by Henry on January 7, 2008

Via Neil Gaiman, I see that George MacDonald Fraser, author of the Flashman novels, has died.

I don’t think I’ve got stick for liking Kipling’s work for a good twenty years now, and the people I got stick from back then hadn’t read Kipling—they just knew he was a Bad Thing. … Having said that, I also find the “Good old Flashman, what a great and lovable fellow he was,” tone of some of the obituaries and blogs faintly perplexing. For me, the joy of Flashman as a character is that he wasn’t a great fellow at all: he was a monster and a coward, shifty, untrustworthy, a bully and a toady and dangerous to boot. … I like the early books best, in which he does a lot of running away. In the later books, people expect him to act heroically, and, often to avoid losing face, he actually does, which I found a bit of a disappointment. It’s more fun when events conspire to make his attempts to do something petty and self-serving, or at least his attempts to save his skin or get laid, appear to be heroic.

Gaiman however doesn’t make explicit quite how much of a monster Flashman is. In the first of the books, Flashman gets turned down by a dancing girl called Narreeman. When he has the chance later, he rapes her in a quite matter-of-fact way, showing no particular compunctions or mixed feelings; he has his chance to get her alone, and he takes it. As Gaiman suggests, the later entries in the series soften Flashman’s character considerably. They depict him as a bully, a liar and a shit, but a conventional bully, liar and shit. The (I would imagine mostly male) readers of the book can enjoy his bad behaviour in these later books without having to think about it, or themselves, too much. But the rape scene in the first book breaks that illusion, making clear what the modern reader might prefer to forget; that men like Flashman in the nineteenth century wouldn’t have had many qualms at all about raping ‘native’ women.

As a result, the Flashman books have always creeped me out, even though I can recognize that they’re very well written. The author expects you to enjoy Flashman’s caddishness and identify with it, while quietly making it obvious that Flashman isn’t so much charmingly self-centered as he is an amoral and vicious thug. Which probably means that they’re better books in a sense (as Gaiman says, you learn things from books that present worldviews you disagree with, or even abominate), but also spoils the ‘fun,’ at least for me.

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Gary Imhoff 01.07.08 at 5:34 pm

Unfortunately for Henry, it’s not always possible to get the last word, even in a quarrel with a dead man. In 2002, Fraser wrote Light’s on at Signpost, and the Daily Mail published a short excerpt from it on January 5 (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/news/news.html?in_article_id=506219&in_page_id=1770). Here’s what Fraser thought of the politically correct scolds who didn’t get the joke, and felt compelled to express their disapproval:

“But what I notice with amusement is that many commentators now draw attention to Flashy’s (and my) political incorrectness in order to make a point of distancing themselves from it.

“It’s not that they dislike the books. But where once the non-PC thing could pass unremarked, they now feel they must warn readers that some may find Flashman offensive, and that his views are certainly not those of the interviewer or reviewer, God forbid.

“I find the disclaimers alarming. They are almost a knee-jerk reaction and often rather a nervous one, as if the writer were saying: ‘Look, I’m not a racist or sexist. I hold the right views and I’m in line with modern enlightened thought, honestly.’

“They won’t risk saying anything to which the PC lobby could take exception. And it is this that alarms me – the fear evident in so many sincere and honest folk of being thought out of step.”


Mrs Tilton 01.07.08 at 5:49 pm

Well, Gary, I’m certain we’ll all agree with MacDonald Fraser that it’s a pity the PC brigade fear being thought out of step for being insufficiently repelled by rape.


Timothy Burke 01.07.08 at 6:19 pm

I never got the feeling that I had to like Flashman as a character, even reluctantly. I think there are two other reasons for the reactions Henry describes among many readers, and they’re much less creepy:

1) Flashman’s moral hideousness, both the harsh early version of the character and the softer later version, is not opposed by high moral standards among his imperial compatriots nor among the non-Western elites and others that he meets in his travels. Flashman’s one virtue, in fact, is that he’s a bully, cheat, coward, liar, thief, and rapist and that he knows it and cheerfully admits to it in a world full of cheats, bullies, liars and psychotic tyrants who don’t know it or won’t admit it. Fraser doesn’t construct a world in which empire is oppression and colonial subjects have virtue by the fact of their oppression, true. It’s a flat moral universe where the main distinction between imperialists and their subjects is that the imperialists flatter themselves morally and believe themselves to be “civilizers” while they engage in brutality or folly, while mostly their colonial subjects are tyrannous or barbaric in their own less inhibited ways. But Flashman is, in his own narrative, one of the few “honest” actors who admits to the morally evacuated character of the world he travels through, even revels in it.

2) The series is appealing for reasons other than Flashman’s personal character for the cleverness of the way it revisits and retells the history of the British Empire in a key period; e.g., it’s appealing to history geeks who essentially look past Flashman to the backdrop.


Alex 01.07.08 at 6:29 pm

3) Funny.


bob mcmanus 01.07.08 at 6:39 pm

Haven’t read any Flashmans. The description reminds me of Patricia Highsmith’s Ridley, although apparently according to the above quote, without redeeming irony. Unless I have Highsmith wrong.


LizardBreath 01.07.08 at 6:41 pm

3: Right. I always enjoyed them, but a large part of the enjoyment is rooting for Flashman to lose (which he does often enough to be satisfying. He doesn’t die, but he gets his fair share of humiliation and abuse.) I actually found the later (that is, not just the ones after the first book, but maybe the last four or five) books creepy where I didn’t find the first bunch creepy, largely because his character gets softened to the point where sympathy seems possible.


LizardBreath 01.07.08 at 6:43 pm

it’s appealing to history geeks who essentially look past Flashman to the backdrop

This too.


