When George MacDonald Fraser sat down to pen Flashman, the first volume of what would eventually become a thirteen-book series known as ‘The Flashman Papers’, one doubts he knew how enduring his titular character would become. A minor figure in Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s School Days, Sir Harry Paget Flashman may have remained just that had Fraser not plucked him from the pages of the earlier novel and used him as the anti-hero of his own.
In Fraser’s vision, Flashman went on to become a decorated war hero, with a Zelig-like capacity to get tangled up in every great conflict and diplomatic intrigue of the second half of the 19th Century. The discovery of his memoirs in an auction house in Ashby, Leicestershire—a ruse repeated with the straightest of faces at the beginning of every volume—revealed his reputation to be entirely unearned: in the twilight of his years, in an attempt to set the record straight, Flashman gleefully revealed himself to be a lying, cheating, philandering coward who owed his reputation, accolades and knighthood to a cold-hearted willingness to betray his friends, look out for himself, and, when in doubt, run away. (Fraser died before Flashman had the chance to write down everything he had to say. The character’s oft hinted-at role in the American Civil War—all we know is that he was at Appomattox and that Lincoln softly whistled ‘Dixie’ to him at the war’s conclusion—regrettably never got the novel it was promised.)