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Book Review: Flashman On the March by George McDonald Fraser

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“When all other trusts fail, turn to Flashman”– Abraham Lincoln

“For an instant, even I was appalled. But only for an instant.” – H.P. Flashman

When Sir Harry Flashman (VC, KCB) finds himself in desperate need of a quiet and quick exit out of Trieste (“ain’t much of town unless your in trade or banking or some other shady pursuit…”) to duck the enraged uncle of yet another amorous conquest, he ends up escorting a load of silver intended to support the British Expedition to Abyssinia in 1868. And with that, the twelfth packet of the Flashman Papers begins…

Flashman On the March is the latest Flashman novel penned by George MacDonald Fraser. Fraser lifted Flashman wholesale out the famous Victorian book Tom Brown’s Schooldays by Thomas Hughes. In Hughes book, Flashman was the bullying, cowardly tormentor of Brown and his friends at the Rugby School, before being expelled for drunkeness.

Fraser has asked the timeless question: what happens next? And so began the Flashman Papers, Harry Flashman’s unvarnished memoirs, set down in Flashman’s old age. The long-running series of historical fiction (the first of which appeared in 1968) traces Flashman’s illustrious career in the British Army, dropping him into most of the major historical events and almost all of the unmitgated military disasters of the era.

Flashman, though bluff and bold-faced in appearance, is a caddish, bullying, womanizing coward who manages, through luck, knavish skill and consummate acting, to find himself hailed as a Victorian hero in the first book. The remaining books follow a similar formula with Flashy trying desperately to get out from under while maintaining his dauntless facade and reputation, lecherously pursuing every available female in reach and pocketing any “blunt” and credit he finds along the way. His adventures include escaping the destruction of the British Army in Afghanistan in 1842 (where he accidentally develops his heroic reputation), skulking through the Sikh War and Soboran, bedding Lola Montez during the Schleswig-Holstein crisis, battling Skrang River pirates in Borneo, keeping the mad Queen of Madagascar happy, and instigating the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War. Other honors include the Indian Mutiny, the Taiping Rebellion, the March on Beijing, Little Big Horn and the American Civil War (serving on both sides, no less). And that really just covers the major engagements….

In Flashman On the March, Flashman finds himself reluctantly hooked into the British Expedition to Abysinnia. The Abysinnia Expedition was one of those stranger-than-fiction events that lurk in the back annals of history. Launched expressly for the purpose of rescuing a handful of British hostages being held by Emperor Theodore, the Abysinnia Expedition saw 12,000 British troops travel deep into the interior of Abysinnia to face down Theodore’s army.

Flashy finds himself cajoled by Robert Napier (“Bob the Bughunter” as Flashman terms him) into journeying into the interior to cement a secret alliance with the Gallas, preventing Theodore and the hostages from escaping the British by cutting off their retreat. Needless to say, Flashy finds himself on the sharp end yet again, ducking out on his enemies, cavorting with his female guide (also a jealous contender for the Galla throne), hobnobbing with the insane Emperor Theodore, and generally behaving with a reckless disregard for honor, duty or anything but the preservation of his own skin and reputation.

Flashman is very refreshing…and utterly politically incorrect. Fraser has gifted him with an unmitigated honesty that tars all the players involved with equal amounts of scorn, blame and praise (where necessary). Flashman provides Fraser with a worthy pawn for history’s canvas and allows him to weave Flashman’s disreputable adventures seamlessly with real historical figures (thus we’ve seen Flashman annoying Lord Cardigan, trying (and failing) to befuddle Lincoln, hoaxing Bismark into a boxing match…and many, many more escapades) helping to bring both the historic characters and their times into new light.

Here’s a brief excerpt:

“You gather from this that I was in a tranquil, optimistic mood as I set off on my Abyssinian odyssey, ass that I was. You’d ha’ thought, after all I’d seen and suffered in my time, that I’d have remembered all the occasions when I’d set off carefree and unsuspecting along some seemingly primrose path only to go head first into the pit of damnation at t’other end. But you never can tell.

I couldn’t foresee as I stood content in the bow, watching green fire foaming up from the forefoot, feeling the soft Adriatic breeze on my face, hearing the oaths and laughter of the Jollies and the strangled wailing of some frenzied tenor in the crew – I couldn’t foresee the screaming charge of long-haired warriors swinging their hideous sickle-blades against the Sikh bayonets, or the huge mound of rotting corpses under the precipice at Islamgee, or the ghastly forest of crucifixes at Gondar, or feel the agonizing bite of steel bars against my body as I swung caged in the freezing gale above a yawning void…

Aye, it’s an interesting country Abyssinia”

The Flashman novels are more then just an adventurous farce however. Fraser’s descriptions of Flashman’s many battles quite literally take the reader into the heart of the fight, presenting, alongside the humor and comic aspects of Flashman’s adventures, a deep and abiding feel for the horror, chaos and confusion that permeates the martial engagements. Given that Fraser fought in Burma in WWII (see “Quartered Safe Out Here“, his war memoirs for details) in an environment that had far more in common with 19th century warfare then with the 20th, it is not surprising that he can bring both a historian’s acumen and personal experience to bear on events.

Fraser’s latest Flashman book (and frankly all the books in the series) is a throughly enjoyable romp and highly recommended.

For some information on Abyssinia, check out the Abyssinia Cyber Gateway. Interested in a quick primer on Abyssinnia? Check out the ever dependable Wikipedia.