Henry 01.07.08 at 6:58 pm

gary – Are you _really_ trying to argue that a revulsion towards rape is high-minded political correctness? That’s a pretty interesting definition of the term, surely.

Lizardbreath – I don’t think we’re disagreeing here; what I’m arguing I suppose is that it’s the disconnect between the truly nasty Flashman of the first book in particular, and the caddish-but-supposed-to-be-attractive Flashman of the later ones is what gives me the creeps.


Sk 01.07.08 at 7:00 pm

Qt: “t’s nt tht thy dslk th bks. Bt whr nc th nn-PC thng cld pss nrmrkd, thy nw fl thy mst wrn rdrs tht sm my fnd Flshmn ffnsv, nd tht hs vws r crtnly nt ths f th ntrvwr r rvwr, Gd frbd.

“ fnd th dsclmrs lrmng. Thy r lmst kn-jrk rctn nd ftn rthr nrvs n, s f th wrtr wr syng: ‘Lk, ’m nt rcst r sxst. hld th rght vws nd ’m n ln wth mdrn nlghtnd thght, hnstly.’

Fscntng tht Hnry hmslf ds xctly wht Frsr sd h wld.

“Bt th rp scn n th frst bk brks tht llsn, mkng clr wht th mdrn rdr mght prfr t frgt; tht mn lk Flshmn n th nntnth cntry wldn’t hv hd mny qlms t ll bt rpng ‘ntv’ wmn.”

Nt tht th 19th cntry hs nthng t d wth t. Mn lk Flshmn n NY cntry wld’nt hv hd mny qlms t ll bt rpng ‘ntv’ (r ny) wmn. Flshmn s n mrl scpth-sn’t h?

S why dd Hnry phrs t ths-why dd h mntn th fct tht Flshmn s frm th 19th cntry?

‘Lk, ’m nt rcst r sxst. hld th rght vws nd ’m n ln wth mdrn nlghtnd thght, hnstly.’

t wld b ntrstng t cmpr n ndvdl’s rspns t Flshmn wth hs rspns t mrcn Psych (r sm thr mdrn, nn-clnl psychpth). dn’t knw f Hnry hs vr wrttn bt mrcn Psych r nyn smlr (Fght Clb? V fr Vndtt? thrs?).

Cvt: ‘v nvr hrd f Flshmn r Frsr bfr ths pst, nd hv n prcncptn r vstd ntrst n thr rpttn r mnng.



Donald Johnson 01.07.08 at 7:07 pm

I read the piece by Fraser linked in comment 1. Not having read the Flashman books, I don’t know what to think. He seems to have written novels that expose the brutality of colonialism in a humorous way, yet it sounds like he is a defender of old-fashioned values in the piece he wrote. Did he think his Flashman character was just a bad apple in a basically good system?

Comment 3 suggests to me that maybe he thought British rule was the least bad option–everyone stinks, but the British stink a bit less than their colonial subjects.


Henry 01.07.08 at 7:13 pm

Steve – given your persistent bad behaviour in comments on this blog, I have no intention of giving you the slightest hint of the benefit of the doubt. Any attempts on your part to act the maggot in my comments sections will be trollmarked or deleted as appropriate.


LizardBreath 01.07.08 at 7:17 pm

Comment 3 suggests to me that maybe he thought British rule was the least bad option—everyone stinks, but the British stink a bit less than their colonial subjects.

This is probably fair. Most of his genuinely good characters are British imperialists, and his British characters tend to be stupid rather than evil.


Artclone 01.07.08 at 7:24 pm

I enjoyed the Flashman books even though my family suffered from the kinds of private behaviors and national campaigns that figure in many of the stories.

How about only add to this thread if you actually read a couple or more of the Flashman books?


Bloix 01.07.08 at 7:25 pm

I never did understand Flashman. He’s so boring.


tony grafton 01.07.08 at 7:27 pm

What Tim Burke and Lizardbreath said. I know many people–including well-informed young women with strong feminist principles–who have enjoyed the series, especially its vivid evocation of multiple worlds. But like Henry, I (and most of those with whom I have talked about the books) find later entries in the series generally inferior and in some cases creepy. It’s normal, of course, for authors of series to lose sight over time of their original definitions of characters.


GeoX 01.07.08 at 8:18 pm

This is a good post. It articulates why I was unable to get past the first book. The series is supposed to be fun, or such was my perception; spending time in this guy’s head was NOT my idea of fun. Too bad, because the basic concept was pretty neat. I actually read Tom Brown’s Schooldays, and found it kind of a kick in its own plodding, didactic way.


Gary Imhoff 01.07.08 at 8:21 pm

Henry’s post, and the messages posted by those who support his viewpoint, show why the politically correct should never do literary criticism. Their position is that the author must approve of all his characters and advocate everything those characters do and say, unless the book contains explicit disavowals and draws moralistic lessons. It’s positively Victorian, though stricter and more censorious than the Victorians ever were — every work of art must be dedicated to moral improvement, as moral improvement is defined by the latest fashion.

Flashman is a scoundrel who tells a ripping good yarn, and doesn’t spare himself in the telling. You would never want to partner with him or depend on him, but spending a couple hours in a pub listening to his spinning a tale (which is what any of the Flashman books is) would be a pleasure.

Henry’s point is that either he must be able to approve of the narrator of a story or that the author must explicitly signal his disapproval of the narrator’s bad actions, or otherwise he cannot enjoy the story. Bosh and piffle. It’s Henry’s loss.


Patrick 01.07.08 at 8:23 pm

For a similarly creepy fantasy anti-protagonist, try Apropos of Nothing.

Imagine the author holding you by the back of your head, and slamming your face into a table every time you turn a page.

