For Balladeer’s Blog’s Number One Harry Flashman Novel click HERE . For background info on George MacDonald Fraser’s infamous anti-hero Harry Paget Flashman you can also click that link.
Reaction to my list of The Top Five Harry Flashman Novels continues to come in, with readers wanting more Flashman reviews.
Here’s my take on the novel which would have been in eighth place if I had done a list of my Top Eight Harry Flashman Novels.
8. FLASHMAN (1969)
Time Period: 1839-1842
Favorite Book Blurb: “In the Nineteenth Century the British Empire needed a hero. Instead, it got Harry Flashman.”
Synopsis: This very first installment of The Flashman Papers kicks off with our antihero’s notorious expulsion for drunken misconduct from Rugby School in 1839. (The sport was named for the school, not vice versa.)
After a thorough chewing-out by the real-life Doctor Thomas Arnold, the 17 year-old Harry Flashman is sent home to endure another dressing-down from his angry father. After young Harry seduces his father’s live-in tart Judy, the elder Flashman decides to get his trouble-prone son out of his hair through that old British custom of buying him an officer-ship in the army.
That’s what our protagonist wanted in the first place, and the Guv-nor buys Harry a post as a Cornet (Second Lieutenant for us Yanks) in a Cavalry Regiment. The unit selected by the ever-calculating Harry has just returned to England after years overseas, so Flashman assumes he won’t be sent to war while enjoying the benefits of a gentlemanly life of riding, sporting and letting his dashing uniform help him attract ladies.
Things don’t turn out the way Harry planned, thanks to his fondness for boozing, whoring and gambling. And thus begins a career of swashbuckling historical adventures which slip this black-hearted rogue into pivotal moments of the Nineteenth Century.
Like James Garner’s Bret Maverick character from 1950s television, Flashman brags about being a coward who’d rather avoid violence but the demands of adventure fiction always put Harry, like Bret, in situations that require conduct above and beyond the call.
Sword in hand, pistol at his side and a long line of beautiful ladies on his arm, Harry spends the next three years getting swept up in the feuding in Lord Cardigan’s Cavalry unit, the Rebecca Riots in Wales, Scotland’s labor revolt and ultimately the long string of British military disasters in the First Afghan War.
Along the way Flashman fights a fixed duel over a loose French woman named Josette, gets thrown out of Cardigan’s unit for dueling and winds up forcibly quartered with a Scottish family whose beautiful daughter Elspeth he seduces and is forced to marry. Following that infamy he’s bounced to a Cavalry outfit bound for India, where he gets the ultimate sex education from a sultry Indian lass named Fetnab.
Better late than never we readers finally get the kind of action and adventure that the later Flashman novels are chock-full of when our protagonist’s unit gets sent to Afghanistan. Disaster is in the air for the British forces there but General Elphinstone and pigheaded politician Sir William McNaghten are oblivious to it all.
The already weak British position in the area becomes less and less tenable while Harry’s underhandedness and ruthlessness make his reputation grow more and more embellished in classic antihero tradition. Flashman being Flashman he spitefully takes Narreeman, the beautiful woman of Afghan warlord Gul Shah, igniting a feud which nearly results in the blackguard’s death on several occasions.
At length the conflict remembered as the First Afghan War is raging all around Harry and as the British suffer setback after setback our scurvy main character gets his baptism of fire. Through sieges, ambushes, double-crosses, retreats, tortures and multiple massacres the Empire’s arch-scoundrel Flashman sinks as low as he has to in order to rise above it all alive and well on the other side.
After their series of inglorious defeats the British send in an enormous number of troops to score some quick reprisals against the Afghanis, then declare victory. Flashman emerges with undeserved laurels from the long, tragic, blood-drenched affair and returns to England hailed as a war hero. It’s all excellent fodder for Harry’s dark-humored reflections on “this myth called heroism, which is half-panic, half-lunacy.”
COMMENT: If this had been the first Flashman novel I had ever read I’m not sure I would have bothered reading the rest. It’s an excellent piece of work but Harry is much less likable than he is in the later books in the series. Luckily, two of those later volumes served as my introduction to the character.
The awful events depicted set up housekeeping in your mind and refuse to leave. The slaughter and worse of British women and children (thanks to the old custom of letting officers take their families with them to their duty stations) are horrific.
Still, in the best tradition of historical fiction the reader learns a great deal. In this debut adventure Flashman befriends and sometimes fights real-life figures like Italian mercenary Paolo Avitabile and Afghan leader Akbar Khan. He also mingles with a legion of British figures like Sekundar Burnes, Emily Eden, Colin Mackenzie, General “Fighting Bob” Sale and his wife Lady Sale plus many more.
Harry’s irreverent account of meeting the Duke of Wellington (“His nose-ship”), Queen Victoria and her husband Albert is hilarious and hints at the despicable yet charming Flashman of future installments.
Fraser’s wry sense of humor also surfaces in throwaway lines like a reference to Harry’s memoirs titled Dawns and Departures of a Soldier’s Life, a tongue-in-cheek joke regarding General Robert Mackenzie’s autobiographical Storms and Sunshine of a Soldier’s Life.
Exposure to the writings of George MacDonald Fraser and Robert Ludlum at a young age was an immense help to me in seeing the flaws and foulness of both the political left and right. Just as Ludlum definitely leaned left but included a lot of what would be labeled “right-wing” sentiments in his writing, Fraser definitely leaned right but included a lot of what would be labeled “left-wing” sentiments in his writing.
The non-dogmatic approach employed by those two men stands out to me more and more, as shrill partisanship comes to cloud so much present-day writing. +++
FOR MY NINTH PLACE FLASHMAN NOVEL CLICK HERE
FOR MY LOOK AT THE TOP SEVEN ROBERT LUDLUM NOVELS CLICK HERE
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