Sir Harry Flashman: Fictional Victorian Anti-Hero

My favorite fictional anti-hero is Sir Harry Flashman, Victorian war hero and quintessential rogue. He was created by George Macdonald Fraser in the 1970s, so there may be readers today who have not had the pleasure of reading the Flashman Papers, as the stories are known.

Let Harry introduce himself:

“I’ve been a Danish prince, a Texas slave-dealer, an Arab sheik, a Cheyenne Dog Soldier, and a Yankee navy lieutenant in my time, among other things, and none of ’em was as hard to sustain as my lifetime’s impersonation of a British officer and gentleman.”

― George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman in the Great Game

Fraser was inspired by a character in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, written by Thomas Hughes in 1857. The young hero of that book was bullied by a Harry Flashman who is later kicked out of the Rugby school for drunkenness. Fraser decided to have that character grow up into an illustrious Victorian soldier who, despite being a scoundrel, a toady and a coward, somehow manages to emerge from each adventure looking like a hero.

In Fraser’s stories, Flashman fights in many of the Victorian era’s most well-known battles, including the Charge of the Light Brigade, the first Anglo-Afghan War, and the Battle of Little Bighorn as well as getting himself mixed up in political situations in the United States, China, India, South Africa, and Abyssinia, to name just a few locations. Married to a beautiful ninny named Elspeth, he also beds thousands of women, famous, infamous, and unknown, all around the world. His lovers, who include Lola Montez, Lillie Langtry, and the Empress Dowager Cixi, are all willing bed-mates (if untrustworthy schemers in their own right).  Harry’s attitude toward women is definitely politically incorrect, so sensitive persons should beware.

There have been 12 historical fiction novels detailing Flashy’s disreputable adventures, as well as Royal Flash, a movie that came out in 1975 starring Malcolm MacDowell. According to IMDB reviews, the movie pleased some and disappointed others – and I have to admit that in my mind, Oliver Reed would have been the perfect Flashman. I can’t understand why he would play Otto von Bismark instead, and let Malcolm (who doesn’t physically resemble the strapping Flashman) play the title role.

I also own a couple of audiobook versions on CD, Flash for Freedom, read by Rupert Penry-Jones (detailing how Flashy unwillingly got involved in the Triangle Trade and later helped slaves escape through the Underground Railroad), and Flashman on the March (about his mission to rescue Britons held hostage by the mad emperor of Abyssinia) read by Toby Stephens. Both are excellent.

To give you an idea of the books, let me share some of my favorite quotes from the Flashman Papers. The following are from Goodreads and from the blog Flashman’s Retreat, a compendium of some of Flashman’s best quotes.

On bravery:

This myth called bravery, which is half panic, half lunacy (in my case, all panic), pays for all; in England you can’t be a hero and bad. There’s practically a law against it.


On the Charge of the Light Brigade:

Mind you. I’m harmless, by comparison – I don’t send ’em off, stuffed with lies and rubbish, to get killed or maimed for nothing except a politician’s vanity or a manufacturer’s profit. Oh, I’ll sham it with the best in public, and sport my tinware, but I know what I am, and there’s no room for honest pride in me, you see. But if there was – just a little bit, along with the disgust and hatred and selfishness – I’d keep it for them, those seven hundred British sabres.

Flashman at the Charge

On diplomatic trips to Paris:

My advice to young chaps is to never mind the Moulin Rouge and Pigalle, but make for some diplomatic mêlée on the Rue de Lisbonne, catch the eye of a well-fleshed countess, and ere the night’s out you’ll have learned something you won’t want to tell your grandchildren.

Flashman and the Tiger

On statesmanship:

There’s a point, you know, where treachery is so complete and unashamed that it becomes statesmanship.

Flashman and the Mountain of Light

On royalty:

You never know what to expect on encountering royalty. I’ve seen ’em stark naked except for wings of peacock feathers (Empress of China), giggling drunk in the embrace of a wrestler (Maharani of the Punjab), voluptuously wrapped in wet silk (Queen of Madagascar), wafting to and fro on a swing (Rani of Jhansi), and tramping along looking like an out-of-work charwoman (our own gracious monarch).

Flashman on the March

Do you think Flashman sounds like a fun character to read? I think he’s one of the best!


Stack of Flashman novels




Cover image:

Stack of books: By SchroCat – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Victorian Drawing Rooms – Private Refuges from Public Life


The well-decorated library at Grimsdyke, the home of Lucy and William S. Gilbert.

With more people today working from home, it’s interesting to note that, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, the Victorian era marks the separation of the workplace from the domestic sphere.

