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Flashman – George MacDonald Fraser

by on February 23, 2012

Overview

Harry Flashman is a liar, a cheat and a coward. He was expelled from school at a young age for drunkenness, took an officer’s post in the British army, and greatly distinguished himself (although falsely) in service during the first Anglo-Afghan war. He manages by some strange twist of fate, despite his extreme cowardice and low moral character to come out of every engagement alive and praised for bravery and gallantry.

 

My thoughts

I thought this novel an odd pick by the teacher to include in her Historical Novels class at university. For one thing, the title character is immensely misogynistic, or at least chauvinistic. It also seemed very light-hearted, full of ridiculous happenings and almost slapstick-style humor. Taking place in the years 1839-1842, it shows England as a deeply class-driven society, where the wealthy can get out of trouble, buy high-ranking positions in the military, and have quite easy lives. Flashman is born into such a life, hasn’t had to work for anything, and because of this he’s largely a spoiled prick. His only thoughts are to preserve his safety with as little effort as possible, so that he can spend more time on drinking and fornication.

However, under the surface (often not very concealed) is a biting satire of the “golden age” of Britain, the colonial age of Queen Victoria. Britain was at the height of its power and influence, controlling almost a quarter of the world. They get embroiled in a seemingly pointless and endless land war in Afghanistan, suffering major defeats largely attributable to the incompetence of senior officers in the British military. The prejudice and condescension directed towards both the Indian and Afghan people by the British is mirrored by their feeling towards the lower classes in their own country.

The novel starts off slowly, introducing Flashman as a (despicable) character, from getting expelled, cheating at a duel, having to marry a simple-minded woman because her family learned of their transgressions. The story really takes off when he’s sent to India, and later Afghanistan to take part in the war effort there. The author was known for painstakingly researching every aspect and event of his novels, to preserve historicity as much as possible. Reading about the army’s retreat from Kabul, the massacre at Gandamak, and the many blunders of General Elphinstone through the eyes of the always entertaining Flashman was quite interesting. Grim reminders of the negative aspects of colonialism and war in general are interspersed with absolutely hilarious passages of Flashman’s incredible sense of self-preservation.

All in all, a very enjoyable novel, if read in the right frame of mind. You have to expect to be shocked and appalled at Flashman’s behavior, and to remember not to take it very seriously. If you do you’ll have a right good time, old boy!

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