There’s never been an anti-hero quite so … heroic … as Harry Paget Flashman. Cad, coward, spendthrift, popinjay, drunkard, turncoat, bully: all the things you’d normally avoid in the ordinary protagonist of your ordinary reading (and hopefully in your daily existence) are Flashman’s best features. In his private memoirs (transcribed from his papers by George MacDonald Fraser), Flashy is charmingly consistent in relating his tales without concealing a single detail of his abominable behavior. Anyone else might occasionally attempt to justify their behavior, but Flashman is perfectly aware of his “strengths,” and that candor forms the root of his attraction. (And if there was even a single hint of remorse, the whole edifice would come tumbling down.) In the course of 12 volumes, Flashy travels more miles than Phileas Fogg (usually on the run or under arrest), beds more women than Casanova, and escapes hordes of outraged husbands, parents, and harem guards. Honestly, what’s not to like?
He also manages to participate in every military scrap of any significance, in spite of his deep and abiding concern for his own skin. (In one of his famous references, he somehow manages to fight on both sides at Gettysburg, winning medals from both the Union and Confederacy. Alas, Fraser was not able to edit and present those papers to his readers.) And, although he would prefer to be in the rear cheering on the fools and would-be heroes, events always conspire to put him in the thick of things. Despite his best (worst?) instincts, somehow he survives to get the credit, the medals, and the reputation. Problem is, everyone expects him to keep living up to his reputation and the cycle starts all over again.
Flashman at the Charge recounts his misadventures in the Crimean War, and his return to the land that made him a hero the first time around. When the story takes off, Flashy has detected the rising drumbeat for war with Russia and successfully gotten himself into a billet guaranteed to suit his indolent life—part of the British Army’s Board of Ordnance. The Board gives him great cover as an essential part of the war effort, and allows him to live at home with his randy wife, go to his club, and chase the prostitutes and young women of London. When a young European prince is turned over to the “heroic” Flashy to complete his military education, all of Flashman’s efforts are for naught and he finds himself aboard a transport heading to the Black Sea. His chagrin is offset by cases of excellent wine and cigars, the finest foodstuffs, and new uniforms designed to highlight his magnificent physique.
Being Flashman, he winds up at the center of the Battle of Balaclava, culminating in the Charge of the Light Brigade. And being Flashman, he happily accedes to surrender, especially when taken to the estate of a Russian noble blessed with a beautiful sister and daughter. Being Flashman, he’s happy to make their most intimate acquaintance, which he’s determined to enjoy until a treaty is signed. And, of course, being Flashman, there’s a fly in the pudding that sends him rushing headlong from his host’s house. The journey that follows takes him all the way back to the Khyber Pass and the tribal guerilla war against the Russians, and another unwanted opportunity to be a hero. The poor fellow just can’t catch a break.
Barry wrote a fine obituary for George MacDonald Fraser when he died nearly four years before this post (!), capturing all of Flashy’s appeal. My enjoyment stems from the historical detail that Flashman provides and that Fraser annotates. Flashman also has an eye for the social hypocrisy and sometimes the brutality that he witnesses. Ironically, he does not notice his own casual racism which is cringe-worthy in the modern reader but accurate for the English upper class of his day. Finally, it’s amazing to see the parallels between Flashy’s adventures and the modern day. If the Kremlin and the White House had read the first Flashman book, the hard lessons learned by the British might have dissuaded them from wading into the morass of Afghanistan. There truly is nothing new under the sun.
Check the WRL Catalog for Flashman at the Charge