Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Harry Paget Flashman

Sir Harry Paget Flashman VC KCB KCIE is a fictional character created by George MacDonald Fraser (1925–2008), but based on the character "Flashman" in Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857), a semi-autobiographical work by Thomas Hughes (1822–1896).

In Hughes' book, Flashman is the notorious bully of Rugby School who persecutes Tom Brown, and who is finally expelled for drunkenness. Twentieth century author George MacDonald Fraser had the idea of writing Flashman's memoirs, in which the school bully would be identified with an "illustrious Victorian soldier": experiencing many 19th century wars and adventures and rising to high rank in the British Army, acclaimed as a great soldier, while remaining by his unapologetic self-description "a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, a thief, a coward—and oh yes, a toady." Fraser's Flashman is an antihero who runs from danger or hides cowering in fear, betrays or abandons acquaintances at the slightest incentive, bullies and beats servants with gusto, beds every available woman, carries off any loot he can grab, and gambles and boozes enthusiastically. Nevertheless, through a combination of luck and cunning, he usually ends each volume acclaimed as a hero.

Fraser gave Flashman a lifespan from 1822 to 1915 and a birth-date of 5 May. Flashman's first and middle names appear in Hughes's novel. Fraser uses them to make an ironic allusion to Henry Paget, 1st Marquess of Anglesey, and one of the heroes of Waterloo, who cuckolded the Duke of Wellington's brother Henry Wellesley and later - in one of the period's more celebrated scandals - married Wellesley's ex-wife.

In Flashman, Flashman says that the family fortune was made by his great-grandfather, Jack Flashman, in America trading in rum, slaves and "piracy too, I shouldn't wonder." Despite their wealth, the Flashmans "were never the thing": Flashman quotes the diarist Henry Greville's comment that "the coarse streak showed through, generation after generation, like dung beneath a rosebush." His father, Henry Buckley Flashman, appears in Black Ajax (1997). Buckley, a bold young officer in the British cavalry, was wounded in action at Talavera in 1809. He then tried to get into "society" by sponsoring bare-knuckle boxer Tom Molineaux (the first black man to contend for a championship) and subsequently married Flashman's mother Lady Alicia Paget, a fictional relation of the real Marquess of Anglesey. Buckley also served as a Member of Parliament but was "sent to the knacker's yard at Reform". Beside politics, his interests were drinking, fox hunting (riding to hounds) and women.

The series is a classic use of false documents. In a preface to the first book, Fraser described the discovery of General Flashman's memoirs in an antique tea-chest in a Leicestershire saleroom in 1965. As the "editor" of the papers, Fraser produced a series of historical novels that give a largely picaresque (or arguably cynical) description of British and American history during the 19th century. Dozens of major and minor figures from history appear in the books, often in inglorious or hypocritical roles. Characters from other fictional works appear occasionally, notably Sherlock Holmes and some of the boys from Tom Brown's Schooldays.

Fraser's research was considerable. The books are heavily annotated, with end notes and appendices, as Fraser (in accordance with the pretence of the memoirs) attempts to "confirm" (and in some cases "correct") the elderly Flashman's recollections of events. In many cases, the footnotes serve to inform the reader that a particularly outlandish character really existed or that an unlikely event actually occurred.

In outline there are some similarities to Thomas Berger's 1964 novel Little Big Man, in which a 121-year-old man recounts his numerous adventures and escapades in the American Old West. William Thackeray's The Luck of Barry Lyndon made similar use of an unreliable first-person narrator and footnotes, with Thackeray using them to cast doubt on the protagonist's version of events. Another influence might be Mark Twain's short story Luck, about an illustrious British general who was actually a blundering fool, but whose mistakes in the Crimean War always ended in success.

The half-scholarly tone has occasionally led to misunderstandings. When the first book, Flashman, was published in the United States, ten of 34 reviews took it to be an obscure but real memoir. Several of these were written by academics – to the delight of The New York Times, which published a selection of the more trusting reviews.

For the American publication, Fraser created a fictional entry for Flashman in the 1909 edition of Who's Who. The entry lists Flashman's laurels: VC, KCB, KCIE; Chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur; U.S. Medal of Honor; San Serafino Order of Purity and Truth, 4th Class. The entry also summarizes his military career, both in the British army and as a wandering adventurer. It notes encounters with the "White Rajah" of Sarawak, with Queen Ranavalona of Madagascar, and with Emperor Maximilian of Mexico; and service as a Union major and as a Confederate colonel during the American Civil War. (Allusions in Flash For Freedom and Flashman and the Redskins indicate that he did indeed fight on both sides in the war, but that it was part of some elaborate and dangerous intrigue instigated by Abraham Lincoln.)