Now imagine that the book has a very solid, engaging writing style, lots of creativity, and that the book holds out the hope of redemption, a hope that everything will turn out alright, that this time, when you turn the page, the author won’t slam your face into the table.

So you turn the page.

And get your face smashed again.

And again.


Steve Roth 01.07.08 at 8:24 pm

And you really have to read Quartered Safe Out Here to get a sense of exactly what an Atilla-the Hun reactionary he is.

But I admit it: I’ve read all the Flashman books. *Seriously* guilty pleasure.


Richard Cownie 01.07.08 at 8:30 pm

I enjoyed the earlier books. But focusing on Flashman is kinda missing the point. GMF is giving
a loving, detailed, and rather carefully researched
recreation of a particular period and its various
cultures, customs, and personalities. And then
in front he’s got Flashman to move the plot along
and provide the required quantity of exotic and
varied sex scenes. You can get your cads and
erotica anywhere – but for a lively, compelling, and
as far as I can tell, somewhat accurate account of
what it was like to live through Crimea or the
Afghan War, the Flashman books are quite

Yeah, Flashman isn’t a good guy. But we’re
supposed to trust him as a narrator – and his
willingness to narrate his own bad behavior is
part of what makes that work (at least in the
earlier books).


roger 01.07.08 at 8:38 pm

The times haven’t changed that much. In Victorian times, raping a woman would be condemned in the press regardless of the race of the woman – if it found its way into the press. The latter is the difference. On the other hand, the colonial mindset has simply shifted to the Americans. Today, the NYT devoted a headline to Pakistan entitled Hope emerges in Pakistan. The hope, it turns out, is that Musshareff’s commander in chief will stage a coup and restore “stability.” The hope springs in the hearts of D.C. think tankers and the Bush white house. The Pakistanis themselves were consulted about their hope. They are still third class citizens in their own country, as far as ‘serious’ Americans are concerned.

So one should point out that Fraser did have his own breaking point with neo-colonialism. He said that the Iraq war made him ashamed, and Blair’s servility to Bush was intolerable. He said he was haunted by images of the casualties of American bombardments. Compare those comments, on the PC meter, with say Martin Amis or Ian McEwen.


lemuel pitkin 01.07.08 at 8:42 pm

Any attempts on your part to act the maggot in my comments sections will be trollmarked or deleted as appropriate.

But Henry! — can’t we have an open, honest, intellectual debate about whether your problem with Flashman is that you’re a politically correct prude, or whether it’s that you prefer reading about American stockbrokers raping, torturing and dismembering women? Or, perhaps, both?

I am shocked, shocked I say, at your lack of commitment to free inquiry into this subject.


Henry 01.07.08 at 9:01 pm

gary – I’m not sure whether I really want to barge into the ongoing brawl between you and the Political Correctness Commissars in your head. And it would be a little mean of me to pour cold water on the fight anyway (I’m sure that you find it _very satisfying_ to engage in fisticuffs with made-to-design imaginary lefties – you _always win!!_ )

Richard – I do think that the books have virtues along the lines that you describe – but I also think that the author does want you to identify with Flashman (at least in the later volumes).


Chris Baldwin 01.07.08 at 9:05 pm

It’s so politically correct to moan about political correctness.


CJColucci 01.07.08 at 9:06 pm

I never found the “softening” of Sir Harry that problematic. Cad though he was, he always had grudging respect for the genuine virtues of the inferior races he encountered, but just as he refused to take the moral case for the British Empire and its alleged civilizing mission seriously, he refused to get sentimental about the buggers being oppressed. It’s what you do if you can, and they’d have done it with at least equal relish if they could have. The central conceit of the series is that we’re reading the unpublished memoirs of a 90-odd year-old man who has seen much, suffered much (not, perhaps, undeservingly) and has seen both exemplary characters of all races and cads, thugs, and lunatics galore. Why wouldn’t he seem more accepting of human oddity as he experienced more and more of it?


Gary Imhoff 01.07.08 at 9:12 pm

Henry, why would I want to invent a made-to-design imaginary lefty Political Correctness Commissar, when I already have you ready at hand, and you fit the bill perfectly well?


Sk 01.07.08 at 9:15 pm

Why can Gary say it, but I get devoweled?

Apparently not (or should I say, ‘pprntl nt’)



Richard Cownie 01.07.08 at 9:22 pm

“but I also think that the author does want you to identify with Flashman (at least in the later volumes).”

And you have to identify with the hero of “Lolita”
or Lermontov’s “A Hero of Our Time”. And yes,
reading a novel that engages you with a repellent
character can indeed be “creepy”. It’s also a
difficult trick for an author to manage. Perhaps
there are two aspects of the Flashman books that
make this disturbing:

a) It comes with all the trappings of a standard
trashy potboiler – half-naked women in the
cover artwork, a lively plot, and sex scenes
every 20 pages or so – so our expectations
are confounded by encountering a hero a little
more morally ambiguous than James Bond or
Dirk Pitt.

b) The early/mid-Victorian period attitudes
demonstrated by characters in the book are
anathema to enlightened people these days.
But while GMF isn’t averse to *using* the
“dusky maiden” stereotypes and suchlike, I
tend to credit him with having a certain
ironic detachment and an awareness of what
he’s doing.

I’ve also read a non-Flashman book by GMF, and
as far as I can tell he’s a great enthusiast for
the British military tradition and probably
a little nostalgic for the great days of the
British Empire – pretty common attitudes amongst
his generation – but not really a racist or an
advocate of raping native dancing girls.

