In 1857, Thomas Hughes published Tom Brown’s School Days, a fictional account of his time in the British public school system. Besides chronicling his education, it also included his dealings with a bully named Flashman who was eventually expelled for drunkenness. Tom Brown’s School Days was very well-received in its day and was a major contribution to the “school” genre that was popular in the 19th century.
However, this is not the book I’m reviewing. I’m reviewing Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser, which is the first title in The Flashman Papers series. Fraser, a historian, takes the bully Flashman and greatly expands his character in this fictional memoir.
Flashman is a coward, a cheat, a bully, a drunkard, and a lecher that admits to only two real skills: he is adept with languages, and can ride anything with four legs. Somehow this wastrel, throughout all twelve titles in the series, winds up embroiled in many of Britain’s most notorious historical events: the Sepoy Mutiny, the Charge of the Light Brigade, and in the first novel, the retreat from Kabul and the Siege of Jalalabad.
Despite his faults (to which he freely admits in his “memoirs”), Flashman is eminently likable and recounts his experiences with gusto and self-deprecating humor. Interspersed throughout the text are historical footnotes to the actual people, places, and events Flashman encounters, which give a good background to Flashman’s adventures and also educate the reader in British history.
Though he is a cad and a scoundrel, Flashman’s bawdy romps through 19th century British history are entertaining and laugh-out-loud funny. It’s just a nice side benefit that you can learn something while you are reading these works of historical fiction.