George MacDonald Fraser stated that his favourite maritime historical novels were those of the Hornblower series by C.S. Forester

Flashman was a large man, six feet two inches (1.88 m) tall and close to 13 stone (about 180 pounds or 82 kg). In Flashman and the Tiger, he mentions that one of his grandchildren has black hair and eyes, resembling him in his younger years. His dark colouring frequently enabled him to pass (in disguise) for a Pashtun. He claimed only three natural talents: horsemanship, facility with foreign languages, and fornication. He became an expert cricket bowler, but that was through hard effort (he needed sporting credit at Rugby School, and was afraid to play rugby football). He could also display a winning personality, when he wanted to, and was very skilled at flattering those more important than himself without appearing servile.

As he admitted in the Papers, Flashman was a coward, who would flee from danger if there was any way to do so, and on some occasions collapsed in funk. He had one great advantage in concealing this weakness: when he was frightened, his face turned red, rather than white, so that observers thought he was excited, enraged, or exuberant - as a hero ought to be.

After his expulsion from Rugby School for drunkenness, the young Flashman looked for an easy life. He had his wealthy father buy him an officer's commission in the fashionable 11th Regiment of Light Dragoons. The 11th, commanded by Lord Cardigan, later involved in the Charge of the Light Brigade, had just returned from India and were not likely to be posted abroad soon. Flashman threw himself into the social life that the 11th offered and became a leading light of Canterbury society.

A duel with another officer over a French courtesan led to his being temporarily stationed in Scotland. There he met and deflowered Elspeth Morrison, daughter of a wealthy textile manufacturer, whom he had to marry in a "shotgun wedding". But marriage to the daughter of a mere businessman forced his resignation from the snobbish 11th Lights. He was sent to India to make a career in the army of the East India Company. Unfortunately, his language talent and his habit of flattery brought him to the attention of the Governor-General. The Governor did him the (very much unwanted) favour of assigning him as aide to General Elphinstone in Afghanistan. Flashman survived the ensuing debacle by a mixture of sheer luck and unstinting cowardice. He became an unwitting hero: the defender of Piper's Fort, where he was the only surviving white man, and was found by the relieving troops clutching the flag and surrounded by enemy dead. Of course, Flashman arrived at the Fort by accident, collapsed in terror rather than fight, was forced to stand and show fight by his subordinate, and was 'rumbled' for a complete coward. He had been trying to surrender the colours, not defend them. Happily for him, all inconvenient witnesses had been killed.

This incident set the tone for Flashman's life. Over the next 60 years or so, he was involved in many of the major military conflicts of the 19th century—always in spite of his best efforts to evade his duty. He was often selected for especially dangerous jobs because of his heroic reputation. He met many famous people, and survived some of the worst military disasters (the First Anglo-Afghan War, Charge of the Light Brigade, the Siege of Cawnpore, Battle of the Little Bighorn, Battle of Isandlwana), always coming out with more heroic laurels. The date of his last adventures seems to have been around 1900. He died in 1915.

Despite his admitted cowardice, Flashman was a dab hand at fighting when he had to. Though he dodged danger as much as he could, and ran away when no one was watching, after the Piper's Fort incident, he usually controlled his fear and often performed bravely. Almost every book contains one or more incidents where Flashman had to fight or perform some other daring action, and held up long enough to complete it. For instance, he was ordered to accompany the Light Brigade on its famous charge, and rode all the way to the Russian guns. It should be pointed out that most of these acts of 'bravery' were performed only when he had absolutely no choice, and to do anything else would have resulted in his being exposed as a coward and losing his respected status in society, or being shot for desertion. When he could act like a coward with impunity, he invariably did.

Flashman surrendered to fear in front of witnesses only a few times, and was never caught out again. During the siege of Pipers fort, in the first novel, Flashman cowered weeping in his bed at the start of the final assault; the only witness to this died before relief came. He broke down while accompanying Rajah Brooke during a battle with pirates, but the noise drowned out his blubbering, and he recovered enough to command a storming party of sailors (placing himself right in the middle of the party, to avoid stray bullets). After the Charge of the Light Brigade, he fled in panic from the fighting in the battery - but mistakenly charged into an entire Russian regiment, adding to his heroic image.

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