If you wanted to set the PC bar high enough to
exclude GMF you’d probably have to wipe out a
lot of other fine British writers of the 20th-C.


belle le triste 01.07.08 at 9:43 pm

tom brown’s school days is the starting point: a curious read these days, when it’s more or less unknown (in its day, the mid-late 19th century, it was huge): subtler than you’d expect and not reactionary in the way you expect either

As well as being fascinatingly homosocial, TMSD (published the year of the indian mutiny) is intensely idealistic: Thomas Hughes was a Radical MP and a “Muscular Christian”, a kind of Proto-Decent who (correctly) thought Empire-as-then-was was in massive corrupt decay and (wrongly) that it required a massive injection of morality to validate and redeem it, the model for this being the daunting educational reformer Dr Thomas Arnold (d.1842) — there’s a moment when one of Brown’s teachers says (apropos little except Hughes’s message): “What a sight it is, the Doctor as ruler! Perhaps this is the only corner of the British Empire which is thoroughly, wisely and strongly ruled just now!”

GMF, writing in the late 60s, is powerfully hostile to this very Victorian species of heroic crusading moralism, whenever it arises — and at least in the first few books, his picture of the Empire is an aggressive realist de-idealisation (the political architects of Empire are clowns; its heroes are rancid brutes like himself; or actively demented; or worst of all canting bores and simpletons — Brown’s little TBSD pal Ned East dies a miserable deluded death during the seige of Lucknow, and Flashman responds to his attempt to be an angelic martyr by telling him to “Go fart in a bottle and paint it”)

Two things I think catch up with the series; one is that, as the complex revolt of the 60s receded (or became compromised), and as GMF got older, he simply became less hostile to his earlier bugbears; and more and more to a captive of the later rhetoric of the period he was exploring — his portrait of Imperial China is (for example) sweepingly more disgusted than his portrait of Imperial India, which (whatever its justification in real terms) makes for a context in which Flashman, still the secretly cowardly Victorian James Bond but more and more a plot-device-with-loveable-tics, is indeed softer and less effective as a satirical device

the second is a formal problem with this kind of series — the bones of the story being actual imperial history, which the fictional Flashman played no part in, obviously, despite what we’re reading; thus, within the story-as-told, he never has to face the consequences of any of his own actions (or when he does, the results are ahistorical; occasional melodramatic comeback from other fictional characters at worst); so — again — his effectiveness as a satirical device increasingly diminishes

(Parallel with Flashman’s never facing the consequences of his hiostorical past, GMF doesn;t find a way for Empire to face the consequences of its historical past — including the rise and rise of other envious rivals in Empire-building, even less salubrious that the Brits: this rise being how clear-eyed and utterly unsentimental ideologues of “our” Empire, like Kipling, justified it — “their” Empire will be a LOT WORSE for you, cf the Boer uprising; stick with us if you know what’s good for you) (latterday apologists like Naill Ferguson also take this Pottery Barn rule of a line)

interestingly, the moment when the series actually becomes unbalanced is probably the episode covering the slave trade and the civil war: because here GMF doesn;t find a convincing way to mock and denounce the crusading moralising bores (abolitionists, basically); his schema breaks down because he can’t help but approve of the idealists, and — hunter captured by game — the story veers towards slapstick despite itself…


Henry 01.07.08 at 9:46 pm

sk – Why can Gary say it, but I get devoweled?

You know the answer to that very well; do you _really_ want me to explain further?

Richard – I think there is something different here. When Nabokov wants you to sympathize with Humbert Humbert, he’s not asking you to become a child molester in your mind; instead, to recognize that Humbert, while an utter grotesque, is recognizably human. But with the Flashman novels it’s different(perhaps because of a kind of elision over time; many series of genre novels with unlovable characters end up trying to make them lovable in the later volumes; it’s hard to sustain genuine misanthropy). There’s a slippery relationship between the caddish but-supposed-to-be-entertaining sexual misbehaviour of the later books and the quite brutal rape in the first one (I don’t have the book to hand, but I remember him using language along the lines of ‘she was spirited and resisted at first’ )which makes it impossible for me to find the stuff in the later books at all amusing; I can’t get the nastiness out of my head.

And I’m pretty sure from the piece that our friend Gary Imhoff links to above (which incidentally has a wonderful ‘the lurkers are with me in email’ moment towards the end) that you _are_ supposed to sympathize with Flashman not as a flawed human being, but as a lovable rogue. Unrepentant rapists don’t make for great lovable rogues in my book, although they apparently do in Gary Imhoff’s (‘let me draw you closer so you can listen to my friend Harry’s chucklesome rape anecdote; and if you don’t find it funny, well then you’re obviously a _humorless PC bitch!_ ‘ )


Henry 01.07.08 at 9:55 pm

belle – that’s all very interesting, although I felt while reading it that the text that Fraser was really writing against wasn’t so much Tom Brown’s Schooldays (despite Flashman’s literary origins) as Kipling’s Stalky & Co., which makes the linkage between schoolboy high-jinks and the politics of empire much more explicit (I imagine that there’s also a lot of G.A. Henty in there in one shape or form too).


belle le triste 01.07.08 at 10:03 pm

who was it said: “the british empire — on which the sun never sets, and blood never dries”?

the books begin as a sustained portrait of the bloodiness of empire — flashman as his era’s cartoon hero, as if rudolf rassendyl in anthoyn hope’s “the prinoser of zenda”, except (in late age) telling it as it was (debunking in this mode being a very 60s idea); and they’re grimly funny

but i think this pitch of bloodiness is also hard to sustain: it becomes a shtick EVEN THOUGH IT’S A TRUE PORTRAIT

(and who can doubt that if a similarly politically incorrect portrait of the present american empire were made, via a modern-day flashman raping and stealing his way round iraq and afghanistan, the supporters of current wars would cheerfully recognise its truth and celebrate its author?)


