Flashman is a cad, a bounder, a rogue and a philanderer. He is also a work of fiction from the brilliant creative mind of GM Fraser, and based on the thinnest of cues: a bully from Tom Brown’s Schooldays.
There is nothing to love about Flashman, he has no redeeming qualities, other than a brutal honesty in the narrative of his “memoirs”, which cover a swathe of Victorian history, and key events from Wild West to the Far East. Nonetheless he has a following of readers and admirers that have made the series of thirteen books a success.
We are used to our heroes having a moral compass, even if they are deeply conflicted, complicated people, with a trail of demons. They operate to a standard, or demonstrate a degree of courage or high principle which we can admire.
Not so Flashy. He is a coward. One who will only get into a fight if the opponent is already dead. He is a scoundrel, who turns the misfortune of others to his own advantage, without thought for right or consequence. He is a womaniser, for whom any female is fair game, and any stratagem to fornicate justified by the sole standard that it succeeds irrespective of whether the recipient of his attentions is willing.
So why the fascination, and the following? Let’s knock off the basics first. The history is meticulously researched, I’ve learned more about the colonial era from Flashman than any other source, and I freely admit as a student I found any history later than about 1000AD terribly dull. And yet here it is brought vividly to life, with the only slight inaccuracy being Flashman’s presence in pivotal moments.
The writing is also excellent. It is raucous and ribald, but at the same time it whisks you along without any turgid scene setting or unnecessary verbosity.
But that is all padding, the draw of course is Flashman himself. I think the reason we like him is that he is that whispering cartoon devil sitting on one shoulder, without a righteous counterpart. For everyone who ever fell short of an absolute standard of behaviour, there is a Flashman moment when he not just falls short but kicks a hole in the bottom of the pit and keeps going. If you were ever so slightly sickened by Superman, and truth justice and the American way, well there is Flashy in the background groping Lois Lane, grinning for the camera and getting the front page credits. When Batman, be it Dark Knight or Adam West, stumbles punchdrunk away from a comatose villain it is Flashman that steps up, puts a boot on his chest and claims the kill.
For everyone not quite as good as they should be, and tired of feeling bad about it, there is Flashman. He is a reflection of ourselves in a distorting mirror, one in which we are unfettered by morals and conventions. We see Flashman, we recognise the incentives to break the rules, and we know we are better than him because we do not succumb. And secretly, sometimes, we wish we did.
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