‘Don’t wait to die on the field of honour. Heroes draw no higher wages than the others.’
– soldier of fortune Paolo di Avitabile in Flashman
Just before World War I, Mark Franklin, the hero of George MacDonald Fraser’s Mr American, travels to London, where he spends a bibulous evening with an elderly military man by the name of Sir Harry Paget Flashman. ‘He had looked Sir Harry up in Who’s Who and read incredulously through the succinct list of campaigns and decorations – that gnarled old man sleeping there had seen Custer ride into the broken bluffs above the Little Big Horn, and fought hand to hand with Afghan tribesmen more than seventy years ago; he had ridden into the guns at Balaclava and seen the ranks form for Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg; he had known Wellington and Lincoln . . .’
Who wouldn’t be incredulous? Sir Harry’s numerous honors include not only England’s Victoria Cross, but also the French Legion of Honour and the American Congressional Medal of Honor. His Who’s Who entry – should you ever happen upon it – requires four inches of small type just to list some of his nearly unbelievable exploits. During the course of a long life, Sir Harry Paget Flashman (1822–1915) served as a political adviser to Chancellor Bismarck on the Schleswig-Holstein question, briefly functioned as chief of staff to the Rajah of Sarawak, rode with both John Brown and Jeb Stuart, and even assisted the Emperor Maximilian of Mexico as an aide-decamp. Over the years this far-ranging traveler also spent some time as a buffalo hunter, western scout, Australian prospector, ‘reluctant deputy marshal to J. B. Hickok, Esq.,’ and native interpreter – Sir Harry spoke nine languages fluently and could ‘rub along’ in another dozen or so.
Naturally, Who’s Who – with British discretion – barely hints that Harry Flashman frequently spied for Her Majesty’s government and that he was mixed up in both the African slave trade and the Underground Railroad. Moreover, through a run of astonishing bad luck, the man seems to have landed smack in the middle of virtually every major battle or civil insurrection of the nineteenth century – the Siege of Gandamack in Afghanistan, the Zulu attack at Rorke’s Drift, the rising of the Mahdi at Khartoum, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Battle of Chancellorsville, the Peking Rebellion of 1900. During the American Civil War he even inexplicably managed to serve as a major in the Union forces and a colonel in the army of the Confederacy.
As it happens, when Mr Franklin met Sir Harry the then 92- year-old general had recently completed his personal memoirs, memoirs so disturbing that after his death they were quickly sealed and, it would appear, instantly forgotten. Indeed, the memory of Sir Harry himself gradually faded away, so that otherwise reliable histories of the Victorian era failed to assign him even a footnote. But, then, in 1965 during a sale of household furniture at Ashby in Leicestershire, the manuscript miraculously resurfaced. Ably edited by George MacDonald Fraser, the so-called Flashman Papers were eventually published in twelve volumes, each ‘packet’ focusing on one or more episodes from their author’s martial career. They begin with the teenaged Flashman’s expulsion from Rugby School for drunkenness – an incident mentioned in Thomas Hughes’s almost libelous Tom Brown’s School Days – and follow him up to the unpleasantness, very late in his life, with Colonel Sebastian ‘Tiger Jack’ Moran. That last name may be familiar, as Moran was once described by the consulting detective Sherlock Holmes as ‘the second most dangerous man in London’ and ‘the best heavy-game shot that our Eastern Empire has ever produced’.
But, really, what impropriety in these reminiscences could have offended the sensibilities of the Flashman family? The author was the most upright of eminent Victorians, the recipient of the San Serafino Order of Purity and Truth, the honorary president of the Mission for the Reclamation of Reduced Females, and the former governor of his alma mater, that bastion of muscular Christianity, Rugby School. Perhaps Sir Harry’s family, in particular his clerical son, the Reverend
Bishop Harry Albert Victor Flashman, simply felt it wiser for posterity to honor a public career already well documented in Dawns and Departures of a Soldier’s Life and ’Twixt Cossack and Cannon. Yet time has not been kind to these stiffly official memoirs. They are as forgotten now as if they had never existed, while great scholars and common readers alike return regularly to the Flashman Papers for instruction and delight. And, it goes without saying, for the irresistible brazen effrontery of the man himself. For in these memoirs, Sir Harry Flashman, the supposed Victorian equivalent of a ‘parfit gentil knyght,’ reveals himself to be – in his own words – ‘a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, a thief, a coward – and, oh yes, a toady.’
In fact, Flashman is one of the world’s most entertaining and beguiling rogues. He pursues life’s pleasures with Casanovian gusto, regularly employs the colorful language of the barracks, and knows that ‘there isn’t any folly a man won’t contemplate if there’s money or a woman at stake.’ With his gallant sidewhiskers, bold dark eyes with hooded lids, and strong, aquiline nose, this charming dastard – fourteen stone of sheer manliness – regularly seduces schoolgirls and queens, hides or runs away when fights break out, and manages, through deception and utter poltroonery, to survive when better men die. As he says (in Royal Flash): ‘The ideal time to be a hero is when the battle is over and the other fellows are dead, God rest ’em, and you take the credit.’
The three startling, even shocking adventures reprinted in this Everyman omnibus provide the ideal introduction to Sir Harry’s rumbustious life. In Flashman the youthful anti-hero spends his last day at Rugby, enlists in the army, captures the heart (and body) of the fair-haired Elspeth, and reluctantly embarks on a mission to mountainous, war-torn Afghanistan. In Flash for Freedom! the luckless Flashy joins the crew of an African slave ship, unwillingly assists the Underground Railroad, and fortuitously meets a rising young American politician named Abraham Lincoln. (In later years, Lincoln was known to say: ‘When all other trusts fail, turn to Flashman.’ I believe that the word ‘all’ should be emphasized.) Finally, Flashman in the Great Game takes our man into the world of Kim, as he spies for the British, dallies with a luscious maharani, and desperately struggles to survive the blood-baths of the Sepoy Mutiny.
That he does so will hardly come as a surprise, nor that he emerges from his Indian nightmare not only alive but also elevated to a knighthood. Nevertheless, a few crudely unimaginative critics have suggested that nobody could actually have escaped from so many deadly ambushes and battles. Two or three have even gone so far as to speculate that George Mac-DonaldFraser is the author, not the editor, of the Flashman Papers, with the deeply cynical implication that Flashman himself is merely a character in a series of clever novels. Sigh. What can you expect these days from cloistered academics, none of whom is even half as alive as Flashman? Flashy may not be as admirable as, say, Don Quixote, Lord Greystoke or Sherlock Holmes, but he’s certainly just as real.
Copyright © 2010 by George MacDonald Fraser. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.