Elio M. García, Jr. 01.07.08 at 10:06 pm

What I enjoy about Flashman is the trouble that visits and torment him. He’s not very unlike Wiley E. Coyote after the Road Runner — he keeps trying to get what he wants (sex, money, privilege, safety), and he keeps being pummeled, battered, humiliated, etc., and then the bounder just goes about trying all over again.

The fact that he’s a serial rapist (by my recollection, we see him rape or be a willing accessory to rape of at least five women [and one boy] in the course of the first six or seven novels) and in many other ways a wicked, rotten individual with precious little redeeming value goes without saying, of course. But he provides a window to another world and another worldview, and I think this is more important for readers in the end.


belle le triste 01.07.08 at 10:09 pm

stalky is a FAR more ambiguous and strange book! i’m not sure i know what being “against” would even mean! (i find kipling unendingly fascinating: his public politics and the politics of his stories are in constant conflict)


soru 01.07.08 at 10:18 pm

if a similarly politically incorrect portrait of the present american empire were made

You mean like Charlie Wilson’s War?


belle le triste 01.07.08 at 10:25 pm

starring tom hanks, screenplay by aaron sorkin


Tom T. 01.07.08 at 11:36 pm

I’ve really enjoyed Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels (i.e., “Kirk and Spock Go Sailing”), so I figured I’d like Flashman as well, but ewwww!

Humbert is interesting because of his internal conflicts. There is none such in Flashman, nor is there any moral growth, or indeed any humanity. He’s John Galt.


derrida derider 01.07.08 at 11:47 pm

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

Poor MacDonald Fraser. His comic masterpiece is now being denounced as ideologically unsound – which of course, it is. But do you similarly denounce, say, Shakespeare as an anti-Semite for his Shylock? That both were men of their time seems to me pretty irrelevant.

And if you don’t laugh at a Flashman book, I reckon you’re humourially challenged. They’re farces people – not meant to be realistic.


belle le triste 01.08.08 at 12:16 am

and if you’re not upset or unsettled by them, dd, then you’re empathetically challenged — the point is the combination of both effects

someone from much the same generation aiming for a similar combo: spike milligan? (i haven’t read any of GMF’s ww2 stories)


Ancarett 01.08.08 at 12:44 am

I’m sure I missed the moral litmus test here. I read and enjoyed several of the Flashman books (at least the first four) and never had the feeling that I was supposed to identify with or condone the principal. I read them as a skewering of the 19th century triumphalism regarding empire and manliness, not as a “be cool like this guy”.

Of course, I’ve also read a lot of GMF’s other work, including his McAuslan books and his laugh-filled “Hollywood History of the World: From One Million Years B.C. to Apocalypse Now”. I’ve never taken him seriously as a moral compass, either in his fictional characters or his own personal political stand. I’m well aware that he was a bit of a reactionary prat but if I gave up reading everyone whose political opinions I found repulsive, I’d have a prospective reading pool of a few dozen figures.


Jeff R. 01.08.08 at 12:46 am

A couple of points to insert:
Elio: your recollection is different than mine; I don’t I’m fairly certain that the first book is the only one in which he rapes anyone (and I’m not sure there’s many points in any of his adventures where he’s a willing accomplice to anything. As I recall, he narrated that he didn’t much like it, either (and, for fans of Victorian Morality plays, does spend a week or so being tortured as a direct consequence of it.)

And Richard: James Bond, at least the James Bond of the original books, really isn’t all that much less of a thug than Flashy.


lemuel pitkin 01.08.08 at 1:24 am

do you similarly denounce, say, Shakespeare as an anti-Semite for his Shylock?

But the whole point of Merchant is that it DOESN’T simply engage in anti-semitic stereotypes. By far the most famous speech from the play is the one where Shylock insists ont he common humanity fo Christians and Jews. If you cut out all that and had Bassanio and Antonio lynch Shylock at the end, followed by a big party, we in fact would not care about the play. If you actually cared about Shakespeare you’d see that you’re arguing exactly the opposite point that you think you are.

But trust someone who calls himself “derrida derrider” to think books are to be used as clubs and not actualyl read.


girondistnyc 01.08.08 at 2:17 am

I also think Elio is well off base here, after rereading a couple following the news. The rape happens in the first book, and after that all of his partners are (however cartoonishly and unrealistically) willing throughout. There is an extremely disturbing scene in the western US book where he specifically declines to use force and saves a woman from rape (and ends up with the Apache woman saving his life accordingly).

The Afghan woman in the first book sticks out in people’s mind partially because the scene is so horrific, but also because its rather atypical of the series as a whole. Viscous misogynist, yes, serial rapist no. Also, its perhaps notable that his foulest actions towards women usually end up with horrible consequences for him — e.g. he picks up an implacable enemy because of the rape and barely escapes getting tortured to death because of it.

As for the politics, empire etc. in most of the books the basic lineup is generally (a) the British with hypocritical and impure motives and bad political leadership blundering into conflict and being saved by one or two flawed leaders on the military side and the dogged determination of their common soldiery versus (b) non-western society with even worse political leadership whose faults and virtues are both discussed at length, with several of the more admirable characters in the book on their side and several scenes illustrating that their resistance (while futile) was understandable/just/necessary. At the end of the day, he’s pro Tommy Atkins more than he is pro-empire.

The only societies that really come out with no redeeming qualities are the American South (and that might have changed if he done the Civil War book, concededly) and Czarist Russia. Imperial China comes off very bad but given he spends most of his time at the Tai-Ping and Manchu courts perhaps this is more the period than anything else — and the opium smuggling and summer palace burning by the Empire is hardly glossed over while the artistic achievements of Chinese society are explored in depth.


