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Author: George MacDonald Fraser
Rating: 4/5
Last Read: November 2018
Who Should Read: People who like to laugh, those interested in military fiction or historical fiction

Flashman is the first book in a long series of novels about the life and exploits of Harry Flashman, an entirely unlikeable anti-hero.

Flashman describes himself openly as a coward, cheat, and a bully, and yet somehow he makes his way to the top of every situation and encounter he's in. Flashman's star rises throughout the novel, and everyone who recognizes him for who he is somehow ends up dead or pushed by the wayside.

It details his life from 1839 to 1842 and his travels to Scotland, India, and Afghanistan. It also contains a number of notes by the author, in the guise of a fictional editor, providing additional historical glosses on the events described. The history in these books is largely accurate; most of the prominent figures Flashman meets were real people.

I highly recommend Flashman to anyone who enjoys fiction. The book is fast-paced and full of amusing antics. I found myself laughing and cursing Flashman on every page. Those interested in military fiction or historical fiction will also enjoy the novel, as it covers the terrible defeat of the British in Afghanistan under General Elphinstone.

I stopped at the first book (I tend to avoid series), but if you are interested in continuing there are eleven more books in the series.

My Highlights

Anyway, he gave me a fine holy harangue, about how through repentance I might be saved—which I’ve never believed, by the way. I’ve repented a good deal in my time, and had good cause, but I was never ass enough to suppose it mended anything. But I’ve learned to swim with the tide when I have to, so I let him pray over me, and when he had finished I left his study a good deal happier than when I went in.

Anyway, I was content to let the matter rest just now; I have always believed in one thing at a time, and the thing that was occupying my mind was Miss Judy Parsons.

A lot has been said about the purchase of commissions—how the rich and incompetent can buy ahead of better men, how the poor and efficient are passed over—and most of it, in my experience, is rubbish. Even with purchase abolished, the rich rise faster in the Service than the poor, and they’re both inefficient anyway, as a rule. I’ve seen ten men’s share of service, through no fault of my own, and can say that most officers are bad, and the higher you go, the worse they get, myself included.

Some human faults are military virtues, like stupidity, and arrogance, and narrow-mindedness.

Of course if he had thought at all he would have sniffed something fishy about a ten thousand bribe in the first place. But he was greedy, and I’ve lived long enough to discover that there isn’t any folly a man won’t contemplate if there’s money or a woman at stake.

In her, ignorance and stupidity formed a perfect shield against the world: this, I suppose, is innocence.

“Not fair! Well, well, this is one lesson you’re learning. Nothing’s fair, you young fool."

if the day comes, don’t wait to die on the field of honour.” He said it without a sneer. “Heroes draw no higher wages than the others, boy. Sleep well.”

But looking back I can say that, all unwittingly, Kabul and the army were right to regard Elphy’s arrival as an incident of the greatest significance. It opened a new chapter: it was a prelude to events that rang round the world. Elphy, ably assisted by McNaghten, was about to reach the peak of his career; he was going to produce the most shameful, ridiculous disaster in British military history.

Think of all the conceivable misfortunes that can arise from combinations of folly, cowardice, and sheer bad luck, and I’ll give you chapter and verse. But I still state unhesitatingly, that for pure, vacillating stupidity, for superb incompetence to command, for ignorance combined with bad judgement—in short, for the true talent for catastrophe—Elphy Bey stood alone.

Only he could have permitted the First Afghan War and let it develop to such a ruinous defeat. It was not easy: he started with a good army, a secure position, some excellent officers, a disorganised enemy, and repeated opportunities to save the situation. But Elphy, with the touch of true genius, swept aside these obstacles with unerring precision, and out of order wrought complete chaos. We shall not, with luck, look upon his like again.

So it always goes with dissension at the top:

And neither of them got on with Shelton, a rude boor of a man who was Elphy’s second-in-command, and this dissension at the top made for uneasiness and mistrust farther down.

I don’t pretend that I became an expert in a few weeks, or that I ever “knew” Afghanistan, but I picked up a little here and there, and began to realise that those who studied the country only from the cantonment at Kabul knew no more about it than you would learn about a strange house if you stayed in one room of it all the time.

It was unfortunate that he happened, about this time, to be awaiting his promotion and transfer to the Governorship of Bombay; I think the knowledge that he was leaving may have made him careless.

Ask him,” I shouted, “how I came here! Ask the lying, treacherous bastard!”
“Never try to flatter Gul Shah,” said the stout man cheerfully. “He’ll believe every word of it. No, there has been a mistake, regrettably, but it has not been irreparable. For which God be thanked—and my timely arrival, to be sure.” And he smiled at me again. “But you must not blame Gul Shah, or his people: they did not know you for what you were.”
Now, as he said those words, he ceased to be a waggish madman; his voice was as gentle as ever, but there was no mistaking the steel underneath. Suddenly things became real again, and I understood that the kindly smiling man before me was strong in a way that folk like Gul Shah could never be: strong and dangerous.

