19th Century History

Someone should develop a course based entirely on the Flashman novels.

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87 Responses to 19th Century History

  1. nmwhiteport says:

    Yes, they really should.

  2. Wazoo says:

    This would be a great way to teach history, creative writing, psychology and many other subjects. But it would never pass muster with our PC overseers. Any professor that dared to teach such a course would be assaulted, professionally defamed and forced to retire.

  3. Irate eye rater says:

    Harry Flashman, HERO OF THE (British) IMPERIUM?

    • Bies Podkrakowski says:

      Ah. A fellow warhammerite?

      • Difference Maker says:

        As a guilty pleasure I’ve enjoyed the adventures of Ciaphas Cain, said to be inspired by the exemplary Flashman. Time to get into the original

        There’s something about the 40k universe, demons in space, fanatical human Imperium, that is unique and appealing, and indeed, it took the sacrifice of the God Emperor for me to begin to understand what it is that moves people when they speak of Jesus “dying for our sins”, and I grew up in a Christian household

        • Bies Podkrakowski says:

          True. For all its juvenile, nerdish insanity (and prices, cannot forget the prices) Warhammer 40k is one of the few “rightist”/conservative entertainment franchises left in our culture.

  4. pyrrhus says:

    Ah, Flashman! Perhaps time for a reread….

  5. deuce says:

    It would definitely be fun until it got shut down. The Flashman novels make learning the history of the Victorian era pretty painless…except for those who take offense at everything.

  6. Stephen says:

    I thought the first volume had been, in all seriousness, reviewed by American historians as a valuable contribution to our understanding of British India?

  7. engleberg says:

    Fraser’s The Hollywood History of the World is pretty good.

  8. savantissimo says:

    I’ve loved Flashy since my scurrilous lawyer uncles lent me the first volume over 25 years ago. One of these uncles spent age 7 – 17 in a British boarding school where he became so good at getting away with mischief that being a Para in N. Ireland during the Troubles and then a London stockbroker weren’t enough to tax his skills, so he eventually had to become a US Federal prosecutor. His father, high in British intel. in the Far East, was also a great Flashman aficionado.

    Beyond the engrossing historical detail, Flashy teaches boys how to think and act like the men that built the Empire.

    • ghazisiz says:

      Your uncle fits the profile of the characters in Stalky & Company, Kipling’s very fun novel on breaking the rules in an English boarding school. Kipling seems to have thought that the rule-breakers, not the rule-followers, were the creators of Empire.

    • Glengarry says:

      “Beyond the engrossing historical detail, Flashy teaches boys how to think and act like the men that built the Empire.”

      Like cowards, bounders and cads?

      (I’ve only read the first book, which admittedly was great fun.)

    • savantissimo says:

      “Scurrilous” was the wrong word. The one uncle I mentioned is a bit “scoundrelous”, the other has been described as “squirrelly”, I somehow came up with “scurrilous” as halfway between the two.

  9. Coagulopath says:

    They’re great books, although Flashman’s ability to learn new languages gets a bit unbelievable at a certain point.

    • esraymond says:

      Not to me. There is a small minority of adult humans that retains a child-like ability to absorb languages on contact. I have that trait in what I believe to be a relatively weak form, because I know of people who have it much more strongly and eat new languages like candy as a form of recreation. I myself merely pick them up spontaneously at a relatively fast rate when landed somewhere that I need to.

      I’ve done a little digging into the literature on language learning and appears a lot of us natural polyglots have histories as crib bilinguals (English and Spanish in my case). There is some scattered but suggested evidence that our organs of Broca are organized unusually.

      (An easy test for this polyglot trait is whether a person has Frodo ear, that is can easily and accurately reproduce phonemes that are not in a language the person actually speaks. No natural polyglot lacks this ability, but it is rare in monoglots.)

      Flashy, as presented, is a very strong and correspondingly rare sort of polyglot, but not out of the range that I believe occurs in reality.