Chuck Darwin 01.08.08 at 2:57 am

I have to thank you, Henry, for putting a voice to the reaction I had several years ago when I enthusiastically picked up the first “Flashman”. The rape truly zapped any desire I had to continue reading further books with this character. I just can’t stay interested in a novel (or especially a series of novels) where I have no moral investment in a character. If it means I’m humorless, so be it.


Richard Cownie 01.08.08 at 3:18 am

“There’s a slippery relationship between the caddish but-supposed-to-be-entertaining sexual misbehaviour of the later books and the quite brutal rape in the first one”

I found the early books wonderfully entertaining,
and some of the later ones I just couldn’t get
through at all. But my interpretation would be
that GMF found he’d hit on a lucrative formula –
and maybe had a multi-book contract ? – and
cranked them out with much less attention to
character and detail. That doesn’t spoil my
enjoyment of the earlier books.

Perhaps the appropriate series to compare with
might be the the Hornblower books, or Patrick
O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books. Hornblower is
a similarly good yarn, but the characters are
flat and dull, and as far as I can tell the
historical context is not so accurate and
detailed; some people rave about
the O’Brian novels but I only ever tried one and
found it unbearably dull, with its smug displays
of pointless erudition.

Another point to make about the Flashman character
is that he spends much of his time in native
dress and speaking the native languages. He is
always an outsider, and he’s giving us something
like a Martian’s view of the cultures and events
he sees. All in all, GMF is playing a fairly
elaborate and sophisticated game (in the early
books) which deserves respect and serious


Ross Smith 01.08.08 at 6:45 am

Just a couple of small comments from yet another Flashman fan who enjoyed the books despite feeling a bit uncomfortable about Fraser’s politics…

Re Flashman as rapist: There’s room for ambiguity there. Flashman himself says that the incident in the first book was the only time he ever actually committed rape, but there are several incidents in later books that he thought of as “seduction” but would probably be considered rape by modern standards; his encounter with Mrs Mandeville in Angel of the Lord, for example. (To be more fair to Flashman than he really deserves, on that occasion he did genuinely have reason to believe (wrongly) that her resistance was just a game of hard to get. Not that that would be consisdered an excuse today, and quite rightly.)

Re Richard’s point about Fraser “playing a fairly elaborate and sophisticated game”: One of the things I liked about Fraser’s writing was the way, by careful wording in the footnotes and editorial comments, he contrived to let the reader know exactly which parts were accurate history, which were plausible speculation based on partial knowledge, and which were pure fiction, without ever openly breaking the pretense that it was all true.


derrida derider 01.08.08 at 9:09 am

lemuel, read The Merchant of Venice again. Of course Shakespeare had Shylock give the “if you prick us, do we not bleed…” speech, but this is in the context of insisting on getting a pound of goy flesh in satisfaction of a usurious loan. Shylock is definitely the villain, not the hero of the play. Hard to think of a plot more calculated to appeal to contemporary antisemitism.


magistra 01.08.08 at 9:31 am

I don’t normally think much of comments about ‘political correctness’, but for once they have a point. Fraser is unusual (and I think commendable) for writing historical novels in which the central character is not untypically enlightened for the historical era. Most historical novels focus on someone who has (or develops) unusually liberal/progressive/sceptical views on slavery, women’s rights, racism, religion etc. Occasionally this works, but often you end up with modern sensibilities uneasily inserted into period costume. Flashman, however comes across as untypical of his period only in that he knows he’s a bigot etc. I don’t think, at least in the earlier books, Fraser expected you to sympathise with him. What he was saying was ‘this is how people were’.

And as, already pointed out, part of the enjoyment in the series is how inevitably Flashman’s nastiness rebounds on him. If he was halfway decent he could have a nice safe life. But instead he’s a slaver, so he ends up a slave. He’s treacherous, so he is betrayed. He mistreats women, so women mistreat him. He’s an adulterer, but also a cuckold. Flashman may triumph in the end, but only when he’s gone through totally deserved agony.


Robert 01.08.08 at 9:32 am

Does Flashman’s wife understand what kind of cad Flashman is? Does she understand the world she lives in? Does she also cheat on him? Is Fraser consistent throughout the series on these questions?


SG 01.08.08 at 9:35 am

I have read all but 2 or 3 of the Flashman books, and I don’t believe he becomes a better character over time. What he does to the woman who helps him in Ethiopia (“Flashman on the March”) and the woman who he is ordered to sleep with in Russia (“Flashman at the Charge”) is really repellent. And it is certainly true that every one of the truly caddish things he does do come back to bite him.

Also I disagree that the only truly “good” people are British. The best, most devotedly described, most beautifully real and most noble people in any of his books are, far and away, the Muslims of Afghanistan and India.

As regards the invisible hand of the author, I don’t believe that one can compare Flashman’s feelings about, say, the sacking of the Summer Palace in “Flashman and the Dragon” and the behaviour of the Sikhs in “Flashman and the Mountain of Light” and get any real sense of difference in the ambiguity of his feelings. It’s even made clear repeatedly, when he goes into his little rants about how terrible the Imperialists are, how everyone should leave each other alone, how every race has its own evils, etc.

Also you will be hard pressed in other literature (even leftist) outside of Japanese manga to find any female characters even remotely as strong as even the woman he rapes in the first book (and she was the weakest, probably, of most of them). Look at the Dowager Empress, that crazy Chinese girl running the Uzbeks (?) in Flashman at the Charge, or the women in Ethiopia. These are powerful women at the centre of power in their nation, listened to, respected and feared by all. And they give Flashman a run for his money every time, their undoing usually being that they have better morals than him. Through all the books but the first one he is even financially dependent on and cuckolded by his wife!