In Dickens’ Great Expectations, the law clerk Wemmick  says, “The office is one thing, and private life is another. When I go into the office, I leave the Castle [his home] behind me, and when I come into the Castle,  I leave the office behind me.”

Ah, the Industrial Revolution! Who would have guessed that those “dark satanic mills” of Byron’s poem would have revolutionized every aspect of the way people lived, down to the very style of their houses?

Before the Industrial Revolution, many middle- and lower-class people had previously earned money by working on piece-work at home. But with the rise of industry, workers began to perform their work in the factory or the shop – separate from their living spaces.

Furthermore, the mass production of goods allowed the middle classes to finally have access to cheaper versions of the items that had previously only been accessible to the wealthy. All sorts of decorative items were available – rugs, furniture, wallpaper and artwork – which could be easily acquired and used to display the interests and personality of the residents. Therefore, a plain, unadorned home was considered a sign of bad taste. Victorian homes boasted as much décor as possible.

Life in the public world began to move faster, with telegraphs and trains and machinery of all kinds speeding up the pace of business. Workers, meaning men, had to move faster too, as competition demanded more speed, more efficiency, and more aggression.  Not only were homes now places of adornment and personal display, but they were also pools of domestic tranquility, as people sought to create in their homes a kind of stasis, a permanent refuge in which to slow down and rest.

But even in a private refuge, there must be a place for “the World” to enter, and that place was the drawing room, which was the central formal room in which the mistress of the house entertained visitors. Since homes reflected their owner’s status in life, it was extremely important that the drawing room was neither too modest (which would show a carelessness or lack of self-respect in the homeowners) nor too over-decorated. Sharp-eyed critics of the time were quick to deplore a scenario in which a lowly clerk would be expected to make himself at home in a room fit for the richest of bankers.

As Judith Flanders says in Inside the Victorian Home, “Extravagance was immoral, thrift was moral; the greatest good was knowing one’s place and living up to it precisely.”

This requirement to be exactly who you seemed to be might also have been a reaction to the increasing levels of social mobility – in ages past, everyone knew everyone else’s families, what role they played in the life of the community, and what their status was. But now that a train ride to the city might allow a person to shed their old identity and assume a new one, it became urgently important to have ways of knowing who one was dealing with.

The danger of accepting a person at face value is one of the central issues in Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now.  In that novel, the fabulously wealthy financier Augustus Melmotte arrives suddenly in London from the Continent, and many of the penniless English aristocrats of the day are dazzled by his display. They take him at his word, and welcome him into their homes even though they know very little about him.

Sadly, however, it turns out that he’s not the man they think he is—and the trusting aristocrats and bankers of London fall victim to his wiles. Of course, they are just as much to blame, since it is their greed that leads them to accept him without checking out his history.


The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt

Therefore, even though new technologies, new systems and new ideas were cropping up every day, most Victorian people instinctively reacted negatively to new things, especially with respect to the home and private life. John Ruskin, one of the foremost art critics and taste-makers of the day, reviewed Holman Hunt’s painting The Awakening Conscience, which showed a kept woman in her lavishly decorated room, by saying that everything in the picture showed a “terrible lustre” of “fatal newness.” The woman is suddenly realizing the error of her ways and that error is visible, to Victorian eyes, in all the new things that she has surrounded herself with.

Contrariwise, things that were old, handed down, or slightly shabby represented the homeowner’s connection with the past, and therefore were virtuous. In the drawing room, the excess of memorabilia, souvenirs and decorations were meant to be a visual representation of the family’s connection with the past and stability.

From another angle, Victorians were beginning to appreciate the art and design of different cultures, notably the Japanese. One of the main influences came from artist James MacNeill Whistler introducing Japanese art and design ideas to pre-Raphaelite painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rosetti, who adopted the ideas whole-heartedly. But of course, the craze for all things Japanese caught on in other ways, too, and by the 1880s, no Victorian parlor could be found without at least one Japanese fan mounted upon the wall.

And so the Victorian drawing room contained elements of both old and new, both domestic and foreign, and both cozy and formal. It was the public room of the house, where visitors could be entertained, but it was also the first step into the private domain of domestic tranquility—Victorian style.





By William Holman Hunt – eAEe8oI1HIMufA at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum Tate Images Public Domain,

30 Victorian Mystery Novel Series to Read Now!


Just let me finish this chapter

Just let me finish this chapter

The following books are some of the best Victorian-set historical mysteries that I know about. The books named are the first in each series – the sleuth named appears in all the books. Most are set in Victorian England, but a few are set in the USA and some others (particularly the Sherlock Holmes-related ones) spill over into the Edwardian period.

