By George MacDonald Fraser
I didn't know it when I started this book but if there was going to be one novel to snap me out of my current reading funk (two atrocious books in a row, by God!) it was going to be a book about the legendary reprobate, Harry Paget Flashman.
For those not in the know (and I counted myself among you only one short week ago), Harry Paget Flashman is the bully from Tom Brown's School Days who was expelled from Rugby for public drunkenness. For over a century, this was virtually all anyone knew about Flashman until his papers were supposedly discovered in Ashby, Leicestershire in 1965. Flashman (the novel) is the first in a series of novels that expose the true fate of that famous drunk via his long lost diary.
If Holden Caufield was literature's first true anti-hero then Flashman is anti-heroism personified. A coward, lecher, bully and cheat, Flashman stumbles, bumbles, rapes and fumbles his way from Rugby to the 11th Hussars regiment, through Scotland, then India, Afghanistan and, ultimately home again. In the process he manages to seduce his father's mistress, cheat his way to fame in a dual, dishonor and subsequently marry the daughter of a Scottish industrialist, buy and sell a Hindu slave girl, run afoul of virtually every Pashtu tribesmen in Afghanistan, get tortured, narrowly (and unwittingly) escape death on more than a dozen occasions and finally become an undeserving hero and meet Queen Victoria herself. And he would have sold his grandmother at any point along the way to assure his own success.
What's not to like?
In the tradition of Colonial-ear adventure novels of the 19th and early 20th century, Flashman takes the reader on a wild ride that never lets up even for a second. As he commits one atrocity after another, looking out for absolutely nobody but himself, the reader finds himself mysteriously rooting for him to succeed at every turn. Perhaps it is his status as cowardly underdog in a world of grizzled, well-bearded British military men. Flashman is to the British Empire what Shaggy was to Fred, Velma and Daphne. Even his most heinous crimes afford him success.
But what sets this novel apart from a simple Empire adventure story is the way Fraser places Flashman square in the middle of historical events, especially those surrounding the First Anglo-Afghan War of 1839-1842. Flashman is surrounded at all times by very real historical figures who played very real roles during the war and in the novel. From Robert and Lady Sale, Akbar Khan, William McNaughten and Alexander Burnes. In fact, Burnes' assassination plays a major part in the narrative of the story. Even a young Queen Victoria holds court in Flashman, bringing the circle of relevant historical figures full circle.
Placing a dramatic yarn into the fabric of real history is a difficult proposition. Adding a despicable character as unfathomably likable as Flashman takes a lot of skill. And considering Flashman was published in 1969 I can only wonder where he has been all my life.