Friday, November 7, 2014

Review of Flashman by George Macdonald Fraser (HarperCollins, 1969)

When Harry Flashman is expelled from Rugby School for drunkenness he opts for a career in the Army, his rich father buying him an officer’s commission in the 11th Regiment of Light Dragoons.  They have just returned from India and are unlikely to posted overseas again in the near future.  However, Flashman is a natural at attracting trouble and he is soon sent to Scotland to cool his heals where he beds a factory owner’s daughter.  Forced into marriage by her family he is drummed out of the Dragoons for marrying a commoner and posted to India.  There his talent for languages lands him a meeting with the Governor-General who makes him an aide to General Elphinstone, who is heading to Afghanistan to take over command of the British Army there.  Flashman arrives just in time to participate in the biggest disaster to befall a British Army, the 1842 Kabul retreat that witnessed the death of 4,500 troops and 12,000 supporting civilians.  But Flashman is a survivor and manages to cover himself in glory, despite the calamity surrounding him.

Flashman was published in 1969, purporting to be the first instalment of the recently discovered reminisces of Sir Harry Paget Flashman VC KCB KCIE.  The story starts with setting the record straight on his expulsion from Rugby School, as recounted in Tom Brown’s School Days published in 1857 by Thomas Hughes, and then follows his exploits from the time he entered the British Army as teenager to when he returns to Britain two years later having taken part in Kabul retreat.  Flashman is an interesting character.  Six foot two and handsome, he’s a self-acknowledged scoundrel, liar, cheat, thief, bully, coward, and toady.  Openly misogynist and racist, he claims only three natural talents: horsemanship, an ear for languages, and fornication.  To that should be added luck and cunning.  He has a habit of getting himself moved into harm’s way, but always somehow manages to survive, usually through someone else’s bravery and then claiming credit and glory.  He would be an easy character to dislike except that he is also self-deprecating, brutally honest, something of an anti-hero, his wife has the measure of him, and his account has a nice dose of wit.  The story is undoubtedly politically incorrect, but knowingly so, and also true to attitudes of the time, and it is full of adventure and scrapes.  It is also chocked full of well researched historical detail, Fraser using Flashman to tell the story of the disastrous retreat from Kabul and the First Anglo-Afghan war.  It’s one of those tales that that anyone familiar with political correctness feels they shouldn’t really like, but it’s telling means that one can’t help but doing so.

1 comment:

Clothes In Books said...

I used to love the Flashman books, and I'm sure I learned a lot of history that way. I must re-visit them.