“The first in the historical fiction series, The Flashman Papers.”
NO MAJOR SPOILERS
“There’s a girl across the river with a bottom like a peach – and alas, I cannot swim.”
George MacDonald Fraser pens the bio of Harry Flashman, the bully from Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays in this, the first of the Flashman series.
We are introduced to the title character and follow him from his expulsion from school to the campaign in Afghanistan and the British Army’s ignominious and disastrous expulsion from Kabul.
Flashman is, of course a rotter, bully, coward and poltroon and there is much thrashing of servants, mounting of strumpets and slaughtering of natives. He is, however, an equal opportunities cad and is equally happy rubbishing and deceiving his fellow Englishmen; peers and superiors alike.
Beware! Fraser makes no concessions to the sensibilities of the modern age and if you are offended by some pretty appaling political incorrectness, you may not want to read the series. If you can take it at face value as a portrayal (one hopes it is a somewhat exaggerated portrayal) of colonial, early Victorian English upper class, then it works admirably as an entertaining historical adventure series.
I must say, however, that this, the first in the series doesn’t quite work for me. It’s clear that we are meant to be horrified, amused and perhaps also secretly delighted by turns at Flashy’s blackguardly behaviour. Fraser pulls it off to a degree, but his wit and humour doesn’t shine through as strongly as it could, with the result that it frequently seems that Fraser is either writing a history lesson in novel form or a biography about a complete b@st@rd. In other words, it’s not quite parodical enough to be funny all the way through.
Admittedly, the series was written not only as an entertainment but also as a history lesson, and in this it performs the task admirably. Flashy is in at the major points of the campaign but also meets and works for the major players and takes part in the events leading up to the final battle, giving the reader a front row seat from start to the finish.
The book was meticulously researched so there is a lot of exposition which does detract from the plot. However, as an ex soldier himself, Fraser writes with confidence and authority and he is unstinting in his takedown of the incompetant fools who presided over this particular military disaster.
Indeed, despite his many faults, Flashman (the creature) is, at least, no incompetent and he comes off in the book rather better than many of the real historical figures that he meets and interacts with.
Overall, then, this is, with some reservations, an enjoyable, entertaining and informative read, with the expectation that the Flashman character and Fraser’s style will have matured over subsequent episodes.
Added 30th March 2015