I am quite a fan of political correctness, and I certainly understand that many people won’t read a chap like Flashman on account of his misogyny (and fair enough too!) I lend Flashman to anyone who can read, and always with the necessary warnings about his position. But I think it really cheapens the more powerful messages of Fraser’s work – about Imperialism, about history, and about war – to dismiss them because they happen to come in non-PC terms.


Alex 01.08.08 at 10:37 am

Does Flashman’s wife understand what kind of cad Flashman is?


Does she understand the world she lives in?

I reckon so.

Does she also cheat on him?

You bet.

Is Fraser consistent throughout the series on these questions?


One of the best things in the whole series is his utter incomprehension of anyone who isn’t as venal , cowardly, and self-seeking as himself; it’s not just a Martian view of India, China, or New Orleans, it’s a Martian view of Britain.

(Also, for a paid-up old buffer, Fraser is utterly vicious and savage towards the monarchy throughout.)


Down and Out of Sài Gòn 01.08.08 at 11:45 am

But I think it really cheapens the more powerful messages of Fraser’s work – about Imperialism, about history, and about war – to dismiss them because they happen to come in non-PC terms.

If I read Henry correctly, it’s not dismissal – it’s revulsion. It’s extremely rare to have the central character of a book as a rapist. It’s even rarer when that book is meant to be amusing. I don’t think the humor value of rape was ever that high, but it’s probably lower than it was when Fraser wrote “Flashman”.

Some may blame PC if they care – I think the real reason is greater awareness of how traumatic rape is, and that “she was asking for it” doesn’t cut it any more.

I’ve got no evidence to back it up – just a hunch. Such as remembering one Two Ronnies joke about nuns during WWII. The punchline goes something “And why wasn’t Sister Maria raped like the others? Because Sister Maria doesn’t like that sort of thing.” I bring it up because I heard it during the early eighties on ABC TV, a mere twenty or so years ago. I don’t think they’d get away with it anymore.


ajay 01.08.08 at 12:05 pm

There’s also a strong argument that Flashman is, in reality, a hero. Time after time he gets asked to go off on some terribly dangerous job, and, bowels quaking and face red with fear, off he goes. But, a lot of the time, he has a choice.

“Of course Flashy’ll dress up as an Indian and go off to meet this insane native prince who has people burned alive!”, someone or other says.

Theoretically, Flashy could say “No, I refuse. I don’t want to go. The Empire and the Queen can go stuff themselves. I am a colossal coward and I want to go home” and he would survive – at the cost of his reputation. But, in the end, off he goes – terrified though he is – and that’s a pretty good definition of heroism.

The message of a lot of the books isn’t “Many of the people we think of as heroes weren’t really; they were cheating, lying cowards”, but “Many real heroes are very unpleasant people”.


Francis 01.08.08 at 1:14 pm

Re: Stalky and Co, most of the point of it is that Beetle is Rudyard Kipling himself. Stalky is a thinly fictionalised version of General Dunsterville. And King committed suicide shortly after Stalky and Co was published.

Does Flashman’s wife understand what kind of cad Flashman is?

Possibly, indeed probably. It’s hard to tell with Elspeth.

Does she understand the world she lives in?

I think she’s willfully blind in addition to being as thick as two short planks.

Does she also cheat on him?

Definitely, repeatedly, and consistently.

Is Fraser consistent throughout the series on these questions?

IIRC, she only starts noticeably cheating on him in the second book – but consistently so (and he more or less knows about it) from then onwards.

And I agree about Flashman not being quite the coward or cad that he thinks he is. Particularly later on in the series. (That’s not remotely to say that he’s a good man).


SG 01.08.08 at 1:15 pm

down and out in saigon, I think it is difficult to interpret flashman’s behaviour in that particular scene as funny – certainly one has a clear sense of the cruelty and senselessness of his actions, and I don’t recall any indication of “she was asking for it”. If anything the scene serves very much to lay out clearly the nature of Flashman’s character – a man who will take any opportunity he can to take what he wants, and revel in the cruelty if it suits him. I think there is a lot of subtlety in Fraser’s writing that is missed, and the best part of it is his ability to get you to appreciate Flashman’s point of view, even though you know he is a bastard. This was Nabokov’s trick as well.

Ajay, most of Flashman’s adventures he tried desperately to get out of. Many of them he was essentially kidnapped into. A large part of the joke of his “heroism” is that he only goes along with the dangers so he can maintain his image, because he’s vain and self-serving – which makes his inevitable trials all the more amusing. As Magistra said, almost every one of his trials is a reflection of exactly the sort of vices got him into the situation to start with. (And, a lot of the adventures he “chose” came about because he was fleeing someone else, or because he misjudged the natives…)


anon 01.08.08 at 2:39 pm

I must look up these books. The description reminds me of Michael Moorcock’s Pyat Quartet/Between the Wars books, though they have, in a crooked mirror image of Flashman(as described), an extremely untrustworthy narrator – in fact, it is the major characteristic of the main character.


richard 01.08.08 at 3:05 pm

James Bond’s been mentioned a couple of times here and I’m surprised the conversation hasn’t veered around to him, because he’s a much more stark example of exactly the same transformation Flashy goes through, and a much more influential one. Shouldn’t we be disgusted by Fleming’s nasty little thug, who routinely overcomes struggling women in his “amorous” encounters? Aren’t we disturbed by the naked Empire-loving wish-fulfillment of the whole series? Shouldn’t we deplore his transformation into a lovable minor superhero and barely even a rogue in the films? Or are we shielded from all that by the fact that Fleming quite obviously likes Bond, papering over exactly the things Flashy reveals?


Richard Cownie 01.08.08 at 3:39 pm


“Does Flashman’s wife understand what kind of cad Flashman is?