You have to manage morale:

“First, my dear friend Flashman,” says he, all charm, “I must tell you that you have been kept here not only for your own good but for your people’s. Their situation is now bad. Why, I do not know, but Elfistan Sahib has behaved like a weak old woman. He has allowed the mobs to rage where they will, he has left the deaths of his servants unavenged, he has exposed his soldiers to the worst fate of all—humiliation—by keeping them shut up in cantonments while the Afghan rabble mock at them. Now his own troops are sick at heart; they have no fight in them.”

“The British cannot stay here now,” he went on. “They have lost their power, and we Afghans wish to be rid of them. There are those who say we should slaughter them all—needless to say, I do not agree.” And he smiled. “For one thing, it might not be so easy—”
“It is never easy,” said old Muhammed Din. “These same feringhees took Ghuznee Fort; I saw them, by God.”
“—and for another, what would the harvest be?” went on Akbar. “The White Queen avenges her children. No, there must be a peaceful withdrawal to India; this is what I would prefer myself. I am no enemy of the British, but they have been guests in my country too long.”

I have observed, in the course of a dishonest life, that when a rogue is outlining a treacherous plan, he works harder to convince himself than to move his hearers. Akbar wanted to cook his Afghan enemies’ goose, that was all, and perfectly understandable, but he wanted to look like a gentleman still—to himself.

“Now,” went on Akbar, “you must deliver my proposals to McLoten Sahib personally, and in the presence of Muhammed Din and Khan Hamet here, who will accompany you. If it seems”—he flashed his smile—“that I don’t trust you, my friend, let me say that I trust no one. The reflection is not personal.”

You don’t know one of the first rules of politics: that a man can be trusted to follow his own interest. I see perfectly well that Akbar is after undisputed power among his own people; well, who’s to blame him? And I tell you, I believe you wrong Akbar Khan; in our meetings he has impressed me more than any other Afghan I have met. I judge him to be a man of his word.”

“To my most beloved Hector,” and I thought, by God, she’s cheating on me, and has sent me the wrong letter by mistake. But in the second line was a reference to Achilles, and another to Ajax, so I understood she was just addressing me in terms which she accounted fitting for a martial paladin; she knew no better. It was a common custom at that time, in the more romantic females, to see their soldier husbands and sweethearts as Greek heroes, instead of the whoremongering, drunken clowns most of them were. However, the Greek heroes were probably no better, so it was not so far off the mark.

But chance helped me, as she always does if you keep your wits about you

“Why should you want to preserve my life?” says I. “What do you owe me?”
“We have been friends,” says he, grinning that sudden grin of his. “Also I admired the compliments you paid me as you rode away from Mohammed Khan’s fort the other day.”
“They weren’t meant to flatter you,” says I.
The insults of an enemy are a tribute to the brave,” laughs he.

When I woke it was broad day, and Sergeant Hudson had a little fire going and was brewing coffee. It was the first hot drink I had tasted in days; he even had a little sugar for it.
“Where the devil did you come by this, Hudson?” says I, for there had been nothing but dried mutton and a few scraps of biscuit on the last few days of the march.
“Foraged, sir,” says he, cool as you please, so I asked no more questions, but sipped contentedly as I lay in my blankets.

He's a pretty a terrible leader:

So I agreed, and found myself considering this Sergeant Hudson for the first time, for beyond noting that he was a steady man I had given him not much notice before. After all, why should one notice one’s men very much?

There is a painting of the scene at Gandamack, which I saw a few years ago, and it is like enough the real thing as I remember it. No doubt it is very fine and stirs martial thoughts in the gloryblown asses who look at it; my only thought when I saw it was, “You poor bloody fools!” and I said so, to the disgust of other viewers. But I was there, you see, shivering with horror as I watched, unlike the good Londoners, who let the roughnecks and jailbirds keep their empire for them; they are good enough for getting cut up at the Gandamacks which fools like Elphy and McNaghten bring ’em to, and no great loss to anybody.

So we were safe, and to come safe out of a disaster is more gratifying than to come safe out of none at all.

There is great pleasure in catastrophe that doesn’t touch you, and anyone who says there isn’t is a liar. Haven’t you seen it in the face of a bearer of bad news, and heard it in the unctuous phrases at the church gate after a funeral?

Hudson, of course, didn’t understand why I should be so horrified at this, until I told him the whole story—about Narreeman, and how Akbar had rescued me from Gul’s snakes in Kabul. Heavens, how I must have talked, but when I tell you that we were in the cellar a week together, without ever so much as seeing beyond the door, and myself in a sweat of anxiety about what our fate might be, you will understand that I needed an audience. Your real coward always does, and the worse his fear the more he blabs.

