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Book Nook: The Flashman Series, by George MacDonald Fraser

I've only read the first one and I found Flashman too dislikeable to continue* - wasn't aware of any of the background controversies David alludes to. (I had a similar problem with Bernard Cornwell's Last Kingdom books). It's a shame because I can definitely see how the series is a good way to bring plenty of historical corners of the 19th century and its wars to life, in a way that feels less contrived than Sharpe eventually teleporting to every battle in the Peninsular War. Allan Mallinson has since tried to do the same thing, with a less repugnant (albeit also less colourful and interesting) protagonist, with the wars in between Waterloo and the 1840s where Flashman starts.

The idea of the author using a character who'd been an antagonist in a pre-existing book is also very odd to me, almost like published unlicensed fanfiction - not at all what you picture from this era. I can't decide if I like that concept or not.

*There's a bit in the recently released Volume VI of Look to the West, hint hint, where I have a lawyer-friendly cameo French version of Flashman who tries his usual cowardly stunt, only for him to get killed and the antagonists to let the young naive subaltern (who believed all his stories) go free instead. I found that cathartic to write, and that's only based on me reading the first book!
 
I've never read Flashman, but I find it bizarre that the Other Ranks are given so little voice given that GMF's McAuslan books contain colourful characters at every rank.
 
I'd heard about Flashman being a scoundrel everyone thinks is a hero - and read some of the Caphius Cain 40k's, which is "Flashman but 40k" - so it was a shock to get the first book, with a cover showing a rougish Flashy with a sexy native woman on his leg, and there's a rape scene described by an unrepentant Flashman. In the general tone of the book, this works because of course  Flashman, like real men of empires and occupations, considers this a scoundrel tale but it was weird that the real world agreed.

The description of the big retreat and corpses everywhere, bloody hell though does that stick. As does Flashman going "lol" over a soldier in tears over dead Afhan children.

The idea of the author using a character who'd been an antagonist in a pre-existing book is also very odd to me, almost like published unlicensed fanfiction - not at all what you picture from this era. I can't decide if I like that concept or not.

I like that as a central gag concept (said the Kim Newman fan): the Hero of the Empire is someone the original audience knows as a nasty little bully, the system lets him get away with it again. Though now Flashman seems most famous as his own thing, like Dixon of Dock Green being more famous than The Blue Lamp
 
I'd heard about Flashman being a scoundrel everyone thinks is a hero - and read some of the Caphius Cain 40k's, which is "Flashman but 40k"
See, I had heard that comparison, but I've read six of the Cain books and I think it's a facile one. Cain almost feels like a double-bluff triple-reverse Flashman, he insists to the reader that he's a filthy coward, but his actual behaviour is honourable and fairly courageous (e.g. not abandoning his friends), in some ways more so than most 40K characters. Which also makes him a much more likeable character and his books more readable and less dystopian than many 40K ones. (Also, I love the incongruous Winnie-the-Pooh references strewn throughout).
 
I've never read Flashman, but I find it bizarre that the Other Ranks are given so little voice given that GMF's McAuslan books contain colourful characters at every rank.

Even more so when you remember that GMF was both an Other Rank and a Junior Officer.

Maybe in the Flashman books, the ignoring of the lower class was a character thing rather than an author thing.
 
Even more so when you remember that GMF was both an Other Rank and a Junior Officer.

Maybe in the Flashman books, the ignoring of the lower class was a character thing rather than an author thing.

It's hard to tell, because as you note the books often veer into GMF's vile snarling at young people today and brown people of all days, but at the same time Flashman himself has a very strong voice as well. Then you complicate that with the fact that Fraser absolutely loved swashbucklers- see his grotesque but charming The Pyrates, the Prisoner of Zenda send-up Royal Flash and even Octopussy. To some extent the classism might just be a function of the genre he was emulating.

They are strange books. I can see why Wodehouse made his famous remark about them being his Cortez's men on a peak in Darien moment; they are milestones in twentieth century popular literature in at least three different field- historical fiction, the swashbuckler, and comic fiction.

They're also so horrible; masterpieces I can only recommend with the heaviest of caveats. And I think the imitators its spawned only flag up the audacity of the books- I'm the mirror image of @Thande because I bounced off the Cain books immediately since after reading Fraser the whole 'oh he thinks he's a coward but he's not' just felt so... unambitious. There was an attempt to do something similar with a Royal Navy Napoleonic series a while back, a couple of versions in America with... Tom Sawyer? I think. But almost everyone blanches at going as far as Fraser.

