Reading Journal Entry: Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser

I came across a mention of Flashman, the swaggering Victorian hero escaped from the pages of Tom Brown's School Days by the twentieth century George MacDonald Fraser, a few months ago, I can't remember where. He was described as misogynistic and cowardly. Then I saw the cover of a Flash book on George W. Bush's summer reading list and I could resist no longer. After all, it was pretty fun last time I read along with Mr. Bush.

Harry Flashman, son of a Victorian gentleman, exceeded all of my expectations for riotous behavior and general moral reprehensibility. The books purport to be his memoirs; in this volume he begins with his explusion from school at the age of 17 for drunkenness and proceeds to cheat in a duel, attempt to rape his father's mistress (after cuckolding him successfully once before), debauch a young virgin of good standing, etc., etc. He joins the military and is posted, to his great dismay, to Afghanistan. Flashman is a tremendous coward, and doesn't have any of that high Victorian gudgeon that drives his peers to sacrifice their lives for Queen and country. No, he prefers to leave his skin intact. He avoids danger whenever possible and takes to his heels in the face of the enemy a number of times. In his narration he indulges in a free flow of contempt for the natives of the countries he travels in, his military commanders, and every woman he meets.

He is a delightfully despicable character. By the end of the book I was rooting for the woman who wanted to castrate him. Sadly, he escaped.

A good part of the events take place during the end of the British conflict in Afghanistan. The British had placed a friendly ruler on the throne, but in 1841 and 42 the British were expelled and completely defeated, the affair ending in a disastroust retreat through snowy mountain passes in which 14,000 soldiers and camp followers died and only 1 Briton survived. Two if you count Flashman.

There are two Flashman novels on President Bush's list, Flashman at the Charge and Flash for Freedom. Flashman is not on the list. It's the first in the series, though, and therefore I can have to conclude that President Bush has read it. Through the release of his summer reading list he gives it and the other volumes (staid non-fiction and biographies, with a few mystery novels thrown in) publicity and by implication his endorsement.

What in the world is he thinking of to give public attention to this kind of character and plot? To a book set in an area where the United States is currently at war, with a narrator who refers in the basest terms to the native people? 'Nigger' is the least of it. Flashman is a drunkard, a coward, and an imperialist to his fingernails. It's impossible to avoid comparing the character to the man. Frankly I can't imagine what his people might have been thinking. It's enough to cause an international incident.

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