Flashy Himself – A Literary Diversion

So it took a link on Powerline last week to bring to my attention that George McDonald Fraser’s first Flashman book came out fifty years ago.

My, I don’t know how the time flies – but it does. I must have read the first couple of Flashy’s adventures sometime in college, shortly thereafter, and being quite the history nerd even then, they were rowdy enough, and amusing enough that I read most of the rest of them when they came out, even if I had to order them from an English book catalog when I was stationed overseas. I do remember very well reading The General Danced at Dawn, in the back of one of my more boring lecture classes at CSUN and nearly self-strangulating in trying to not laugh uproariously out loud. The professor lecturer would not have been amused – he was a medieval history expert with a thoroughly tedious interest in the most comprehensively boring of early dark age church confabulations and absent any detectable sense of humor.

My main regret as far as the Flashman series goes is that GMF never wrote of Flashy’s adventures in our own Civil War, which sounded from references in other books, as if Flashman conducted himself in the manner which we came to expect of him – that is, purely and basely devoted to the preservation of his own skin, while dodging, lying, fornicating and back-stabbing on battlefields spread across three continents, as well as hob-nobbing socially or sexually with all sorts of likely participants. As one early reviewer put it, Flashy saw 19th century history briefly over his shoulder as he fled down the corridors of power at high speed. His adventures in our very own Civil War would have been … interesting, although when I touched on this matter before, a reader pointed out that a) Flashy was a British officer and hardly gave a toss as to what we recalcitrant ex-Colonials got up to, and that b) that all our native ACW experts, amateur and professional alike would have made passionate objection to any error or omission, fancied or with historical backing that GMF might have worked into the plot. So, the effort wouldn’t have been worth the candle to him … although I and most of his fans would have loved to read it anyway. Just to see the process by how Flashy got suckered into participation by Abraham Lincoln, fought on both sides, and wound up being pals with George Armstrong Custer and well-acquainted with General Grant, and how many other Civil War notables.

I myself would have loved to see Flashy entangled in some kind of partnership with Elizabeth Van Lew, the Richmond spy queen, or perhaps a much deeper entanglement with Allan Pinkerton, of the national detective agency … it all would have been great reading, no matter how contentious the fallout might have been with Civil War historians. His take on Robert E. Lee and other Confederate generals would have been interesting, as well. Because GMF had the eye, an absolute gift for writing 19th century dialog, and loved history enough to go into the deep weeds about it all … and most of all, make it interesting to the reader. Pop media is not downhill from culture, it’s in a symbiotic relationship with it. One shapes the other, mutually.

The darkly appealing thing about Flashy is that as a character, he was blunt and unsparingly honest, especially about himself: coward, toady, professionally self-serving, enthusiastic fornicator, (rapist, also on one occasion), and all-around scummy character – and yet with pluck and luck, always coming up out of the sewer smelling like a rose. As well as being brutally honest about himself to himself, Flashy was also was also magnificently candid about a lot of other matters now held to be absolutely radioactive. And that’s a large part of his appeal. I rather suspect that GMF had a great deal of fun in writing Flashy as a character, kicking politically correctitude right in the shorts, over and over again.

And what a wonderful miniseries Flashman would be, supposing that GMF’s literary executors would allow the rights to be negotiated for it, and a producer had the budget and stones to do it right, covering Flashy’s eventful career. You’d likely need eight or nine seasons to do it all justice, filming in fabulous locations in Europe, the US, Russia, China, India, Indonesia and Africa, an international cast of actors buckling swashes right and left … it would leave Game of Thrones in the dust, for sure. Likely it would never happen, given today’s social climate – but it would be glorious. Oh, well – at least we have the books. Discuss as you wish.

21 thoughts on “Flashy Himself – A Literary Diversion”

  1. Ah, if only. The sole time Flashy has shown up on screen is the 1975 film version of Royal Flash, starring Malcolm McDowell. It had some amusing moments, but overall was a letdown.

  2. I know, right? The movie … a disappointment. But a series could be awesome, except that no one has the brass ones to go out and do it. A pity, because it would have rabid fans. Alas, our entertainment complex are afflicted with the permanent candy-a** syndrome…

  3. fraser, cowrote the bond film set in india, yes it would be an intriguing project, but who would want to helm it

  4. there is various flashman books covering before and after civil war,brown’s raid on harpers ferry. also abook about slave prize fighter who goes to england (black hercules,?) also mr. american which is post civil war up to ww1. i think he steered clear of the actual civ war for reasons described.(huge subject well studied) but he did cover usa quite soundly.

  5. I have read all the Flashman books multiple times, and they are superb. Robert Brightwell is a British author who has a series of books about Flashman’s uncle during the Napoleonic Wars. They re-create the Flasman ethos very well.

  6. I always thought a miniseries would be perfect. Didn’t know about the McAuslan books – I will start immediately. Thanks!

  7. GMF was dismissive about the Civil War calling it a side-show.

    Personally I think he was probably intimidated by the massive number of experts that would pour over every word looking for fault sucking the joy out of any attempt to write it and adventure during that period.

  8. “Flash for Freedom” is set a bit before the Civil War, but if I recall correctly (it’s been a while) Flash meets Abraham Lincoln in it. Lincoln wasn’t fooled. Flashman was involved in the war as a neutral observer; not sure if Fraser ever elaborated on that.