      • esraymond says:

        I should also note a fact well known to polyglots: it gets easier as you go. That is, unless you’re jumping well outside the language families you have prior familiarity with, language N+1 is easier than language N.

        Even a weak polyglot such as myself gets very good at finding a similarity that can be used as as a toehold. On my first exposure to Polish spoken in Poland, the percentage of Latin roots in the vocabulary (high relative to other Slavic languages) really stood out of the background. It helped.

      • deuce says:

        Wasn’t Flashy partly based on Burton? That’s what I always heard. Burton could speak–with varying levels of fluency–over 40 languages.

        • Difference Maker says:

          reminds me, i was never impressed by videos of people speaking memorized phases of many different languages

      • MawBTS says:

        (An easy test for this polyglot trait is whether a person has Frodo ear, that is can easily and accurately reproduce phonemes that are not in a language the person actually speaks. No natural polyglot lacks this ability, but it is rare in monoglots.)

        The first book backs you up. Harry Paget Flashman does seem to have this trait.

        My nigger, whose name was Timbu-something-or-other, was of great use at first, since he spoke English, but after a few weeks I got rid of him. I’ve said that I have a gift of language, but it was only when I came to India that I realised this. My Latin and Greek had been weak at school, for I paid little attention to them, but a tongue that you hear spoken about you is a different thing. Each language has a rhythm for me, and my ear catches and holds the sounds; I seem to know what a man is saying even when I don’t understand the words, and my tongue slips easily into any new accent. In any event, after a fortnight listening to Timbu and asked him questions, I was speaking Hindustani well enough to be understood, and I paid him off.

        My only thought was the speed. Is two weeks a reasonable time to learn a new language to a conversational level?

        I think there’s even more dramatic examples of language learning in the later books, but I can’t find them.

        • Peter Lund says:

          Is two weeks a reasonable time to learn a new language to a conversational level?

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Tammet

          Almost, if you are the right kind of person.

        • Stephen M. St. Onge says:

          I’ve heard of people who can learn a new language in a week. A rather rate ability, but doable.

          • esraymond says:

            I wouldn’t say I could learn language in a week, but it is not unlikely that, if the vocabulary had a reasonable number of cognates with a language I already know, I could get to understanding and generating simple sentences in that time.

            And my accent would already be pretty good – I pick up phonology and prosody faster than grammar.

            I believe this is typical performance for a weak polyglot. I’ve only spoken four languages.

      • Difference Maker says:

        interesting. i too have some facility with languages, though its exercise has lain dormant, and i started with learning English and Mandarin at the same time

        i noticed that Hawaiian was extraordinarily difficult at first

        want to parlay this into some kind of money and adventures

      • Rich Rostrom says:

        There is the well-documented case of Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti (1774-1849) who spoke at least 30 languages.

      • Greying Wanderer says:

        my wife’s like that – picks up languages in no time

    • George Borrow https://tinyurl.com/y7e64u9t It’s plain from The Bible in Spain https://tinyurl.com/y994tzbj that EITHER he was a remarkably gifted linguist OR he had a very fertile literary imagination. (Though Borrow later confessed to the London Bible Society that Manchu had given him more trouble than he’d let on.)

    • Pincher Martin says:

      Some people are language-learning freaks.

      • esraymond says:

        Yeah, those hyperpolyglots are a class above me.

        Still, I think I have more in common with them than I do with monoglots, clear down to the neurology.

    • syonredux says:

      Facility with languages seems to be SOP in certain kinds of books. For example, even Robert E Howard’s Conan had no trouble picking-up the most wildly divergent tongues.

      • deuce says:

        Conan and other REH heroes, along with ERB’s heroes as well. In the case of REH, most of his protagonists are of some sort of Celtic extraction. Rightly or wrongly, Celts have had a reputation for easily learning new languages. That idea was certainly current during Howard’s era. Conaqn could not only speak 20+ languages, he could read numerous scripts, including Archaic Stygian.

