Flashman at the Charge, The Flashman Papers, and my spotted history with historical fiction

I had never heard of George MacDonald Fraser’s “Flashman” books before picking a few up on a recommendation. I’ve got an innate suspicion of historical fiction borne out of an unmitigated G.A. Henty binge I went on when I was about twelve, (eerily similar to the events that led to my current perspective on Ritz crackers) but I figured that the light-hearted nature of these books would be less likely to set off my Ponderous Edwardian Bullshit Meter than the aforementioned G.A. Henty. It also helps that these books (published mostly in the 70s) are both comically irreverent and obsessively researched. My knowledge of certain specific historical events has been absurdly sharpened by these quick/guilty pleasure reads. But, holy shit, the covers are so, so bad…

So where do books like “The Flashman Papers” fit in with my goal of obsessive and broad reading? Well, they’re damn good palette cleansers. After getting through Infinite Jest or something emotionally draining, (even in a good way, like Kundera)there’s an undeniable satisfaction in something that’s both engaging and undemanding. The writing isn’t bad enough to distract, and the plots -while always far-fetched- are interesting enough. But far more interesting is the window they provide into a particular moment in history. Fraser is seriously obsessive in his research, and he has a remarkable talent for distilling all that research down to a simple narrative (a narrative that’s often genuinely funny).

I don’t have any problems with reading genre, with reading pulp. Some of the most interesting art happens at the points where high and low culture bisect -this high/low dynamic would be impossible if artists had no familiarity or appreciation of “low” culture, pop or otherwise. Obviously, it’s possible to go overboard in either direction, but I’m suspicious of people who broadly condemn any particular subset (don’t be the guy who likes “all kinds of music, except country music”).

Recommendation: Try it. See if this particular incarnation of non-high-culture does anything for you.


Flashman at the Charge
by George Macdonald Fraser

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