Have to disagree with you there: as I remember it,
Elspeth is consistently presented as a halfwit
who doesn’t understand anything at all. And she
flirts with – and probably sleeps with – other
men, but not to get revenge against Flashman,
just because she likes it and it doesn’t really
occur to her that there’s any reason not to.
It’s another fine irony that while Flashman
tangles with many strong and intelligent women
and generally comes out on top, in his marriage
he is subjugated by a halfwit.

“it’s not just a Martian view of India, China, or New Orleans, it’s a Martian view of Britain.”

Absolutely! From the moment he’s expelled from
Rugby, Flashman is always an outsider wearing a
mask and acting a part, as much in British society
as in his many disguises.


“James Bond’s been mentioned a couple of times here and I’m surprised the conversation hasn’t veered around to him, because he’s a much more stark example of exactly the same transformation Flashy goes through, and a much more influential one”

I confess I’ve only read a few of the Bond
stories. There’s certainly more ambiguity there
than in the movies. And definitely he is a thug:
he’s a killer, but of course he is *licensed* to
kill. His thuggishness is serving his nation.
Even those sexual conquests are often planned
to get information or access. And on the whole
it’s accepted that Bond’s nation are the Good Guys.
Flashman’s motives are always pure – pure cowardice,
self-preservation, and lust. And there isn’t
much sense that the British are a whole lot better
than their opponents. GMF’s view of conflict
seems to be roughly in line with Wellington’s
comment after Waterloo:
a victory is the worst disaster in the world,
excepting only a defeat.

Another big
difference is that Flashman invariably goes
native, in dress, language, and customs, while
Bond is always an Englishman (though the best Bond
of course is the Scottish nationalist Sean Connery) whose disguise is minimal.


Flippanter 01.08.08 at 7:42 pm

I wondered where I’d have to roam to find a person with a soul so dead as to find Flashman unamusing and the Aubrey-Maturin novels unappealing. Thanks, Blogsylvania! You ruin everything!


Donald Johnson 01.08.08 at 9:32 pm

I loved the Aubrey-Maturin novels on my second attempt at reading them (last year). My first attempt was in the 90’s and for some reason, at that time I thought they were dull. I can only assume I was under heavy sedation during that whole decade, but can’t account for how it happened.


clew 01.11.08 at 12:20 am

It’s another fine irony that while Flashman
tangles with many strong and intelligent women
and generally comes out on top, in his marriage
he is subjugated by a halfwit.

“Any woman can manage a clever man, but it takes a very clever woman indeed to manage a fool.”


Helen 01.12.08 at 12:25 am

Well, Gary, I’m certain we’ll all agree with MacDonald Fraser that it’s a pity the PC brigade fear being thought out of step for being insufficiently repelled by rape.

Mrs Tilton has nailed it there.

I won’t go into the whole what-is-wrong-with the PC thing here, as that would take a mini-essay, but suffice it to say that it started out as ridiculous statements of ideology which were completely OTT. If you think that admitting rape is wrong, and/or admitting that rape in the context of a power relationship (as in native and coloniser, employer and employee) is wrong, is simply “PC” fluff to be dismissed, you need help. Professional help.


Helen 01.12.08 at 12:51 am

Sorry, that was pretty garbled. I mean if you think … rape is wrong… is OTT.

Flippanter #60: If your only possible reactions to reading a book are 100% hilarity and approval versus purse-lipped rejection, maybe your grasp of nuance is a little challenged and you would be better off commenting on a simpler blog.


Andrew 01.12.08 at 6:56 am

I remember reading “Flashman in the Great Game,” the fifth in the series, at the age of 15 in my high school library (this would have been 1974). The book, an account of Flashman’s participation in the Indian Mutiny, still strikes me as the high point of the series.

The later books, from “Mountain Of Light” onwards, have a much less strong narrative thread, and by the time we get to “Flashman and the Tiger” the writing is almost a self parody of the earlier works.

But Flashman as a character is brilliantly nuanced: cynical, amoral, cowardly, venal but completely aware of his own faults and unsparing of the hypocrisies of his peers. I had to wait until Chris Hedges’ “War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning” to find another writer who so clearly painted the corrosive glamour and cruelty when civilians as well as soldiers take up arms (Cheesemen’s troopers hangings of Pandy’s in the “Great Game” is a short masterpiece).

And he absolutely does not consistently get the better of the women he encounters. Ko Dali’s daughter runs rings around him; the Rani Of Jhansi plays him like a violin.

The rape of Narreeman in “Flashman” is portrayed unsparingly as a vicious, brutal struggle, and Flashman nearly pays for it with his own life twice. He is saved from death (weeks later) twice not by his own skill or courage, and is then dissuaded from cutting Narreeman to pieces by a heroic British sergeant – who later sees through Flashman, but whose courageous defense of a doomed fort ends with Flashman gaining all the honor that the now-dead sergeant deserved.

So the rape is but one in a set of cruel acts carried out by Flashman, and his fellow countrymen, and his friends, and his enemies, throughout the series. One thing Fraser is unsparing on is that all people have a vicious streak a mile wide, and it takes very little to bring it to the surface.

Romantic doltards rhapsodizing about “noble savages” like the professor at the start of “Flashman and the Redskins” leads to Flashman’s greatest fury.

“[W]hen selfish frightened men – in other words, any men, red or white, civilized or savage – come face to face in the middle of a wilderness that both of ’em want, the Lord alone knows why, then war breaks out, and the weaker goes under.”


Xboy 01.13.08 at 5:58 am

“I just can’t stay interested in a novel (or especially a series of novels) where I have no moral investment in a character. If it means I’m humorless, so be it.”
Chuck reminds me of Georgie in The Magnificent Ambersons: “My theory of literature is an author who does not indulge in trashiness — writes about people you could introduce into your own home.”

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