Friday, 2 July 1999

George MacDonald Fraser: Flashman (1969)

Edition: Pan
Review number: 281

It is odd to look back at Fraser's first Flashman novel, to see the way in which Pan promoted it in the early seventies. Though having considerable intellectual background - based around a famous novel, backed up with meticulous historical research - the novel is advertised by comparing it to the sleazy soft-core porn of the Confessions series, still the object of furtive playground bartering when I was at school but now virtually forgotten. This is obviously a ploy to maximise sales of the book in a way that emphasising its literary and historical qualities would hardly have done. It is not entirely misleading, either, for there is considerable sexual activity in Flashman, but Fraser's writing is considerably better than the comparison suggests.

Harry Flashman is the bully from Tom Brown's School Days, continuing his career after the expulsion from Rugby School which forms part of that novel. Fraser has him becoming the most cowardly officer in the British Army. Sent out to India after disgracing himself by being trapped into marriage with a merchant's daughter, he manages to get involved in the First Afghan War, a display of incredible military incompetence on the part of the British Army.

In this first book, the edges are still a little raw, and Flashman is perhaps a rather more unpleasant person than he became. In the end, he became essential to the success of Fraser's writing; his periodic attempts to do something rather different (Mr American, the McAuslan stories, Pyrates) never having taken off in quite the same way.

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