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.