And that's the thing- they are books I can understand someone not liking. They are books I can understand someone hating. But they absolutely commit to their project, they go the whole hog, they delve into excess and debauchery and horror and evil and damn your eyes if you don't approve.

And they are, in many ways, a necessary, greasy shadow of Zulu and Sharpe and Lawrence of Arabia and every other story of a steely eyed Briton going to far of places to dare and do.
 
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And that's the thing- they are books I can understand someone not liking. They are books I can understand someone hating. But they absolutely commit to their project, they go the whole hogg, they delve into excess and debauchery and horror and evil and damn your eyes if you don't approve.

That's a great insight that I had been struggling to encapsulate in a coherent thought. The books commit to the project without apology, and allied with GMF's undoubted facility with painting a word picture make the whole thing vivid.

I bounced off the Cain books immediately since after reading Fraser the whole 'oh he thinks he's a coward but he's not' just felt so... unambitious.

I tend to agree. There are characters (Hornblower being the example that comes most readily to my mind) who don't see themselves as heroic but simply doing the job in front of them with a calculating eye (I've seen it postulated that Hornblower as written is clearly somewhere on the autistic scale, loving order and not really "getting" human emotions; I'll leave it to those who know more about the subject to say whether that is bunk or not); a coward who is actually brave seems to be trying to have it both ways. If you're going to write a coward, then commit and don't weasel out of it.
 
(I've seen it postulated that Hornblower as written is clearly somewhere on the autistic scale, loving order and not really "getting" human emotions; I'll leave it to those who know more about the subject to say whether that is bunk or not);
I would tend to agree with that, having independently reached that conclusion when I read a few of the Hornblower books, with the same caveat you give that I'm not qualified to definitively state it.
a coward who is actually brave seems to be trying to have it both ways. If you're going to write a coward, then commit and don't weasel out of it.
Well, it depends. If Sandy Mitchell (the author of Ciaphas Cain) is deliberately going for 'Flashman the Fake Hero Dirty Coward but IN SPAAACE, but plot twist/inconsistent writing, he's not actually a coward, so' then your criticism and @SenatorChickpea 's is fair. However, I am very mindful that that might not be his intention at all, and more something pushed by the publisher as branding.* It may well be that the character gimmick he was going for was more "Everyone else in Warhammer 40K seems to be a real true believer in the Imperium and the righteousness of their cause, but this guy is the only one sane enough to be cynical about it, but can't admit it and always ends up assigned to the frontline regardless". That also somewhat describes Flashman's own cynicism about some imperial ventures (from what I recall) but is arguably distinct from his cowardice.

*Another example - the first book I read by Brandon Sanderson was "Mistborn: The Final Empire". The UK edition of this has a tagline "What if the Dark Lord won?" and the blurb seems to imply the concept is it's set in a LOTR-esque fantasy world in the aftermath of evil winning. The book and setting are actually nothing like that at all, and I was initially brassed off because I felt I'd been sold a false premise. It took me a while to realise that the book is still good on its own merits (IMO of course) and it might well be that Sanderson's publishers are the ones selling the false premise. After all, as I always quote, the first Discworld novel was given a forced tagline of "Lord of the Rings meets Peter Pan with a side order of Jerome K. Jerome" (??)
 
In interviews, Mitchell has said Cain is based on Flashman but also talks of Cain showing doubt & self-deprecation so it's more the basic concept than a 1-to-1. Him caring really might be how he developed due to being less of a bastard.

MacDonald's Flashman being darker than a grimdarkfuture commisar in only war says something, doesn't it?
 
Thanks for the review David, I read it with interest. I have to admit that I wasn't aware of either the author's views, or Flashman's obvious nastiness. I quite enjoyed the two or three of the books I had read when I was much younger, but then I had also enjoyed the Gor books. With my present hard earned maturity I hope I am significantly more alert to racial prejudice and discrimination, and other social inequalities such as sexism, and have no interest in ever revisiting either of those two series.
 
I always had the feeling Flashy was one of the characters we love to hate - Alan B'Stard, Basil Faulty, some of the Blackadders, Alex the investment banker, some of the AH takes on Skorzeny; characters who are really awful people, by any objective standard, but they're also entertaining.

Of course, it could also be a snide dig at so-called 'heroes ...'

