I really enjoyed the recent two-week stint of My Life in Books that led up to World Book Day. Hearing Anne Robinson’s guests talk about their favourite books didn’t make me want to rush out and buy them, though, but tended to make me want to re-read my own favourites. The one exception was George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman. I’d heard a bit about it before, and its mention on the programme re-piqued my curiosity, so I decided to give it a go.
Flashman was published in 1969, but the character Harry Paget Flashman dates back to 1857, when he was the bully in Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes. In the Flashman Papers (as the series is called), George MacDonald Fraser has that same school bully narrate the events of his subsequent life — a life in which this self-confessed coward, cad and reprobate becomes embroiled in many of the major historical events of the Victorian Age. (The first book, for instance, sees him slap-bang in the midst of the first Anglo-Afghan War.) The Flashman books are so gleefully un-PC, they can’t be taken as anything but satire — satire on the Empire itself, and on the essential emptiness of the myth of the Gentleman Hero it used to whitewash all the mingled racism, sexism and classism that drove it. As such, Flashman is a paragon — a gentleman to the last, he womanises, he beats his servants, he treats the lower classes with utter contempt, but nevertheless manages to come out seeming, in the eyes of the all-too-ready-to-believe Victorian public, a hero, despite the facts. (Though not entirely without his private comeuppances. The one woman he loves turns out to have just as cavalier an attitude to men as he does towards women.)
I didn’t quite enjoy the book enough to want to read the rest of the series, though. The trouble was, Flashman, as an anti-hero, doesn’t really go far enough. Yes, he’s a reprobate, a coward and a cad, but he never came across as having sufficient relish for his misdeeds, and as a result just seems rather mean-spirited. (Exactly like a bully, I suppose, but that’s not enough to sustain a series.) He was too matter-of-fact about the whole thing, and seemed to have no real motivation apart from escaping with his hide intact. If he’d just been that much more of an connoisseur of his own wickedness, it would have given him that much more vivacity, that much more life, that much more character.
This becomes obvious if you compare him with similar roguish types. Shakespeare’s Falstaff, for instance, who is such a larger-than-life reprobate his very cowardice becomes a sort of heroism. Falstaff is a poet of self-justification. He has such a way with words that, at the very moment he’s talking his way out of being caught lying, he turns it into something that is both wonderfully comic and humanly tragic at the same time. Accused of being a thief, he says: “Why, Hal, ’tis my vocation, Hal; ’tis no sin for a man to labour in his vocation.” Explaining his running away when the disguised Hal robs him so easily, he talks his very cowardice into a proof that he is in fact a “valiant lion”. His lies are so boldfaced, so brazen and bombastic, but he wins us over by being so very human, so full of life.
Or, to take another historical cad: Edmund Blackadder. Just as much a coward, a cad and a reprobate as Harry Flashman, Blackadder lives for the cunning plan, for the witty reversal of his ill-fortunes, so that while we can laugh at him for his downfalls, we can also feel for him when he comes out on top. What makes you want to feel for him is the joy he takes in his own rascallous actions.
A third example comes from another book I read for the first time recently, Treasure Island. Although it is narrated by the young Jim Hawkins, the character that lingers in the mind once the book is finished is Long John Silver. When Silver speaks, it’s like he’s snatching the pen from Robert Louis Stevenson’s hand. He commands the page. Silver is, of course, a pirate — the very source of all one-legged, grog-swilling, blue-tongued, be-parrotted pirates ever since — but he’s no pantomime villain. He is gloriously, impeccably self-interested. As soon as the pirates are losing, he’s ready to switch sides. He vows his life and loyalty to young Jim, but as soon as there’s a whiff of treasure to be had, he’s ready to switch back again. There’s a wonderful moment when a mere look from Silver reveals his true inner character in a flash of betrayal:
Silver hobbled, grunting, on his crutch; his nostrils stood out and quivered; he cursed like a madman when the flies settled on his hot and shiny countenance; he plucked furiously at the line that held me to him and from time to time turned his eyes upon me with a deadly look. Certainly he took no pains to hide his thoughts, and certainly I read them like print. In the immediate nearness of the gold, all else had been forgotten: his promise and the doctor’s warning were both things of the past, and I could not doubt that he hoped to seize upon the treasure, find and board the HISPANIOLA under cover of night, cut every honest throat about that island, and sail away as he had at first intended, laden with crimes and riches.
Alone of all the pirates, Silver escapes with his life at the end — and, in a sense, escapes the confines of the book, too, for he’s the one character with life enough to become so much more than the words he was made out of.
Compared to Falstaff, Blackadder and Long John Silver, Flashman seems a bit pallid. Perhaps this is just because, in the first book, he’s young, and the above examples are all of people with a bit more experience behind them. Does the series get better? Does Flashman get more caddish, more full of life? If I knew, I’d venture to read some of the rest.