include: The Big E (Hemingway), Dr Gonzo, and David Foster Wallace (king of the subreference).

  7. Sorry not to answer comments--Google just hornswoggled me into signing up for an account.

    Louise, I'm with you on Vonnegut. Haven't read Kingsolver but will on your recommendation.

    I am very pissed at F*x News on KV's account today. Again.

    Jim, my very first high-school term paper was about HST. My English teacher thought I'd made him up.

    Sandra, I think I know already....

    JLW, you are a man of excellent taste.

    Brett, I admit to never having read Barthelme either. I like Hemingway's journalism better than his fiction, mostly.

  8. I must have been living under a rock, because I've never heard of Flashman. In college I was reading Dostoyevsky and Joseph Conrad, but the writer that most influenced what I'm writing now is Susan Isaacs, especially her book "After All These Years," which is hilarious. Like Louise, I love Barbara Kingsolver. And John Irving is brilliant.

  9. Patty, I ADORE Susan Isaacs, and AFTER ALL THESE YEARS is my favorite of her books. She does Long Island better than anyone!

  10. Thomas Wolfe

  11. It's Vonnegut for me too - and I hadn't heard about the Fox News obit - just watched it and I can't say how ridiculous it was and p.o.'ed it makes me. He was one of the most wondrous humanists alive and a fantastic writer, which anyone would recognize if they had half a brain.

    Sheesh. Mark me disgusted even more than usual with Fox.

    And I've got to check out Flashman - how could I have missed him?

  12. Regina, Fox = ******** in triplicate.

    And I envy you having all of Flashman unread. It's sort of Victorian James Bond as played by Bill Murray.

  13. Cuz--


    I miss Don.

  14. It's sort of Victorian James Bond as played by Bill Murray.

    As a matter of fact, GMF wrote the screenplay to "Octopussy".

    His best screenplays, however, were for the Richard Lester "The Three Musketeers" (1973) and "The Four Musketeers: Milady's Revenge" (1974), starring Michael York as D'Artagnan, Oliver Reed as Athos, Frank Finlay as Porthos, Richard Chamberlain as Aramis, Faye Dunaway as Lady de Winter, Christopher Lee as Rochefort, and Charlton Heston as Cardinal Richelieu.

    Flashman's Christian name in Fraser's series--"Harry"--was invented by GMF. Thomas Hughes was silent on the issue in Tom Brown's School Days. I remember that in a British TV series based on Hughes, Flashman's first name was something entirely different. (He was played by British actor Richard Morant, who also portrayed Bunter to Edward Petherbridge's Lord Peter Wimsey.)

  15. I wasn't entirely crazy about Octopussy, but those musketeers movies were fine stuff.