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.
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
There’s a point, you know, where treachery is so complete and unashamed that it becomes statesmanship.
―Flashman and the Mountain of Light
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!
Cover image: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3163609
Stack of books: By SchroCat – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24424576