The Flashman Novels, by George Macdonald Fraser (published in paperback by HarperCollins), and the historical works of Christopher Hibbert (various)
Spring is very obviously in the air here in Edinburgh, the rain is unmistakably getting warmer and even the snowfall halts occasionally to give the hailstones a chance! Here and there crocuses and daffodils brave the elements however, and so all in all there are signs that this particular corner of the great orb is gently moving away from winter towards summer…
Today is a good day for a book by the fireside (or perhaps even a Kindle, Sony Digital, Nook, iPad, or Barnes & Noble for the digitally minded), so here are a number that I’ve been plodding through over the past few weeks.
Thanks to my good friend Alastair Stewart who knows a thing or two about books, I finally conquered my preconceptions and decided to read the first three Flashman novels by George Macdonald Fraser, which he very kindly passed on to me. The first thing to say is that these books should come with a health warning, because politically correct in any shape or form they certainly are not. Flashman is the very picture of a cad, coward and gadabout, whose nineteenth century life and adventures are recounted in his own frank terms, as an old man looking back. Perhaps like Fleming’s Bond stories, they are the kind of books that people could read in the 1970s without batting an eyelid, whereas to our more socially conscious twenty first century minds it all seems rather outrageous, scandalous even! I genuinely wonder whether a publisher would even agree to print them in this day and age, if Macdonald Fraser were to wander in with his battered manuscripts.
With a sense of shame almost, I have to state honestly nonetheless that the Flashman books are brilliantly written and researched, easy to read, extremely funny and in many ways as good an education as anyone might require in British Imperial history. The first book, Flashman, recounts the cowardly hero’s experiences in the disastrous First Afghan War of 1839-42, including the famous retreat from Kabul under the leadership of Lord Elphinstone, descendant of the Bishop of the same name who founded Aberdeen University; the second book, Royal Flash, sees Flashy dabbling in the world of European politics and coming head to head with Germany’s Otto Von Bismark, with all kinds of outrageous consequences too numerous to go into here; and the third book, Flash for Freedom, sees him sail the Atlantic on a slave ship in 1848 before criss-crossing pre-civil war America, where he has numerous run-ins with slavers and abolitionists alike (including the up and coming Abraham Lincoln). Shockingly and even distastefully frank at times, the books are nonetheless brilliantly reconstructed pictures of the pre and early Victorian world, not as some would perhaps like to see it, but undoubtedly as it actually was.
On the subject of history, one of the finest and most readable historians of the twentieth century is undoubtedly Christopher Hibbert (1924-2008), once described in The Times as “probably the most widely-read popular historian of our time and undoubtedly one of the most prolific”. My first encounter with Hibbert’s writing was The Destruction of Lord Raglan (Longmans, 1961), a mesmerizing account of the Crimean War which won him the Heinmann Award for Literature in 1962. It was watching The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968, starring John Gielgud and Trevor Howard) which led me to pick the book up. It is a book I will never forget reading, so gripping are his descriptions of the folly and horrors of that tragic campaign (a subject I’ve attempted to summarise elsewhere in this blog – On the Crimean War).
I’ve since followed up that first experience of his writing with two other books, King Mob (Longmans, 1958), his account of London’s tumultuous Gordon Riots of 1780 led by that famous and very eccentric Scotsman Lord George Gordon, and The French Revolution (1980, Allen Lane). What makes Hibbert’s historical prose so fascinating is his intense focus on the personalities of those involved. With the Crimean the key is to understand Raglan himself, every facet of his character and personality: while with the Gordon Riots it’s Lord George “The Mad Scotchman” (which is the title of his opening chapter, beginning as follows):
“‘They were, and are, all mad’, Walpole said of them, dismissing in a spasm of irritation all of the members of the Gordon family past and present. The exasperated judgement was not entirely groundless. The Gordons had for generations shown occasional signs of something more than eccentricity and at the time of Walpole’s verdict several members of the family were said to be extremely odd.”
And of course when it comes to the French Revolution, Hibbert spends time building in the reader’s mind a clear picture of King Louis XVI:
The new King was nineteen years old. Although kind and generous by nature, his manner was usually brusque, cold and formal, marked by fits of ill humour and sharp retorts. His Keeper of the Seals had ‘never known anyone whose character was more contradicted by outward appearances’. He was ‘really good and tender hearted’. You could ‘never speak to him of disasters and accidents to people without seeing a look of compassion come over his face, yet his replies were often hard, his tone harsh, his manner unfeeling.’ Hesitant, reserved and ungainly, his appearance, too, was unprepossessing. He had clear blue eyes and abundant fair hair, but his mouth was over flabby and his chin pale and fat.”
It is often said of Tolstoy, drawing from War and Peace, that his view of history demonstrated the ultimate insignificance of great men such as Tsar Alexander I, or Napoleon: that individuals great or small do not determine the course of events, and everyone is equally carried along by the epic tide. If there is any truth in that resounding conclusion then it is a truth which Hibbert seems to contradict, since he portrays the chief persons in his histories in a way which shows it is their very own key strengths and weaknesses of character or disposition which ripple out, determining the outcomes when events teeter on a knife edge. In the final analysis Hibbert’s is perhaps the more practical and realistic appraisal of history, no doubt born out of his own distinguished career as first an infantryman and then captain in the London Irish Rifles Regiment, fighting in Italy during the Second World War (for which he received the Military Cross).
George Macdonald Fraser and Christopher Hibbert are two of our finest and most prolific writers, united by their love of history. One reveals it through fiction, the other non-fiction; but both paint unforgettable portraits of the characters who populate their pages. Truly wonderful books.