        REH was a big fan of Richard Burton.

        • syonredux says:

          “Remembering something, the Cimmerian drew forth the roll of parchment he had taken from the mummy and unrolled it carefully, as it seemed ready to fall to pieces with age. He scowled over the dim characters with which it was covered. In his roaming about the world the giant adventurer had picked up a wide smattering of knowledge, particularly including the speaking and reading of many alien tongues. Many a sheltered scholar would have been astonished at the Cimmerian’s linguistic abilities, for he had experienced many adventures where knowledge of a strange language had meant the difference between life and death.”

          Robert E Howard, JEWELS OF GWAHLUR

  10. None says:

    Actually, a Penn professor in the history department includes them in his curriculum. He is part of the old guard, and when he is gone the school will not see his like again.

  11. magusjanus says:

    A lead-in course could be based on O’Brian’s Aubrey-Martin series of 20 novels from 1800-1815.

    • Smithie says:

      Any other good historical novels while we are at it? I’d nominate “Prince of Foxes”, “I, Claudius”, and probably Hornblower.

      • wontgetthtough says:

        I wanted to beg for other recommendations. I got into the “First Man of Rome” series a few years ago. And the dude that writes about Saxon/pre-England … cornwell?

        • wontgetthtough says:

          Oh, huh, he wrote the Sharpe books. Didn’t read them, but watched much of the series a few years ago. Sean Bean is a great actor. Game of Thrones died along with his character.

      • Magus says:

        Clavell’s Shogun, TaiPan and King Rat are spectacular. His others not so much….

        The three mentioned cover Sengoku Japan and Tokugawas rise, 19th century Hong Kong, and WW2 prison camps in Singapore (loosely autobiographical, Clavell was held at Changi).

        • Glengarry says:

          Noble House was quite good too. That one inspired a friend to move to Hong Kong and he hasn’t come back yet.

      • Coagulopath says:

        Historical novels are too broad to really recommend anything blind, but I always liked Stephen Lawhead’s Byzantium, which is about the Book of Kells and many other subjects besides. The research is amazing – he even gets little details right, like how the 9th century Irish monks have monasteries without glass windows, because glass was highly-valued plunder for Viking raiders.

        Lots of people like Connor Iggulden’s Wolf of the Plains series. To me, they feel cold and mechanical, like someone picked “Mongols” in Age of Empires II and wrote down all the details of their game.

        John Derbyshire’s Fire from the Sun is supposed to be very good re: Chinese history.

        • Bies Podkrakowski says:

          Anyone knows historical novels worth reading about Aztecs and Mayas (conquest or preconquest)?

          • Gringo says:

            Gary Jennings wrote some conquest and post-conquest historical novels about Mexico. His first is appropriately names Aztec.

          • Smithie says:

            Samuel Shellabarger who wrote “Prince of Foxes” (in the backdrop of the Borges in Italy), which I recommended above, also wrote a book called “Captain from Castile.” The Aztecs feature prominently. A tad melodramatic in one or two places, but still a pretty good adventure book. Some say his best. Both books were made into movies in the ’40s, so you can see how they were pretty popular.

            I’ve only seen one of the movies, “Prince of Foxes.” It is not exactly bad, but the book is much superior.

            • Bies Podkrakowski says:

              It turns out there is not a lot of novels about precolumbian America. But there are almost no movies about this era (Apocalypto). Serious oversight.

          • Coagulopath says:

            The Death of the Fifth Sun by Robert Somerlott is good, although out of print. It’s the Spanish conquest from Malinche’s perspective.

            But you don’t have to read fiction: the real historical documents are great reading. Here’s The Memoirs of the Conquistador Bernal Diaz Del Castillo in English. It covers all sorts of stuff – adventures, battles, sieges, his efforts at getting paid for his labours. He gets pretty sarcastic at point, and Hernando Cortez’s deputy Pedro de Alvarado comes across as a Harry Flashman type of guy.

