Flashman in Ruritania

Lola Montez in 1847 (around the time she meets Harry Flashman)
Some novels you really shouldn't enjoy. They are those guilty secrets that you hug to you. Stephen Fry likes Georgette Heyer, I have a sneaking, and very guilty liking, for the Flashman novels of George MacDonald Fraser. Flashman is the bully-boy of Thomas Hughes' Tom Brown's Schooldays. With the ease of bullies born to rule, Harry Flashman leaves school, and continues to bully his way through the world, he's a bounder and a cad, a coward who manages to become a hero by treading on anyone who gets in his way. He's a most dislikeable character, and all my feminist and liberal-left instincts rise up in revolt against him, and yet.....

Fraser writes a cracking adventure story. His history is also extremely good. As Flashman cuts a swathe through the British Empire at the height of its power, all the little details are so well thought out. And the novels are also extremely funny. These are gung-ho adventure stories, but with rather more truth behind them. Sure, there always are heroes, but I suspect that most areas of conflict have their fair share of Flashman characters, scared stiff, determined to survive, who if they do come out as heroes, have often become heroes in spite of themself.

Bismarck, also in 1847
The second in the Flashman canon Royal Flash sees our anti-hero manage to fall foul both of the adventuress Lola Montez, and the fledgling German stateman, Otto von Bismarck. Flashman's greed, and Montez and Bismarck's desire for revenge sees Harry put at the centre of a plot to start Bismarck's plans for German unification. The plot of Royal Flash is modelled very closely on The Prisoner of Zenda. What I found fascinating here was the story behind Zenda; what was going on in Europe to influence Hope's tale, and to make it an enormous bestseller.

I also learned lots about that wonderful character, Lola Montez, an Irish adventuress turned Spanish dancer, who would become the mistress of Ludwig of Bavaria I (the father of the Wagner and swan-loving king), and virtual ruler of the state. Forced to flee the country, she joined the Australian gold rush, before making her way to America. Along the way there were dalliances with Liszt, and Alexandre Dumas, pere. She was quite a woman.

And then there was German unification. A subject I had studied briefly at A-level, and found incredibly boring. Here, it was a delight. Such politics, such intrigue, how could you not want to study it?

Historical novels when they're at their best do this to you. They make you look at history in a different way, you want to explore and delight in it. You want to know more - not just what the author is telling you. As it's fiction you suspect that you're not being told the full story, it forces you to investigate. Fiction is clever.

Blending history, literature, comedy and a good dose of sex and adventure, the Flashman novels make irresistible reading. The attitudes and social mores grate, as do the racism and sexism; but I think what is important about these novels is that there is an element of truth at their heart. Flashman is an over-the-top character, but the core elements are true. This is the dark side of Victorian attitudes, the bit that we would prefer to forget; and perhaps somewhere between Flashman and the romance of the Ruritanian tales lies the truth.


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