Flashman and the Victorian Social Conscience

By Ramsay, Allan | Contemporary Review, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Flashman and the Victorian Social Conscience


Ramsay, Allan, Contemporary Review


THE series of Flashman novels by George MacDonald Fraser which began to appear in the late 1960s had as their inspiration the brilliantly ingenious idea of updating the life history of the disgraced bully of Thomas Hughes novel Torn Brown's Schooldays. Hughes' novel, published in 1857, was written as a tribute to Thomas Arnold, the Headmaster of Rugby, who revolutionised the education of the upper-middle classes in the early nineteenth century in the period between the Battle of Waterloo (which was won, as all the world once knew, on the playing fields of the pre-Arnoldian, unreconstructed Eton) and the accession of Queen Victoria. His successors, men like Lee, Benson and Phillpotts, carried on Arnold's work throughout Victoria's long reign (1837-1901), which provides the background for Harry Flashman's hectic and adventurous career. He outlived her by a decade, surviving, we are told, until the eve of the First World War. Whatever his successes with the fictional Tom Brown, Scud East and generations of real English schoolboys who followed them, Thomas Arnold thought he had failed with Flashman who lived unregenerate to the last. His contemporaries carved out the British Empire. Sir Harry Flashman VC did his bit, though under protest. He would rather have sat back to enjoy the fruits of their labours. He was not an Empire builder. Indeed had the positions been reversed and Flashman a native ruler, he is exactly of the kind who would have been deposed in the interests of good administration.

The novels are an enjoyable read. Not the least of their virtues is that they are written at a cracking pace. There is action on every page, not all of it discreditable. The battle scenes are most brilliantly described, for example the three actions in which Flashman, suffering from a prolonged and painful attack of trapped wind brought on by drinking inferior Russian champagne, finds himself engaged in a single day during the Crimean War in the Charge of the Heavy Cavalry Brigade, then standing with the 93rd Highlanders in the 'Thin Red Line', and finally riding into the Russian guns with Lord Cardigan in the immortal Charge of The Light Brigade. As well as being able to describe the broad sweep and cut and thrust of the fighting, the author has an eye for the telling detail e.g. the black hairs growing on the back of the hand of a swarthy highlander waiting the charge of Russian cavalry. Anyone who has been in action will confirm that it is small and apparently irrelevant details such as this that remain in the mind. All the rest is obliterated by the noise and confusion (and stench) of battle. The period flavour is convincing. George MacDonald Fraser is also blessed with an exceptionally good ear. The regional intonations, like the period slang and cant and contemporary allusions of the time, are brilliantly captured. The dialogue is full of subtle nuances arising from prevailing class distinctions. Today many of the references would be regarded as politically highly incorrect which is a pity since there is no obvious prejudice on the author's part as opposed to a wish to capture the Prejudices--or lack of them--that existed then. The portraits of individuals are good. Many of them are of real people, almost all of whom were uninhibited by the social constraints and conventions which grew tighter as the Victorian era progressed, so there is little need for embellishment. Most were working in circumstances where social mores were subordinated to much more compelling things like the need to survive. But even aga inst this highly coloured background the men and women portrayed are recognisably individuals, not cardboard copies. This veracity is largely due to the author's careful research and wide background reading, carried out, I believe, at Trinity College, Dublin. But it loses nothing from the idiosyncrasies of Flashman's own observations and strong likes and dislikes. The purely imaginary characters are also well drawn: one thinks of John Charity Spring, the master of a slaving vessel among whose shareholders is Flashman's father-in-law, a Paisley manufacturer, another well drawn portrait. …

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