            Besides this, Alvarado related many other things which happened during the interval we had been absent from Mexico […] At one time they were entirely without any water to drink; they dug a well in the yard adjoining their quarters, and behold! they found sweet water, whereas in every other place where wells had been sunk in Mexico, nothing but salt water was to be found. The hand of Providence was certainly often stretched out to our aid; yet I must observe, in behalf of truth, that there was another well in the town, which often, and, indeed, almost always, contained fresh water.

            • gcochran9 says:

              The Conquest of New Spain would make a hell of a movie.

              • Anon says:

                It would be interesting to see what someone like Ridley Scott could do – with a decent enough budget – directing something based on The Conquest of New Spain. His film “1492: Conquest of Paradise”, while critically / commercially panned and mostly forgotten, is beautifully shot and scored. Even if not historically accurate, there are few things as funny as Gerard Depardieu playing Christopher Columbus with a heavy French accent.

            • Difference Maker says:

              A gripping tale, and thank you for the link; now, hate to be that guy, but whenever our bold author mentions the Spanish armament of guns, crossbows, and their swords, I can’t help but think how badly they would fare against Eurasian armies

              The date is 1519; guns of a hundred years later could not defeat Mongols and Manchus; guns which were patterned on Japanese guns, said to be the most advanced in the world at the time. In this respect guns were even inferior to the Chinese crossbows of old, of the Han dynasty, certainly the Song, and even early Ming dynasty crossbows *

              And their crossbows: the pre-Ming Chinese crossbow was superior to the medieval European on account of the nature of its trigger mechanism and power stroke. European crossbows were equivalent to bows, and were wrecked by the superior fire rate of longbows for their trouble, but the old Chinese crossbows were consistently relied on to outdistance and to out armor pierce even composite bows. With a countermarch drill the Song were able to completely destroy non cataphract cavalry and nullify any prospect of close combat purely on crossbow missile power alone, a fact that lulled them into false security

              Our adventurers’ swords which they very much relied on to turn the tide in melee were described, albeit some think ambiguously, by the Ming Chinese as ‘soft’, and their consequent melee ability lacking. And there is reason to believe that, as with crossbow technology, Chinese metallurgy had declined from former days; certainly in quality control and maintenance. Overwrought though the legend of the katana may be, the Chinese preferred Japanese to European blades

              In fairness the armament of the European sailor in the far east may be different from that of a conquistador expedition; certainly the military elite had access to better swords. However, the Dutch assessed late Ming armor as essentially bullet proof

              • Difference Maker says:

                And late Ming sources state that Mongol and Manchu forces had even better armor compared to the Ming; indeed, the bulletproofness first is said of the Manchu forces. However, the late Ming remnants that the Dutch fought may have improved out of necessity; previously, when the Ming still had a country in the north, Ming armors were lamented to be neglected and leaky ‘as a sieve’

                To bring this late night ramble to a close, the Spanish brought artillery – though the late Ming were actually no slouches on this point – and so it is with cannons that the Spanish must stake their lives, if they fought against the northern hordes

              • Difference Maker says:

                “With a countermarch drill the Song were able to completely destroy non cataphract cavalry and nullify any prospect of close combat purely on crossbow missile power alone”
                Something that would not be replicated by guns until the latter 19th century

                “And late Ming sources state that Mongol and Manchu forces had even better armor compared to the Ming”
                A far cry from the Han dynasty’s mockery of the dull and simple equipment of the barbarians. “Palm of excellence” indeed

                “Our adventurers’ swords”
                Almost useless against cavalry. Hypothetical conquistadors would do well to prefigure the future and bring some pikes. Indeed, Chinese commanders threatened to use pikes if the Europeans ever landed in force on dry land, the Spanish in the Philippines observed Chinese pirates using pikes and began to use them as well, Chinese pirates were themselves repelled off a European ship by pikes and cannons.