You can read more about them on Goodreads and Amazon. I’ll include links to Goodreads so you can find out more about the ones that interest you.  For even more historical mysteries, you can check out this amazingly comprehensive list (just watch out for the pop-ups):

Enjoy your armchair sleuthing!




Female Sleuths

  1. Elizabeth Peters – Amelia Peabody – Crocodile on the Sandbank
  2. Deanna Raybourn – Lady Julia Gray – Silent in the Grave
  3. Robin Paige – Kathryn Ardleigh – Death at Bishop’s Keep
  4. Nancy Herriman – Celia Davies – No Comfort for the Lost
  5. Tasha Alexander – Lady Emily – And Only To Deceive
  6. Emily Brightwell – Mrs. Jeffries –The Inspector and Mrs. Jeffries
  7. Martin Davies – Mrs. Hudson – Mrs. Hudson and the Spirit’s Curse
  8. Carole Nelson Douglas – Irene Adler – Good Night, Mr. Holmes
  9. Anne Perry – Charlotte and Thomas Pitt – The Cater Street Hangman
  10. Kate Parker – Georgia Fenchurch – The Vanishing Thief
  11. Ann Granger – Lizzie Martin – The Companion (aka A Rare Interest in Corpses)
  12. Susan Wittig Albert – Beatrix Potter – The Tale of Hill Top Farm
  13. Carol Carr – Madam India Black – India Black, Madam of Espionage
  14. Lee Jackson – Sarah Tanner – A Most Dangerous Woman
  15. Alanna Knight – Rose Quinn – The Inspector’s Daughter


Male Sleuths

  1. Barbara Hambly – Benjamin January – A Free Man of Color
  2. Gyles Brandreth – Oscar Wilde – Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance
  3. Oakley Hall – Ambrose Bierce – Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades
  4. Anne Perry – William Monk – The Face of a Stranger
  5. Peter Heck – Mark Twain – Death on the Mississippi
  6. Charles Finch – Charles Lenox – A Beautiful Blue Death
  7. David Ashton – Inspector MacLevy – Shadow of the Serpent
  8. Peter Lovesey – Albert Edward, Prince of Wales – Bertie and the Tinman
  9. Peter Lovesey – Inspector Cribb – Wobble to Death
  10. Edward Marston – Inspector Robert Colbeck –The Railway Detective
  11. Amy Myers – Chef Auguste Didier – Murder in Pug’s Parlour
  12. Francis Selwyn – Inspector Verity – Cracksman on Velvet
  13. Ray Harrison – Detective Sergeant Bragg – Why Kill Arthur Potter?
  14. Alanna Knight – Inspector Faro – Enter Second Murderer
  15. Joan Lock – Inspector Best – Dead Image


Have I missed any of your favorites? Please let me know in the comments.

Because it’s Leap Day, February 29!

In one of the funniest songs in The Pirates of Penzance, the Pirate King explains that young Frederick, having been born on Leap Day, may have been alive for 21 years — yet, if one goes by birthdays, he’s only 5!

After they sing, they have the following discussion:
Frederic. Upon my word, this is most curious – most absurdly whimsical. Five-and-a-quarter! No one would think it to look at me!

Ruth. You are glad now, I’ll be bound, that you spared us. You would never have forgiven yourself when you discovered that you had killed two of your comrades.

Frederic. My comrades?

King. (rises) I’m afraid you don’t appreciate the delicacy of your position: You were apprenticed to us –

Frederic. Until I reached my twenty-first year.

King. No, until you reached your twenty-first birthday (producing document), and, going by birthdays, you are as yet only five-and-a-quarter.

Frederic. You don’t mean to say you are going to hold me to that?

King. No, we merely remind you of the fact, and leave the rest to your sense of duty.

And there you have it — the reason why Pirates’ subtitle is “The Slave of Duty.”


Five Great Victorian Studies Reference Sites, plus blogs


If you’re like me, you want to know all the fascinating tidbits and details about life in the Victorian Era. Well, fear not – there are plenty of great reference sites out there on the Internet. I’ve collected five useful general sites here.

1. Victorian Voices – The list of lists. Find articles, websites and blogs on every aspect of Victorian life from America, Gardening, and Country/Village life to Royalty, Women’s Issues, Work, and World Cultures.

2. Victorian Research – Find the libraries and other places where primary sources and archival records are housed. Also, under the heading “Discussion” there are many groups and blogs on Victorian matters.

