George MacDonald Frazer is a genius. From his pen leaps the fully grown bounder, cad and all round rascal that is the inimitable Harry Flashman (VC KCB KCIE). If one reads Tom Brown’s Schooldays one finds the youthful Flashy roasting young boys and all the rest of it. Frazer takes this vile specimen of humanity and, in the form of his own memoirs, places him in every great battle of the Nineteenth Century, from the Charge of the Light Brigade, to the Indian Mutiny, to Little Bighorn and Custer’s Last Stand. And all the while Flashman – like all true bullies a tremendous coward – is quaking in his spurred cavalryman’s boots.
Frazer is as much an historian as anything, and the “memoirs” are so ac- curate that many (especially, it has to be said, our friends on the other side of the pond) are led to believe that this character really did bounder his way across the bed sheets of history and live to write his own brilliant account of his womanizing exploits. Thus Florence Nightingale, Prince Albert, George Custer and Lord Cardigan are all completely convincing, and, one feels, true to their actual selves.
But perhaps Frazer’s greatest achievement is to construct a character whom one loves but is in every way awful. In one memorable episode, Flash is racing across the frozen wastes of the Russian winter in a sled, escaping the captivity of a fearsome noble, having picked up his beautiful daughter along the way, pursued by a band of equally fear- some men on horseback. As the men gain, Flashman has a brilliant idea. Undoing the canvas, he casts the naked and sleeping girl (whose room he has been visiting nightly for the last month or so) from her nest of furs, straight out upon the snow, the sled speeding off into the distance, freed of unnecessary weight!
And yet we still love him. He promises to elope with a French prostitute in New Orleans, only to sell her to a native American tribe. And we still love him. Why? Because, I think, he is never the overlord. He is always the underdog, trying to desperately to escape trouble and live an easy life, and always, somehow, failing. The archetypal coward, he invariably, by some incredible stroke of luck, comes out as the hero. He heads the charge into the guns at Balaclava due to a bolting horse, and is awarded the VC after the Indian Mutiny for trying to do little more than chasing after an exotic queen. Very few books are as much fun as the Flashman series. I only wish I hadn’t read them all already.