In my 20s I discovered the joys of reading British writer George MacDonald Fraser. MacDonald served as a soldier in Burma during World War II. He wrote a memoir of his experiences in Burma and Indochina but his reputation rest mostly on his fantastic series of Flashman novels. Flashman was originally a creation of Thomas Hughes and his 1857 Tom Brown’s School Days. Harry Flashman was the egregious cowardly bully who made Tom and his friend’s days miserable. Fraser’s stroke of genius was to create a backstory for Flashman and turn him into a hilarious and surprisingly likable antihero who’s different adventures take him across the globe in the Nineteenth Century. The Flashman Papers are wildly entertaining and the literary gold standard for comedic historical novels. Fraser’s was an excellent writer. He was also good historian and the novels are impressive for their accuracy and the author’s breadth of knowledge regarding the history of the British Empire and the history of the Nineteenth Century in general.
The first novel, Flashman, introduces the character to the reader. He is, by any account, a thoroughly selfish bully of a man lacking anything in the way of virtuous charterer. He seemingly thinks of nothing but gaining wealth, good living, and bedding whatever unsuspecting maiden he can manage to seduce. I won’t give away too much of the plot, but through a series of circumstances Flashman arrives in British India and is posted—much to his chagrin—to Afghanistan. The Emirate of Afghanistan in the late 1830s served as a playground in what became known as the Great Game between Great Britain and Russia for control of Central Asia. British machinations for the region encountered the pride of the Afghan emir, Dost Mohammad Khan. After a series of short battles the British empire with the assistance of Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab deposed Dost Mohammad and replaced with Shah Shujah Durrani, a cruel and vindicative man hated by the Afghan people. Dost Mohammad’s partisans began a guerilla war that culminated the utter defeat of the allied British-Punjab armies occupying Kabul. Their bravery and endurance during the infamous retreat from the Afghan capital became the stuff of legend.
Flashman’s actions throughout the book are hysterically funny mix of bravery and cowardice. He is at once noble and despicable; admirable and deplorable. He is, undoubtedly, sinner and yes even saint at times. But his openness about his condition endears him to the reader. He cast doubt on the vaunted but shallow paradigms of social adulation in his society. “This myth called bravery,” Flashman tells the reader, “which is half-panic, half-lunacy (in my case, all panic), pays for all; in England you can’t be a hero and bad. There’s practically a law against it.” Harry knows he’s not a good man even if people consider him a hero, and his honesty becomes a sort of strength throughout the entirety of The Flashman Papers.
Harry has no need to obfuscate, for example, about the true nature of Britain’s imperial adventure in Afghanistan in the 1830s and 1840s or the reasons for Britain’s military defeat. There is something essentially virtuous in Flashman’s honesty. His inability, or unwillingness, to lie in order to maintain the fiction of competence and righteousness is compelling to the point the reader eventually finds Flashman preferable to all the “real” heroes he encounters in his adventures. This honesty indicates a sort of self-knowledge that reflects a truer pietas and gravitas than what passes for glossy but often vaporous heroism and respectability in Western society in 2021. “There’s a point, you know,” Harry observes, “where treachery is so complete and unashamed that it becomes statesmanship.”