Chris
 
Thanks for the review David, I read it with interest. I have to admit that I wasn't aware of either the author's views, or Flashman's obvious nastiness. I quite enjoyed the two or three of the books I had read when I was much younger, but then I had also enjoyed the Gor books. With my present hard earned maturity I hope I am significantly more alert to racial prejudice and discrimination, and other social inequalities such as sexism, and have no interest in ever revisiting either of those two series.

I know little of the Gor books save by reputation; the Flashman books I still have mixed feelings about, even after writing the review. GMF was a brilliant writer. There can be little doubt about that. Quartered Safe Out Here (his memoirs of his time in Burma during WW2), Steel Bonnets (a history of the Border Reivers), Hollywood History of the World (although GMF's historical strengths and weaknesses are evident), Mr American (a fiction set in Edwardian England), the MacAuslan series... They're all unquestionably brilliant of their kind. The man could write, and I would be delighted if I could write half as well.

But.

That's where I keep ending up with any consideration of GMF.

To take another example from his last memoirs The Light's On at Signpost...

...it (the three minute silence in the aftermath of 9/11) offended me almost as much as the hypocrisy of Bush and Blair in their refusal to explain why the Taliban, for shielding Bin Laden, could be treated as an enemy and targeted with the utmost ferocity, while the Irish Republic, which has given refuge and sympathy to the IRA, could not. We know why, of course: Bush presumably wants to get re-elected some day, and Blair wouldn't dream of disturbing his ill-named peace process...

Now, I was present during The Troubles in a way that GMF wasn't, with two tours with the Royal Marines in the 1970s (the worst period) and some minor involvement during the mid 1990s. I've seen Northern Ireland before and after the GFA, and I can assure people that the peace process is not "ill-named".

What can I say? I can go round and round in circles trying to make sense of what I think about GMF in general, and the Flashman series in particular. All I have come up with is that on the one hand, they're brilliantly written and evocative; and on the other hand, it glorifies a lot of seriously unpleasantness.
 
I know little of the Gor books save by reputation;

You've missed very little. They started out as a cross between science-fiction and fantasy, but devolved into weird sexual fantasies about women finding happiness in slavery and male power fantasies.

Truthfully, the only reason I don't think they're the worst Norman ever wrote is because Time Slave is even worse.

Chris
 
I always had the feeling Flashy was one of the characters we love to hate - Alan B'Stard, Basil Faulty, some of the Blackadders, Alex the investment banker, some of the AH takes on Skorzeny; characters who are really awful people, by any objective standard, but they're also entertaining.

Of course, it could also be a snide dig at so-called 'heroes ...'

Chris
I'm a Flashman fanatic - used to correspond and exchange Christmas cards with GMF met his sons.at.dinner last year. Agreed with most of his beliefs too!
 
Four rapes? Apart from Narreeman the others were...

Spoiler for obvious reasons.

1. Narreeman in Flashman.
2. In Flashman and the Dragon, when Flashman was going through a Chinese fort, he comes across some drugged-up women and shags one. Given her drugged state, no meaningful consent is sought, granted, or meaningfully involved. Or, in this case, even possible. That's rape.
3. In Flashman For Freedom, a slave (whom he calls Lady Caroline Lamb) is brought to him for the express purpose of being shagged (so that the female slaves can be sold with the assurance that they might be pregnant with a more white child). In such circumstances, no meaningful consent is involved. That's rape.
4. In one of the books (I forget which, and am not inclined to plough through checking), Flashman buys a woman from another officer to act as housekeeper and sexual partner. No meaningful consent by the woman (who isn't, as i recall, given a name) is involved. That's rape.

Flashman's view that he only committed rape once only applies if one defines rape as involving actual physical violence; that's clearly a nonsense definition.

It was Flashman narrating in the first person..He was an officer

I've been an officer. I've been an Other Rank. The dynamics between the two are not as Flashman describes. GMF knows better, as we can see in Quartered Safe Out Here.

The excuse only flies if one presupposes that Flashman is both a very bad officer and ignores the voice of the NCO and Other Ranks.

"Horses before the Men; the Men before Yourself" was an instruction given to cavalry junior officers from the period. The theory was that the officers, being of higher social class, had a duty of care towards their servants (troops).

It was Flashman narrating in the first person, for sure. However, that was Flashman, and not the standard to which officers aspired.

Agreed with most of his beliefs too!

In which case I am reasonably confident that there is very little common ground between us.
 
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