One of the many figures who pops up in Flashman’s latest is George A, Henty, a British author who basically started the “boy’s own” series of adventure novels in the 19th century. Henty also wrote about the Abyssinia Expedition (and accompanied it) in The March to Magdala. You can peruse some of his works online here, but alas, not his book on Abyssinia.

There’s a fair number of Flashman sites online including The Royal Flashman Society of Upper Canada, The Flashman Society, and the Royal Flashman Society of Southwest Virginia, which includes the Flashman Macropedia site which is bursting with Flashman background and trivia.

Lastly, here’s a peek at Tisisat Falls, which plays a key role in Flashy’s latest tome and provides yet another opportunity for Flashman to give readers keen insight into the deplorable depths of his character…no I’m not going to explain it, but it is, bluntly, classic Flashman.

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About Deano

  • Wow – I can’t believe he’s still writing Flashman novels – neat:)

  • He’s now in his 80’s and it was almost five years since the last one, so I’m not sure how many more we can expect….on the other hand, he’s an irascible, hard-drinking Scot, so he could be around for another 20 years or so…(touch wood!)

  • Good review. So good it discourages me from writing one when I finish the book – I’m only halfway through now.

    I should note that in the time since the last Flashman novel he did write Black Ajax (soon to be a major motion picture) and the fascinating memoir Light’s on at Signpost which is a unique combination of hollywood reminiscences and critiques of current British politics. So he’s not necessarily slowed down that much.


  • THese sound like a delightful counter to the fun but somewhat straightforward Henty books. I’m going to check these out — thanks!

  • Black Ajax is being done as a film? When and where? It would make a great film…provided you had a director who really respected and understood the material. It’s a hell of a story, int he right hands.

    I had heard that ITV was considering a Flashman series (along the lines of the Sharpe series) but had finally opted not to move forward with it, but seeing Black Ajax on the big screen would make me very happy.

    I still regularly watch my DVD set of the 3 Musketeers and the 4 Musketeers, script penned by JMF…

  • Frank Pierce

    An excellent review of the Flashman novels – and I’ve read them all. But I want to take just a hair of exception to the statement in the review “Flashman, though bluff and bold-faced in appearance, is a caddish, bullying, womanizing coward …”

    True? Yes, but there’s more to Flashman than that. He’s a lot of what the general puhlic considers ol’ Harry to be – a bone fide military genius and splendid tactician. Read Mr. American, another Frazer novel in which the aging General Flashman (in something of a cameo role) at the outbreak of the Great War, and near death, reveals a side of himself in a way which is evident only through his actions and not his words. He is that authentic hero at heart, so beloved by the British public.

    Perhaps, Harry Flashman is the only truly honest man in all of literature, for he alone will frankly admit to abject terror when confronted with mortal danger. And who else but Harry Flashman could survey a column file of Indians on the crest of a hill and deduce the threat they posed merely because of their posture and the gait of their horses – and write a full page to explain it?

    If all goes to Hell, you could do no better than to follow Harry Flashman.

    Frank Pierce

  • Flashman is certainly a more believable hero then the steely-eyed paladins that tend to inhabit most fiction.

    I’d have to disagree with your assessment of him as a “bon fide military genius and spelendid tactician” for as Flashman himself notes “he could bungle a section movement with the best of them” and, in none of his books so far, was Harry actually commanding significant numbers of troops in a battle (he did cause a few battles, but didn’t actually command the battle that ensued).

    Flashman would characteristically be more likely to send in the troops and linger quietly in the back, waiting to see how they did before lighting out for the tall grass at the first hint of trouble…

  • Frank Pierce

    Deana: I’d certainly agree with you on your idea that Flashman would be more likely to send troops into battle and sit quietly … We have dozens of examples, but I’d guess that given Frazer’s constraints in creating a fictional character, I don’t see how he could have done more. He’s always the man who wasn’t there – remember Flashman on the March and his last conversation with General Napier(after Theodore’s demise). The plot was carefully constructed to ensure that the name of Flashman would not need to appear in the pages of history.

    And yes, Flashman probably wouldn’t have believed that he could even give a “Squads-right” command and do it right. But did he ever admire any military commander anywhere? He took them to all to be a bunch of damned fools and incompetents – Remember his assessments of Lord Cardigan and General Custer. (OK, he did grudgingly admire Wellington.)

    But could he look with steely-eyed clarity (and abject terror) at any military situation and know when the jig was up, and ensure that ol’ Flashy was well out of harm’s way before the bloody climax? And this while those in command were blitheringly optimistic? He would know the order of battle long before those around him and he’d bring an unerring professional eye to it. He saw human nature, including his own, as self-serving and competitive.

    But he hated war, not through the eyes of a moon-calf pacifist but through the eyes of a seasoned cynic. And he loved England (and I think Elsbeth). He showed us the former in his magnificent curtain call speech to Franklin, the American, with a realistic and fearful pre-assessment of the course of the Great War in which the world be forever changed, and the Great Britain he knew and loved would perish.

    But, on the night of the outbreak, he rallied the people massed there in Trafalgar Square and in front of Buckingham Palace as he rode in an open carriage through the palace gates to see the King. They cheered Flashman. It was “Flashman, Thank God you are here” all over again, and he raised and rallied their spirits when his nation needed it.

    (Although he confesses to his companion that he ain’t going there to see the King at all, but the Palace has the only clean loo in all of this end of London, and old men with kidneys ravaged by age and drink have to go at unforeseen times.)