  9. GMF’s WW2 memoirs are also excellent. “Quartered Safe Out Here”.

    When you read the complete McAuslan stories, even before reading the last chapter, you realize that the stories and the people are 95% real, with 5% exaggeration thrown on top for comic effect. I guess the “tell” is that his very real brotherly love leaks through and you realize the insane characters he’s writing about are very real, albeit thinly disguised– you even see, VERY clearly, where he got the template for Flashman– What I really enjoy about GMF is is ear for the musicality of every dialect he encounters– near pitch perfect.

  10. Mr. Fraser was kind enough to exchange correspondence with me on several occasions. I asked about Flashy’s adventures in The War (as a Virginian I was MOST interested). Mr. Fraser replied he didn’t know when that volume of the Flashman Papers would see light.
    I commend to everyone’s attention Fraser’s entire bibliography: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_MacDonald_Fraser

  11. As one of those ACW obsessives, I’d have loved to see it.

    But he’d simply have to have Flashman on the Confederate side as well. Can you imagine Flashy going on a revel with Stuart,, baiting A.P.Hill, or the (truly deserved) sendup of Bragg? (Not to mention how unimpressed with him Jackson would be.)

    Although I grant that his visit to Hooker’s camp would most likely be the most memorable chapter of the book…

  12. I first met Flashman in “Tom Brown’s School Days”. Fraser certainly improved on the character! As best I can remember (it was half a century and more ago)the original Flashman fit the same archetype as Draco Malfoy, but with better luck.

  13. Fraser is one of my favorite authors. I treasure a letter I received from him in response to my fan letter.

    He also wrote a book called “The Hollywood History of the World” that’s well worth reading. He’s much kinder about the movies, pointing out what they get right as well as wrong. Eminently readable.

    I even bought a slipcased signed edition of one of his books from an English bookseller. Unfortunately, it’s “Flashman on the March” which he wrote in opposition to Bush and Afghanistan. Not one of his better books.

    Weirdly, I like his non-U.S.-set books. It seems like we don’t have the range of eccentric characters and looney history compared to his adventures in Sarawak, Madagascar, and China.

  14. I read the entire set of Flashman books in 2018. As a fan of Victorian British military history, I particularly appreciated the historical accuracy of the stories. For one example, the depiction of the Sikh Khalsa on the march is magnificent. Flashman is always called a coward, but over the series, his “cowardice” evolves. At first, he is just afraid of getting killed. But as the story goes on, and his reputation grows as Flash Harry, the hero and the man who can do the impossible, he becomes more afraid of being found out as a coward, and he continually goes into danger to protect his reputation. He is afraid of getting killed, yes, but he is more afraid of letting down the people who believe him and rely on him. As a combat veteran who lost several friends in Burma, Fraser is showing the motivation of ordinary people who quite sanely prefer not to suffer violent dismemberment and death, but face it anyway. Even in the first book, Flashman is watching a fellow soldier preparing to fight to the death against the Afghans, and he is mystified by the man’s courage and perseverance. But we don’t know how afraid that man may have been under it all. As I read it all I also thought that the books are about survivor’s guilt. Fraser the combat veteran, speaking indirectly through Flashman, is saying that the really brave men died in Burma, and people like me who were terrified the whole time made it out alive, out of dumb luck. Another thing that people don’t mention very often when talking about the supposed poltroon Flashman, is that he and everyone else acknowledges that he is very competent with his weapons, and he is an excellent horseman. Flashman has and he maintains the skills of his trade. He is in fact competent as a soldier, and he usually accomplishes his mission, though not in the way anyone would expect. And without any spoilers, for those who have read the books, the best last line in any book I have ever read is probably: “Here, catch.”

  15. And on the issue of the unwritten tales of Flashman’s participation in the American Civil War, I suspect Fraser always wanted to tease us with hints and was never serious about writing it. And I am almost certain I recall that Flashman was given the Congressional Medal of Honor in a private ceremony by Lincoln himself. So, Flashman made some substantial contribution to Union victory, or at least made people think he did!

    If I am granted a long enough life I will read the whole thing again.

    And in my dreams I will someday find on eBay a nice, clean copy of Dawns and Departures of a Soldier’s Life.

  16. Thanks to Patrick for putting a link to my Flashy Civil War novel (vol 1). It runs from after first Bull Run to the end of Gettysberg. It hasn’t been edited or had the usual notes added as the Estate won’t allow it to be published – without that the effort of putting notes in didn’t seem worthwhile, so please excuse any mistakes ! I didn’t know a huge amount about ‘the war’ before I started to research it and learned a lot but no doubt there will be things which experts will disagree with or find wrong. If so, I can only do as GMF did and blame it on Flashman !

    There’s much discussion about tv or film versions of the novels. Having seen ‘Royal Flash’ and read the books many times I don’t think it would work because so much depends on Flashman’s commentary on events, which is often direct to the reader. That just doesn’t work on film.

  17. My favourite author -I read all his books, corresponded and exchanged Christmas cards with him, reviewed several of his books, wrote articles about them, met him more than once. Would like to have filmed or televised them all- used to cast Flashman films and believe that McAuslan could have been another Darling Buds of May on TV.

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