Fantasy & Beyond

A Book Forum for Speculative Fiction

Discuss SFF books and authors here.
By Elfy
If anyone reading this is aware of or read the Flashman series by George MacDonald Fraser you're probably thinking; 'hang on, that's not SFF', and you'd be one hundred percent correct. They're historical fiction. When I first began this I knew there were going to be years, especially late 60's and early 70's, that I would struggle to find SFF related works for them. 1969 is one such year. It's not that SFF, and good entries at that, weren't published, but I either haven't read them, or could not in all good conscience call them favourites.

Flashman is quite an interesting concept. George MacDonald Fraser didn't create the character. He first appears as the stereotypical bully in Thomas Hughes classic Tom Brown's Schooldays. In that, after making the lives of Brown and his friends a misery, Flashman gets horribly drunk and is expelled. That should have been the end of it, except for a Scottish journalist and aspiring novelist by the name of George MacDonald Fraser.

MacDonald Fraser was quite interested in the character and wondered what would happen to a wealthy and titled young man who has just been expelled from one of England's most prestigious boys schools. The answer was join the army.

With that idea in mind, and the timeframe fitting the height of the Victorian Empire, MacDonald Fraser set about making the character more than Hughe's two dimensional villain (he didn't even have a first name). MacDonald Fraser created a very detailed and believable Who's Who entry for Flashman, giving him all sorts of honours, including a Victoria Cross and a knighthood, he also had him eventually retiring from the service with one of the highest ranks in the British army, that of Brigadier General. The Who's Who entry also placed him at the centre of a great many conflicts of the 19th century, not always in the service of Queen and Country. For instance he participated in the American Civil War on both the Confederate and Union sides (unfortunately MacDonald Fraser never got around to writing the book that focused on those adventures, although they were often alluded to).

The conceit behind the books is that towards the end of his life (he died in 1915 in his early 90's) the old soldier decided to set the record straight about his extraordinary career, the memoirs were not discovered until well after his death and were published with the consent of his family. Largely due to the Who'e Who entry there were reviewers who thought that Flashman was a real person and the books were a historical account. This misconception may have been assisted by MacDonald Fraser's extensive and meticulous research, and that Flashman often associates with real historical figures. MacDonald Fraser went so far as to have Flashman make historical errors, which he would then correct in the indexes (they themselves make fascinating reading, and quite often prove that truth is stranger than fiction). The thing about Harry Flashman is that he didn't really change from his days as the head bully at Rugby. He was still a bully, a liar and a coward. He is one of the most perfect anti heroes I've ever seen, with only about three or four moments in eleven novels and one volume of shorter works, where he breaks this either by deed or thought. Despite this, he is thought of as a hero, because anyone who knows differently is either conveniently killed or discredited.

I first became aware of the character not from Tomw Brown's Schooldays or even the first book, but by the film that was made of the second book (Royal Flash), I didn't see the film until years after, and in my opinion, even though MacDonald Fraser was one of the scriptwriters, and that I suspect the book was written specifically to be adapted for the screen (it was the only one that was a pastiche of another classic The Prisoner of Zenda, and one that had been already successfully filmed on a number of occasions), it wasn't a very good adaptation. Partly due to the miscasting of Malcom McDowell as Flashman (Flashman is 6'2" and broad with dark hair and complexion), Malcolm McDowell isn't 6 foot tall, he's thin and he's a fair redhead. He was also clearly directed to play Harry as a bit of a weasel (which he is), but the whole secret to the character's success is that because he looks like a hero and acts like one people are willing to believe that he is one.

Later on I did see a couple of adaptations of Tom Brown's Schooldays (I'm probably rather unique in watching those that I'm actually barracking for Flashman against Brown) and eventually found a second hand copy of Flashman.

The first book begins with Harry's expulsion from Rugby, covers his early career in the army, his shotgun marriage (although Elspeth is one of the loves of of his life), posting to India and then as a diplomat to Afghanistan, which lands him the in the middle of the first Anglo Afghan war, puts his life in danger multiple times and his first recognition as a hero when he's the one surviving white officer in a besieged fort when relief finally arrives. He returns home to a heroes welcome and meets the Duke of Wellington, Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert. Queen Victoria appears occasionally in the books and is considered a friend of the Flashmans.