3. The Victorian Web – Arranged by topic in a diamond shape, the site offers information both about the UK and other nations during the Victorian era on topics including social history, political history and gender matters, philosophy, religion, science and technology, writers, artists, and theater and entertainment as well as much more.

4. Victorian London – The Victorian Dictionary, Lee Jackson’s website, has a wonderful archive of primary sources describing various aspects of London life during the Victorian era.

5. Victorian Literary Studies Archive – Professor Matsuoka of Nagoya University, Japan, has put together a huge collection of links on the Victorian era in London, Manchester, Knutsford, and the U.K., English Department in Japan, English department overseas, Dickens Fellowship, Victorian Studies Society, Victorian authors Dickens, Gaskell and Gissing, Victorian Websites, 19th century authors, English literature, British Authors and American Authors.

You might also want to explore the Victorian-era information on British History Online


I compiled the following list of blogs at random over the course of my previous searches. I have identified the blogger where I could, but I don’t know any of these folks.

The Cat’s Meat Shop (Lee Jackson)
Crime and Insanity in Victorian England (David Vaughan)
The Curious World of Victorian Collecting (Mary Addyman)
Dickens Blog (Gina Dalfonzo)
The Digital Victorianist (Bob Nicholson)
The Floating Academy: A Victorian Studies Blog
The Hoarding (Andrew Stauffer)
The Hour of Mask and Mime (Diane Magras)
Journal of Victorian Culture Online: Editors’ Blog
The Little Professor (Miriam Burstein)
Looking Glasses at Odd Corners (Amber Regis)
Charlotte Mathieson
Neo-Victorian Thoughts (Louisa Yates)
Novel Ideas: Modern Musings on the Long 19th Century (Emily K. Cody and Trey Conatser)
Novel Readings (Rohan Maitzen)
Of Victorian Interest (NAVSA)
Rag-Picking History (Paul Dobraszczyk)
Royal Holloway Victorian MA (Adam Roberts)
Romantic Circles Blog
The Salt Box (Jason Jones)
The Victorian Commons (History of House of Commons Project, 1832-68)
The Victorian Era (Geerte Koeznbasje)
Victorian Geek (Catherine Pope)
Victorian History (Bruce Rosen)
The Victorianist (“Amateur Casual”)
The Victorian Peeper (Kristan Tetens)
The Victorian Poetry Network
Wuthering Expectations

Happy researching!

SHOWCASE: Victorian Movies and TV Shows

This is the first installment of the Showcase of Victorian Movies and TV Shows.

Over the years, there has been an abundance of movies, miniseries and TV shows that have been set in England during the Victorian era. Original fiction as well as the works of Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, the Bronte sisters, and Elizabeth Gaskell have all been presented on the large and small screen. So what shows can you seek out for your Victorian inspiration?

Today, we’ll discuss the BBC’s 2004 miniseries, “North and South,” starring Richard Armitage and Daniela Denby-Ashe. A four-part series, with each episode lasting about 1 hour.

Based on the novel by Elizabet Gaskell, this is the story of Margaret Hale, a gently-bred parson’s daughter from the pastoral South of England who is uprooted and moved to “dark Satanic mills” of industrial Milton in the North, where she meets the stern, outwardly cold cotton-mill owner John Thornton. Their clash of wills produces sparks that soon turn into a conflagration.

Excellent performances by all involved – Richard Armitage’s swoon-worthy portrayal of the tall, dark and brooding Thornton inspired so much fervent admiration that the sheer number of messages reputedly crashed the BBC’s message-board.

Margaret’s first glimpse of John Thornton impresses her, but his later actions inspire her scorn and disgust.

John Thornton watches over the operations in his cotton mill

John Thornton watches over the operations in his cotton mill








Margaret’s impulsive effort to protect Thornton from a mob leads him to make a premature declaration of love, which she rejects.

Margaret refuses John's impetuous proposal of marriage

Margaret refuses John’s impetuous proposal of marriage








Thornton is hurt, but he bends his own high principles in order to protect Margaret from being dragged into a scandalous situation. When she finds out what he’s done, she’s grateful but still won’t reveal the secret that is not hers to divulge. Their next meeting is tense.

John and Margaret meet, but she has secrets she can't tell him

John and Margaret meet, but she has secrets she can’t tell him








Margaret leaves Milton to live with family friends in London. She says farewell to John, giving him her father’s Plato, a book he promises to cherish.

"I wish you well, Mr. Thornton."

“I wish you well, Mr. Thornton.”







Only a miracle could unite John and Margaret now. You’ll have to watch the whole series to find out how the miracle happens!