Thursday, September 15, 2011

Harry Paget Flashman – The Most Famous Man Who Never Existed.

In 1857, an author named Thomas Hughes wrote a book called Tom Brown's School Days. The book is a semi-autobiographical piece of light fiction set in Rugby, at the boarding school there, and has cricket, discipline, and a young hero making his way through life at the Rugby School. I only mention this dull little piece of literature for its inadvertent creation of one of the most interesting faux-historical characters of all time. In the book, the title character is plagued by a bully, the scoundrel called Flashman, or Flashy, who after his defeat is expelled from the school for drunkenness. This spot is where George Macdonald Fraser picks up the life and times of Flashman, a self-admitted "scoundrel, cheat, thief, liar, coward and toady." The books, collectively called The Flashman Papers, are a trip through virtually every major world event from 1839 through 1894.

What I love about these books is the perspective character, an antihero and lout, manages to get himself into the worst possible situations, often by accident, but sometimes as a consequence of his behavior, but through sheer dumb luck and force of personality, he sails through frequently lauded as a hero. The scholarship the author went through to properly research and lay out the texts has caused more than one reviewer to mistakenly attribute the books to an actual historic figure, though his list of accolades would tip off the savvy. He is listed as VC, KCB, KCIE, Chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur, San Serafino Order of Purity and Truth, 4th Class and recipient of the U.S. Medal of Honor, having served as a Union Major and Confederate Colonel on both sides of the United States Civil War.

Despite his long military career, Flashman is an abject coward unless anyone is watching and he fears a loss of social standing and/or being executed for desertion or dereliction of duty. He claims to be naturally good at only three things: horsemanship, foreign languages and fornication. Needless to say, it isn't typically the first two that get him into trouble. Gambling, whoring and taking credit for things he hasn't done (or things he did accidentally while trying to avoid danger,) Flashman finds himself in the middle of situations such as the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Battle of Little Bighorn and the Zulu War. He crosses paths with Abraham Lincoln, Otto von Bismarck, Edward VII, and Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, among many others. Despite his bad habits and worse attitude, most of the time if anyone knows the truth about him, they are killed in battle before they can tell anyone.

One of my very favorite Flashman stories is part of his early history at age 19, when assigned to Piper's Fort in Afghanistan, Harry panics and his cowardice disgusts those around him. He sees the defenders fall one by one, including everyone who saw his lack of bravery and he is suddenly seized by an idea. If, as his fellows fight their doomed defense back to back, he can use their sacrifice to get to the fort's flag, he can surrender the colors and perhaps he will be allowed to live. He makes his way to the flag and seizes it, seeing his fellows dying all about him, he passes out, fainting in sheer terror. When relief comes, they find Harry Flashman as lone survivor, dead enemies all about him, clutching the flag and quite unconscious. Without any inconvenient witnesses to tell the true story, Flashman lets his rescuers assume that he was the heroic final defender of the fort.

Attempts to make the series into movies were only marginally successful, as the second book, Royal Flash, was adapted for the big screen in 1975 starring Malcolm MacDowell as Flashman. The book was originally a combination of The Prisoner of Zenda meeting with the Schleswieg-Holstien Question, as Flashman is charged by Otto von Bismarck with impersonating a Danish Prince.  Though Fraser wrote the screenplay for the film, he was dissatisfied with the level of control over his story that he had to surrender to Hollywood Studio-types, and he vowed that another Flashman movie would not be made in his lifetime.  True to his word, despite other offers to option the books for possible adaptation, Fraser blocked any such projects from moving forward.

Malcolm MacDowall as Harry Flashman in Royal Flash.

The complete memoirs of Harry Flashman comprised 12 books in all, written by Fraser from 1969 through 2005. I highly recommend all of the books, as a period containing the Victorian Era, the American Civil War and Old West, and the many Civil Wars and pivotal historic battles are amazing to see through the eyes of a single character whose base nature puts him as likely to be mixed up with the Underground Railroad as he is attempting to cheat on a duel to the death over a prostitute. I personally based a highwayman-type character loosely on Flashman, borrowing the name and some of the base nature for a character I played in the 7th Sea Roleplaying game, though that particular character was more properly closer in historic period and nature to Harry Flashman's grandfather John "Jack" Flashman, pirate, slaver and source of the family's initial wealth.
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Jay said...

thanks for the feature, looking for this flashman guy right now. :)

Alpha said...

He sounds like a gigantic douche.

Chris Kutalik said...

I just finished the first book two nights ago, loved it but winced at any number of points (especially the highly-accurate racism).

Reminded me a lot of a Victorian Vance character, especially of Cugel, a big plus one.

neatfit said...

I like this post, this is very informative.

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