The Flashman papers revisited

In the February issue of the New Criterion John Steele Gordon revisits the Flashman novels of George MacDonald Fraser. Gordon’s essay is “No flash in the pan.” For reasons that are apparent from the outset of the essay, Gordon is a fan. The essay is an excellent weekend read.

The premise of Fraser’s Flashman novels lies in the “discovery” of the papers of Harry Flashman; the novels purport to be his memoirs. Gordon explains:

Fraser took this thinly fleshed-out character [from Tom Brown’s School Days] and brought him to life by means of a masterly literary conceit. Had he simply written these books as third-person novels, it is unlikely they would have caught on, because Flashman was apparently devoid of the redeeming qualities that the heroes of picaresque tales always have. Consider Tom Jones, for instance, or, for that matter, Robin Hood.

Instead, Fraser wrote them in the first person, explaining that they were actually the memoirs of Harry Flashman. “The great mass of manuscript known as the Flashman Papers,” he wrote, “was discovered during a sale of household furniture at Ashy, Leicestershire, in 1965. . . . The papers, which had apparently lain untouched for fifty years, in a tea chest . . . were carefully wrapped in oilskin covers.” All Fraser had to do, he explained, was edit them very lightly and supply footnotes and endnotes. As far as I know, the Flashman Papers are the only novels in the English language, perhaps besides Tolkien’s, with extensive back matter, at least back matter written by the author and not an English professor determined, as they always are, to make a good book boring.

I remember reading the first Flashman novel when it came out in paperback in 1970. Fraser’s introduction (quoted by Gordon) tells the story of the “discovery” of the Flashman papers. Having just spent four years studying eighteenth-century English literature in college, I was delighted by Fraser’s pastiche of the true story of the Boswell papers (which itself reads like a humorists’s creation). Yale University Press drily relates:

It had been known that Boswell left behind a large collection of letters and journals, but these were thought to have been destroyed. In 1807, Boswell’s friend and editor Edmond Malone mentioned in a footnote in the fifth edition of the Life—one letter in particular having been “burned in a mass of papers in Scotland”—and nobody even attempted to recover the papers until Dr. George Birkbeck Hill, in the 1880s, went to Auchinleck to retrieve the proof-sheets of the Life of Johnson in preparation of his edition of that work. But even he reported no other papers, and when some of Boswell’s library was auctioned off at Sotheby’s in 1893, there was no mention of any correspondence or journals.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the scholarly world learned that James Boswell’s considerable archives had survived and were, as it happened, unceremoniously packed away in the haylofts and croquet boxes of his descendants at Malahide Castle in Ireland and Fettercairn House in Scotland. The process of persuading Boswell’s descendants to part with the papers and then assembling them into one collection was the achievement of the intrepid American collector Ralph Heyward Isham. Colonel Isham’s mission, costly and often frustrating, would take the better part of two decades to complete. In 1949 the Boswell collection was acquired by Yale University. In the next half-century, Colonel Isham’s belief in the importance of Boswell’s papers would be justified many times over: they have become a primary source for literary scholars and historians of the eighteenth century and an object of interest to the wider reading public.

The Boswell papers proved to be a treasure trove. Not entirely unlike the Flashman papers, the Boswell papers show their author to have met approximately everyone worth knowing and to be something of a rogue. In the first published volume of his London journal, for example, Boswell laments in January 1763: “The evening was passed most cheerfully. When I got home, though, then came sorrow. Too, too plain was Signor Gonorrhoea.” Next day: “I rose very disconsolate, having rested very ill by the poisonous infection raging in my veins and anxiety and vaccination boiling in my breast.”

Boswell’s lament continues: “Am I now to be laid up for many weeks to suffer extreme pain and full confinement, to be debarred all the comforts and pleasures of life? And then must I have my poor pockets drained by the unavoidable expense of it? And then am I prevented from making love to Lady Mirabel, or any other woman of fashion? Oh dear, oh dear! What a cursed thing this is! What a miserable creature am I!”

Boswell ruminates: “Thus ended my intrigue with the fair Louisa which I flattered myself so much with, and from which I expected at least a winter’s safe copulation. It is indeed very hard. I cannot say, like young fellows who get themselves clapped in a bawdy-house, that I will take better care again. For I really did take care. However, since I am fairly trapped, let me make the best of it. I have not got it from imprudence. It is merely the chance of war.”

As the YUP entry recalls: “The first volume of the trade edition, the London Journal 1762–1763, appeared in 1950 and, surprising both its publishers at McGraw-Hill and Heinemann and its scholarly editors, became an immediate worldwide bestseller.” I wonder whether the Flashman novels might not have taken some of their inspiration from Boswell, a question beyond the scope of Gordon’s delightful essay.

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