Stockbrokers cheered as they watched Wolf of Wall Street. Thousands of girls have tried to redeem Draco Malfoy through fanfiction. It’s surprisingly hard to create a villain that people actually dislike.
Flashman take a bully from Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s School Days and describes his later adventures in the British Raj (and beyond). He rides horses, plays cricket, embarrasses himself in battle, and has carnal knowledge of many famous historical women. He’s incredibly cowardly, but his attempts to desert, abandon, and betray his own side are always misunderstood as acts of heroism, and he emerges from each book with a lapel weighed down by still more (spectacularly unearned) medals and decorations.
Fraser seems to be taking shots at Victorian-era vainglory. Or maybe he’s not even being cynical: Flashman legitimately inspires people, even though his heroics are a sham. Shadow puppets are cool, and they don’t get less cool because it’s a wrinkled, liver-spotted hand making them.
The books are hilarious and action-packed. What’s often missed is how well researched they are. Fraser was a soldier, a journalist, and a historian, and the Flashman Papers are packed full of footnotes illuminating the time period, all written from the presumption that Flashman himself is a real historical figure. (“Flashman, like many other European writers, uses the word “Ghazi” as though it referred to a tribe, although he certainly knew better. In Arabic “ghazi” is literally a conqueror, but may be accurately translated as hero or champion…”)
The books contain walk-on appearances from legendary figures, both real and fictional (even Sherlock Holmes). Frasier takes glee in depicting beloved cultural icons as nasty, malevolent people, every bit as bad as Flashman himself. It’s like the monster movie cliche where you have to show Godzilla smashing Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower.
I hit the eject button on this series after about four or five books. They were blurring together, and the sheer number of Flashman’s improbable escapes was starting to bother me (as was his supernatural ability to learn every new language he encountered). But like many women I had a good time with Flashman, at least while he lasted.
Fantasy writer David Gemmell learned early on to never discover the truth about his heroes. As a boy, he read a history book about the Alamo, and was revolted that he’d ever admired Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett. He took refuge in the books of Tolkien and Moorcock, where heroes’ names are written in permanent ink. Nobody can ever make Gandalf less than Gandalf. But some of us prefer heroes with feet of clay – or in Harry Paget Flashman’s case, an entire body made of the stuff.