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April 28, 2005

Flashman on the March - George MacDonald Fraser

Posted by Seamus Sweeney

Flashman on the March
by George MacDonald Fraser
Pp. 336. London, HarperCollins, 2005
Hardback, 17.99

How many other living authors can boast on their dust jackets an economicon by P.G. Wodehouse himself? Sir Pelham Grenville wrote:

If ever there was a time when I felt that watcher-of-the-skies-when-a-new-planet stuff, it was when I read the first Flashman.

Although not as prolific as Wodehouse, George Macdonald Fraser has created a character that shares much with Bertie Wooster. In any given situation, one knows how he'll react with great inner funk and a considerable, often inadvertent, show of outer bravery. No matter how apparently grim and farcical the situation, Flashman will ultimately safely return home to the tender charms of his pretty, placid and possible equally unfaithful wife Elspeth just as Jeeves invariably restores Bertie to his state of prelapsarian innocence.

The Flashman papers are now in their twelfth instalment, and indeed references to Flashman's service in and desertion of the French Foreign Legion suggest that there will be a thirteenth in short order. Unlike the Bond books which they, on a very superficial level, resemble, Flashman has not become overshadowed by a cartoonish film version. Royal Flash was adapted to the big screen, with Malcolm McDowell taking on the main role, but its lack of success precluded further filmed instalments. Thus Flashman exists purely, more or less, in the reader's imagination, and we are not distracted by visions of Sean Connery or Roger Moore.

Of course, the further irony is that Flashman is not Fraser's creation at all, but the school bully of Tom Brown's Schooldays unleashed in adult form on a world all too ready to see heroic bravery in a poltroon. In Flashman and the Tiger, the last Flashman volume (which consisted of a novella and two short stories), Flashman encountered a rather pompous Sherlock Holmes, in a neat example of what I guess would fashionably be called intertextuality.

Flashman on the March is set in 1867-8, during the almost forgotten campaign waged by Robert Napier against the army of King Theodore of Abyssinia, which was, writes Fraser in his explanatory note:

Surely the strangest of all imperial campaigns, when a British Indian army invaded one of the least known and most dangerous countries on earth, and in the face of apparently insuperable hazards, and predictions of certain failure, marched and fought their way across a trackless wilderness of rocky chasm and jagged mountain to their goal, did what they had come to do, and marched out again with hardly a casualty. There has never perhaps been a success like it in the history of war.

Theodore - an usurping mercenary, "son of a woman who sold tape-worm medicine" - imprisoned the British consul and various other diplomats and missionaries. The resulting outcry in England, contributed to the fall of the Russell government and the accession of the Tories, who order Robert Napier to take a force from India to Abyssinia, demand the prisoners' release, and then "take such measures as he thinks expedient". Flashman observes that "with typical parliamentary poltroonery the Derby-D'Israeli gang left it up to the soldier to make the fatal decision".

Fraser is sometimes considered a "conservative" author. Certainly Flashman utterly lacks what would today be called political correctness. He observes of the execution of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico that:

[Maximilian] cried "Viva Mejico, Viva la indepencia! Shoot, soldiers, through the heart!" Which they did, with surprising accuracy for a platoon of dagoes.
Flashman also has a fatalistic, realist view of human nature. Both these factors will appeal to some. His bracing scepticism of messianic rhetoric and heroism are also refreshing. However, some of the SAU's readers may be slightly discommoded by one passage in the Explanatory Note, wherein Fraser writes:

Flashman's story is about a British army sent out in a good and honest cause by a government who knew what honour meant. It was not sent without initial follies and hesitations in high places, or until every hope of a peaceful issue was gone. It went with the fear of disaster hanging over it, but with the British public in no doubt that it was right. It served no politician's vanity or interest. It went without messianic rhetoric. There were no false excuses, no deceits, no cover-ups or lies, just a decent resolve to do a government's first duty; to protect its people, whatever the cost. To quote Flashman again, those were the days.

What could he be referring to, one wonders? In any case, after this uncharacteristic drawing of a contemporary parallel, the story unfolds as usual. The action opens with Flashman accompanying the corpse of Maximilian, the Habsburg who became, in the way of that eccentric dynasty, Emperor of Mexico, on its voyage back to Trieste. En route, Flashman deflowers the great-niece of Admiral Tegethoff, commander of the vessel, a romantic interlude soon revealed to the world because:

She shared another characteristic with Elspeth she had no more discretion than the town crier, and just as Elspeth had babbled joyfully of our jolly rogering to her elder sister, who had promptly relayed it to her horrified parents, so sweet imbecile Gertrude had confided in her duenna, who had swooned before passing on the good news to old Tegethoff.

Thus Flashman reaches Trieste desperate to escape from the clutches of the Austrians. An immediate opportunity presents itself; Speedicut, an old acquaintance from the diplomatic service, is seeking to have half a million in silver Maria Theresa dollars couriered to Napier's force as a fighting fund. In due course Flashman is sailing away from his Austrian pursuers and into a more potentially deadly adventure yet. Predictably, Flashman's hope that his role is to deliver the silver and then scarper off is unfounded. His reputation for courage has led Napier to assign him for a delicate, clandestine task to ensure the support of Theodore's rival monarchs. For this mission he is to guided, predictably again, by:

A woman such as I'd not seen yet in my brief stay in the country. The word that came into my mind was "gazelle", for she was tall and slender and carried herself with a grace that promised speed and sudden energy.

Indeed. And, aside from that, she is also the half-sister of the queen Flashman is being sent to placate, and therefore excluded from the throne, a position she very much resents. Thus Flashman departs into Abyssinia with a beautiful, politically volatile female companion, and the stage is nicely set for what will predictably follow.

Few surprises occur, plotwise, in any Flashman book. Flashman will meet and, if their anatomies are compatible, fornicate with as many of the famous historical names as possible. He will be hailed as a resourceful hero and covered in glory despite his cowardice and selfishness. Knowing from the introductory note that the campaign will ultimately result in an overwhelming British victory also robs the story of a certain amount of suspense.

Kingsley Amis wrote to Philip Larkin, in the penultimate letter before Larkin died, that:

New Flashman [Flashman and the Dragon] turns out to be rather a dog but still streets ahead of etc.

A law of diminishing returns applies to most multi-volume series featuring the same character, a kind of old-shoe familiarity that is of course comforting but also slightly stifling.

Much of the pleasure in reading these books is not so much in what happens next as in how it happens. Flashman has encountered the famous (Lincoln, Bismarck) and the lesser-known but in their own way equally memorable (Rahanovola of Madagascar, Theodore in the present volume) over the course of his career, as well as innumerable minor characters lost to the ages. All these encounters take place in a densely realised world, a Victorian universe free of sentimentality or of retrospective ideological moralising.

Fraser's ability to dig up unexpected sources, all of which one yearns to investigate for oneself, is unmatched. I certainly look forward to reading the works of:

J.A. St John, Esq, who travelled to Abyssinia in the 1840s and seems to have spent most of his time goggling at boobies, on which he was obviously an authority. He has drooling descriptions of slave-girls, and a most scholarly passage in which he compares Ethiopian juggs to Egyptian ones, and finds the former "more finely shaped and better placed".
The minor characters and footnotes are the most enjoyable aspect of the book. Perhaps, in terms of the plot and of the character of Sir Harry himself, there is little new ground to be covered in the Flashman series, but the rich historical universe Fraser has created is still, as Amis wrote, "streets ahead etc."

Seamus Sweeney is a medical graduate and freelance writer. He is a contributor to Meet the Philosophers of Ancient Greece (Ashgate, 2005).


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