The book did cause a stir and was successful (enough that a film version of it was considered, John Alderton, who would have been ideal as a young Harry, was even sounded out about playing the character and mentions it in his autobiography). One of the odd things about Flashman was that it focused on what was for the British Empire a pretty embarrassing defeat (although Flashman credits that in part to his own success, because they were desperate to salvage anything good out of the situation, and 'The Lion of Kabul' made good press). This became a theme. The books do often show the British Empire in quite an unflattering light, especially pointing at the often incompetent and corrupt command.

Readers shouldn't like Harry, he is a horrible person, with almost no redeeming characteristics, but there's something about the way he's written that makes readers (not all, admittedly) actually want him to survive, if not prosper.

I've read all the books multiple times, and clearly have a lot of thoughts about them. While George MacDonald Fraser covered most of the things in the Who's Who entry, there are a few irritating gaps left with his passing. Mostly the American Civil War, he was often asked about that, and he said that he never really had any great inclination to write it. His reasoning was that it didn't involve Great Britain, and Harry himself thought so little of it that he served on both sides. It had been alluded to a lot, though. It would have involved masses of research, and I think may have even spanned two books, one focusing on each side of the conflict.

MacDonald Fraser also didn't write the books chronologically. There's a gap of 5 or 6 years between the first part of Royal Flash and the rest of it. Flashman and the Redskins is effectively two books. The first one details Harry's involvement in the 1849 Gold Rush and has him associating with Apache warriors, including Geronimo and frontiersmen like Kit Carson. The second part of that takes place in 1875 and places Flashman at the Battle of Little Bighorn, making him the only white man to survive the battle.

After the 3rd book Flash for Freedom he also bounces around a fair bit. Flashman at the Charge is about the Crimean War and that leaves a gap between 1849 and 1854. Flashman's Lady (the 6th book) skips back to 1842, and they continue to bounce around like that, filling in gaps in Harry's career.

Flashman lists himself as having four talents (horses, women, languages and cricket). It's the last one he's most proud of, because the other three came naturally, whereas he had to work at the fourth. Cricket is the basis for the beginning of Flashman's Lady and it was a fascinating look at the game in the middle of the 19th century.

The books are littered with little things like that and contain footnote historical characters like Lord Cardigan, Mangas 'Redsleeves' Colorado, Will Bill Hickok, George Armstrong Custer, Queen Ranavalona of Madagascar, Lola Montez, Count Ignatieff, the list goes on.

There's no real SFF credentials to the books, although they're very good historical novels, but some have suggested Flashman as a member of Philip Jose Farmer's Wold Newton family, although Farmer himself never included him.
I usually enjoy fictional insert characters in real-life historical situations, but I’ve never read a Flashman. But o feel like I have at times with how you’ve talked about them so much :beaming:

The amount of research he must have done is amazing - I’m reminded of the Georgette Heyer regency books. She would also have had to do so much research as well.

Which would be your favourite of all of the books? I know this is focussing on the first volume, but that’s not always the best / favourite in the series.
lejays17 wrote: April 25th, 2024, 13:09 I usually enjoy fictional insert characters in real-life historical situations, but I’ve never read a Flashman. But o feel like I have at times with how you’ve talked about them so much :beaming:

The amount of research he must have done is amazing - I’m reminded of the Georgette Heyer regency books. She would also have had to do so much research as well.

Which would be your favourite of all of the books? I know this is focussing on the first volume, but that’s not always the best / favourite in the series.
Favourite entry? I was thinking about that when doing this, and I think it’s Flashman at the Charge. That’s the 4th book. It deals mostly with the Crimean War. It features a slew of well known historical characters as well as the Charge of the Light Brigade, which was immortalised by Tennyson, who was the poet laureate of the UK at the time, of course Flashman was in the charge. It also talks about Russia back in those days, and has an aborted attempt by Russia take over a group of central Asian kingdoms. It’s not the longest of the books, but it is a heap of fun.