God, how I called; I roared like a bull calf, and got nothing back, not even echoes. I would do it again, too, in the same position, for all that I don’t believe in God and never have. But I blubbered like an infant, calling on Christ to save me, swearing to reform and crying gentle Jesus meek and mild over and over again. It’s a great thing, prayer. Nobody answers, but at least it stops you from thinking.

God alone knew what I was supposed to have done that was so brave, but doubtless I should learn in time. All I could see was that somehow appearances were heavily on my side—and who needs more than that? Give me the shadow every time, and you can keep the substance—it’s a principle I’ve followed all my life, and it works, if you know how to act on it.

It calls for nice judgement, this art of bragging; you must be plain, but not too plain, and you must smile only rarely. Letting them guess more than you say is the kernel of it, and looking uncomfortable when they compliment you.

But you will have noticed, no doubt, that when a man has a reputation good or bad, folk will always delight in adding to it; there wasn’t a man in Afghanistan who knew me but who wanted to recall having seen me doing something desperate, and Broadfoot, quite sincerely, was like all the rest.

I forgot the incident at once. I remember it now, for it was that same day that everything happened all at once. There are days like that; a chapter in your life ends and another one begins, and nothing is the same afterwards.

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.

We shook hands, and he drove off. I never spoke to him again. Years later, though, I told the American general, Robert Lee, of the incident, and he said Wellington was right—I had received the highest honour any soldier could hope for. But it wasn’t the medal; for Lee’s money it was Wellington’s hand. Neither, I may point out, had any intrinsic value.

Pride is a hellish thing; without it there isn’t any jealousy or ambition. And I was proud of the figure I cut—in bed and in barracks. And here was I, the lion of the hour, medal and all, the Duke’s handshake and the Queen’s regard still fresh—and I was gnawing my innards out about a gold-headed filly without a brain to her name.

Flashman shows his true character when finding out he's been cheated on:

I looked, and seeing myself so damned dashing, and her radiant and fair beside me, I fought down the wretchedness and rage. No, it couldn’t be true….
“Susan, you have not put away my coat, silly girl. Take it at once, before it creases.”
By God, though, I knew it was. Or I thought I knew. To the devil with the consequences, no little ninny in petticoats was going to do this to me.
“Elspeth,” says I, turning.
“Hang it carefully, now, when you’ve brushed it. There. Yes, my love?”
“Oh, Harry, you look so strong and fierce, on my word. I don’t think I shall feel easy in my mind when I see all these fancy London ladies making eyes at you.” And she pouted very pretty and touched her finger on my lips.
“Elspeth, I—”
“Oh, I had nearly forgot—you had better take some money with you. Susan, bring me my purse. In case of any need that may arise, you know. Twenty guineas, my love.”
“Much obliged,” says I. What the devil, you have to make do as best you can; if the tide’s there, swim with it and catch on to whatever offers. You only go by once.
“Will twenty be sufficient, do you think?”
“Better make it forty.”


Major Characters

  • Flashman
  • Earl of Cardigan
  • Bernier
  • Elspeth
  • Gul Shah
  • Burnes
  • Elby Bey (Elphinstone)
  • Akbar Khan
  • Sgt Hudson


When I read fiction, I make an outline as a memory aide. If you don't want to see any spoilers, skip this section.

  1. Flashman is expelled from school
  2. Flashman joins the 11th Light Dragoons as an officer
  3. Flashman "wins" duel with Bernier after rigging it
  4. Flashman gets reassigned to Glasgow, marries Elspeth (Forced)
  5. Flashman gets transferred to India for marrying down
  6. Flashman learns Hindi, goes to a party with the governor, gets sent to Afghanistan
  7. Flashman learns Pashtu, gets sent as an emissary to the Gulzai
  8. Flashman rapes the dancer, makes an enemy of Gul Shah - ambushed while hunting
  9. The complacent garrison is attacked. Burnes dies.
  10. Flashman is captured by Gul Shah, then saved by Akbar Khan
  11. Flashman is sent to make a deal: British help double-cross a tribe, get safe retreat out of Afghanistan.
  12. British get double-crossed; still retreat out of Afghanistan
  13. Backstabbing by Akbar Khan - most of the force is wiped out in the Kabul pass (terrible decisions by Elphinstone)
  14. Flashman separates from the army with Sgt Hudson
  15. They see the massacre @ Gandamack, and are captured by Afghans
  16. Flashman is tortured by Gul Shah, he escapes with Sgt Hudson after they kill Gul Shah
  17. They make it to a fort outside of Jalalabad
  18. The fort is overrun, the only survivor is Flashman
  19. Flashman is sent to England as a hero - meets the Queen, Duke of Wellington, gets a medal
  20. Finds out his wife is cheating on him - fine with it because he wants money.

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Flashman: A Novel
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