A POINT OF VIEW
By David Cannadine
The Sir Harry Flashman books tell us a lot about the Victorians and a little bit about Lady Thatcher, says historian David Cannadine in his weekly column.
One of the books I'm looking forward to reading over the Christmas holiday is Flashman on the March.
It's the latest instalment of the Flashman saga, and it was published in Britain earlier this year, although I only caught up with it last month in New York, where it's just appeared. Since they're set in the 19th Century, I've a professional interest in the books, but there's also a more personal reason, which I'll come to later.
As I'm sure you all know, Flashman originally made a brief and inglorious appearance in the pages of Tom Brown's Schooldays, where he was expelled from Rugby for bullying and drinking. That novel, written by Thomas Hughes, was published in 1857, and it was a best-selling monument to mid-Victorian piety, respectability, sentimentality and (some might say) sanctimoniousness.
But over a century later, in 1969, George MacDonald Fraser, himself a former soldier and journalist, brought Flashman back to life, and across the intervening 36 years, he's produced 12 books which recount different episodes in Flashman's remarkable military career in the heyday of the British Empire.
Long-running sagas are commonplace in English fiction, from the Forsytes to the Poldarks, from Sherlock Holmes to James Bond, and from CPSnow to Anthony Powell; but in several ways, the Flashman books are unusual examples of the genre.
The conceit of each volume is that it's not a work of fiction at all, but an instalment from Flashman's own autobiography, covering the 60 years which began with his expulsion from Rugby School in the late 1830s.
Flashman is supposed to have written his memoirs in the early 20th Century, towards the end of his life (he died in 1915 aged 93); the manuscript survived, divided up into different packages, in a tea chest; and it was only discovered in the mid 1960s.
The task of editing these so-called Flashman papers was duly entrusted to George MacDonald Fraser, who has selected the episodes which have gone to make each book. He's also provided introductions and extensive, scholarly footnotes, filling out the historical background and including biographical details of the many important people Flashman encountered during the course of his extraordinary career, ranging from Abraham Lincoln to Otto von Bismarck.
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When the first book appeared, many readers were completely taken in by it: they genuinely believed that Flashman was an authentic personage from the past, they were impressed by his descriptions of the great historical events in which he participated, they felt sure that they were reading him in his own words and they were convinced that George MacDonald Fraser was the editor but not the author.
Indeed, so plausible did this first Flashman volume seem that one third of the reviews that it initially received in the United States accepted it as being a genuine Victorian autobiography.
Of course, Fraser is not the only author to have deceived his readers in this way. In 1998, William Boyd pulled off a similar trick, when he published a life of an artist called Nat Tate - an abstract-impressionist painter of the New York School, whom several art critics immediately claimed they could remember having met.
But Tate, like Flashman, was an entirely fictional creation on the part of the author. Nowadays, there can't be anyone who believes that Harry Flashman ever really existed; but some tongue-in-cheek reviewers match Fraser's original conceit with their own, by keeping up the pretence that the books are authentic.
There's another way in which the Flashman saga is unusual. If you look at the biographical details which preface each volume, Flashman appears to have recanted of his early schoolboy delinquencies, for he went on to enjoy a military career of exceptional heroism and great distinction.
He fought in the Afghan War of 1841-42 , he took part in the Charge of the Light Brigade, he won the Victoria Cross during the Indian Mutiny, and he ended his days as a Brigadier-General and a knight several times over.
So Flashman is a fictional creation, who may be set alongside such other imaginary worthies as CS Forester's Horatio Hornblower, Patrick O'Brian's Jack Aubrey, and Bernard Cornwell's Richard Sharpe.
How appropriate, then, that Rugby School welcomed Flashman back as a Governor and that he also became Honorary President of the Mission for the Reclamation of Reduced Females. Thomas Hughes would have been proud of him.
Yet in reality, Flashman is fiction twice over: it's not only a made-up story presented with all the spoof-solemnity of documented fact, but it's also an account of a life lived wholly at variance with its carapace of virtuous achievement and public recognition.
As Flashman tells us at the very beginning of the first volume of his "memoirs", he is indeed the bully depicted in Tom Brown's Schooldays: but he's also, among other things, a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, a thief, a coward and a toady. And in addition, he's a notorious philanderer, bedding women with shameless frequency, and then casting them aside as he moves on to the next.
How ironic was his connection with the Mission for the Reclamation of Reduced Females: for many women, literally hundreds of them, had been reduced and seduced by him.
Flashman was a great survivor, but he was not a great man
As a result, the highlights of the books are the battle scenes, where a terrified Flashman is trying to escape, and the bedroom scenes, where he is often discovered by an outraged husband or father, and once again flees in disarray.
As with many sagas, part of the fun is seeing how the author manages to re-work a familiar formula in a way which the reader finds reassuring but not boring.
Flashman's candour is winning, and he's not wholly without redeeming features, which become more in evidence as the saga proceeds and as (I suspect) George MacDonald Fraser has come to warm to his own creation.
To be sure, Flashman was a great survivor, but he was not a great man. So it may seem rather strange that I'm going to mention Margaret Thatcher in the same breath as he.
Harry, Maggie and I
Flashman the spineless embodiment of Victorian vices, she the Iron Lady believing in Victorian values - those qualities of thrift, hard work, self-help and self-discipline which Flashman always despised but which Thatcher believed had made Britain great during the 19th Century and which she hoped would make Britain great again under her leadership.
But there is a connection between Flashman and Thatcher, and it may surprise you to learn that the connection is me. Here, I think, is how it came about.
In the summer of 1982, when Margaret Thatcher had been in power three years, I wrote a review of the then latest Flashman novel, Flashman and the Redskins, for the weekly journal New Society - now, alas no more.
In it, I pointed out that one of the explanations for the appeal of the Flashman books was that they subverted 19th-century pretensions in our own day as successfully as Lytton Strachey had subverted them in his time with Eminent Victorians, published in 1918.
The British imperial spirit might have had its last hurrah in the Falklands War that had recently been won but if Flashman was to be believed, the British military were unfailingly incompetent, and the British Empire was a very shabby enterprise.
In depicting the 19th Century in this way, I suggested the Flashman saga "took the lid off Victorian values", and it was under that very headline that the review was eventually run.
A few weeks afterwards, I received a letter from Matthew Parris, who told me that Margaret Thatcher had greatly enjoyed reading my essay. Six months later, in January 1983, she began talking publicly and admiringly about Victorian values, and about what she meant by them, and she continued to do so until the general election that was held in May of that year, which, of course, she triumphantly won.
Six months is a long time in politics, and I don't for one moment suppose that she spoke as she did simply because she had read my review. But I suspect my two words had stuck in her mind, and in the aftermath of the Falklands victory, they encapsulated something she was trying to say, and an argument she was trying to get across.
So there you have it: the pedigree of the phrase "Victorian values" goes from Harry Flashman, via David Cannadine, to Margaret Thatcher. It's a very small footnote to history. Or am I, like George MacDonald Fraser, just making it up?