                Though pikes are actually not all that useful against cataphracts and horse archers. Unless they have quite a lot of cannons, composite bows (proper crossbow technology unlikely to be replicated), and horse slaughtering blades, it will be time to get reamed

      • syonredux says:

        I devoured Michener’s stuff as a teen: CHESAPEAKE, HAWAII,CENTENNIAL, SPACE, etc. The writing’s mediocre and the characters are pure cardboard, but the historical value is quite high. Plus, he plays fair with the reader, letting you know when he’s deviating from straight fact.

        Gore Vidal’s work is of higher literary value and quite enjoyable, especially if you like a good dollop of acid in your fiction.Of his oeuvre , my favorites are BURR and CREATION.

      • Greying Wanderer says:

        I liked “Count Belisarius” (same guy as I Claudius)

  12. Alex says:

    I am surprised no one here has mentioned Cadfael – a 12th century Welsh monk in Shresbury who solves crimes – by Edith Pargeter writing as Ellis Peters. The 20 novels each have a theme – a yearly fair, the pilgrim business, marriages, city life, monastery life. A series was also filmed with Derek Jacobi as Cadfael and all 20 novels have been adapted.

    Not only is the series interesting and accessible, it also has very beautiful prose.

  13. Wazoo says:

    “Eaters of the Dead,” by Michael Chrichton, is great. The novel is framed as a historic document written by an envoy from the Baghdad caliphate who gets abducted by Vikings and travels with them. There are many fascinating details about Viking life.

    • wontgetthtough says:

      “The 13th Shithead” — my buddy (RIP)

    • deuce says:

      A fun adventure novel, but there are plenty of inaccuracies–starting with Neanderthals. Crichton’s conceit that the events somehow “inspired” BEOWULF is chronologically ridiculous. If schoolkids need to learn about Vikings, then Bengtssen’s THE LONG SHIPS, Haggard’s ERIC BRIGHTEYES or any of several Poul Anderson novels would be far, far better.

  14. syonredux says:

    Totally forgot that Frank Frazetta did some of the Flashman covers:

  15. TWS says:

    You know that most of the students would have no idea they were learning fiction. Let’s include Clan of the Cave Bear, (translated through cave paintings), Shogun, and by all means the Seven Samurai.

  16. Philip Neal says:

    I read a newspaper interview with MacDonald Fraser in which he said that he had plotted out “the Lincoln book” about Flashman in the American Civil War. “All I have to do now is write it” – but the next news of him I saw was that he had died leaving no unpublished work behind. What a shame.

  17. Henry Scrope says:

    ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring Up The Bodies’ by Hilary Mantel, excellent.

  18. Red Oak says:

    Leaving every volume of the Flashman series lying around the house was exactly how I went about sneaking 19th century history into my kids’ brains. Worked, too.

  19. dearieme says:

    Do people still read the Hornblower stories? I was keen on them when I was young.

  20. abies lasiocarpa says:

    An excellent suggestion.

    By the way, for those who may not have read, or been aware of, GMF’s memoir, “Quartered Safe Out Here”, it is very much worth seeking out. MacDonald Fraser was an infantryman in the
    Border Regiment and fought in the Burma campaign of 44/45. The eminent historian John Keegan considered it “one of the great personal memoirs of WW II”.

  21. Samsondale says:

    I enjoyed the Wolf of the Steppes stories by Harold Lamb. Probably an influence on Robert E. Howard.

  22. Anthony says:

    So my high school actually did have a class like this, though it was American history, and the books weren’t as !PC as Flashman. We read “Huck Finn”, “Little Big Man”, which had far more sex than I’ expected at a Catholic high shcool; watched “Gone With The Wind”, and read several other novels I’ve forgotten (though not “The Scarlet Letter”).

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