Today’s mid-19th century history lesson is Flash for Freedom by George MacDonald Fraser. It’s my fifth Flashman novel, and I’ll keep going to the end. This time Harry Flashman takes part in the slave trade, which he gets to see from every possible angle: As a crewman on a slave boat, a slave driver in the US, a smuggler on the Underground Railroad, and – almost – a slave himself.
I love seeing the age of the British Empire through Flashman’s cynical eyes. Here’s finally a character who speaks for all the bigots and cowards of history. A true person out of the past, not a modern person in old-fashioned clothes. The problem with historical novels is that you’re usually supposed to like the main character, and it’s difficult for readers today to like someone who thinks slavery is morally acceptable. Which almost everybody did until the 19th century. So authors rewrite history. Makes the characters just like us.
But there’s no need to like an anti-hero, so Flashman escapes bowdlerization. He’s free to be a racist and a misogynist, and can provide a perspective that’s often missing from history books and historical novels.
Flashman is not completely unlikeable. Unlike his compatriots he feels no need to go out and conquer India, shoot at Afghans, or kidnap Africans. He does so only because his author creates elaborate scenarios in which going on an insanely dangerous adventure in an Interesting part of the world is the safest option available to him. All for our amusement.