Below is my attempt at a review of the late George MacDonald Fraser’s fifth installment in his highly acclaimed series, The Flashman Papers – “FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” (1975):
“FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” (1975) Book Review
That great fictional bully and poltroon, Harry Flashman, once said. ”Humanity is beastly and stupid, aye and helpless, and there’s no end to it,” in one of George MacDonald Fraser’s installments of The Flashman Papers – a series of novels written in memoir form about a British Army officer in Victorian Britain. Well Fraser certainly proved that momentous statement in the series’ fifth installment, ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME”. First published in 1975, the novel featured Harry Flashman’s experiences during the Sepoy Rebellion aka the Indian Mutiny (1857-1858).
In order to understand Flashman’s encounters with certain characters in the story, one must remember one thing – ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” is a direct sequel to the series’ fourth novel, ”FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” (1973). At least two characters featured in the novel about the Crimean War also appeared in ”GREAT GAME” – Count Nicholas Ignatieff, a ruthless Russian intelligence office; and a former schoolmate of Flashman’s named Harry “Scud” East, who had also been a fellow prisoner-of-war of Flashman during the Crimean War.
The Sepoy Rebellion had been a bloody and emotional conflict for both Britons and Indians alike. It began as an uprising of sepoys of the British East India Company’s army on May 10, 1857, in the town of Meerut, and soon erupted into other mutinies and civilian rebellions largely in the upper Gangetic plain and central India, with the major hostilities confined to present-day Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, northern Madhya Pradesh, and the Delhi region. The rebellion posed a considerable threat to Company power in that region, and it was contained only with the fall of Gwalior on June 20, 1858. The sepoys were a combination of Muslim and Hindu soldiers. Just before the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, there were over 200,000 Indians in the army compared to about 40,000 British. The forces were divided into three presidency armies: the Bombay; the Madras; and the Bengal. The Bengal army recruited higher castes, such as “Rajputs and Brahmans”, mostly from the “Avadh(or oudh) and Bihar” region and even restricted the enlistment of lower castes in 1855; in contrast, the Madras and Bombay armies were “more localized, caste-neutral armies”that “did not prefer high-caste men.” The domination of the Bengal high-caste in the army has been blamed in part for the Sepoy mutiny of 1857. It has been suggested that after the annexation of Oudh by the East India Company in 1856, many sepoys were disquieted both from losing their perquisites, as landed gentry, in the Oudh courts and from the anticipation of any increased land-revenue payments that the annexation might augur. Others have stressed that by 1857, some Indian soldiers, misreading the presence of missionaries as a sign of official intent, were persuaded that the East India Company was masterminding mass conversions of Hindus and Muslims to Christianity. The final spark was provided by the controversy over the new Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle. To load the new rifle, the sepoys had to bite the cartridge open. It was believed that the paper cartridges that were standard issue with the rifle were greased with lard (pork fat) which was regarded as unclean by Muslims, or tallow (beef fat), regarded as anathema to Hindus.
One could say that Fraser had attempted to present the conflict from both views. One could say that he gave it his best shot. But it would have been impossible in the end. Especially since the novel was written from Flashman’s point of view. But I must give Fraser some credit for allowing Flashman to witness the emotions expressed by those Indians that had fought against the British . . . especially the beautiful and very memorable Lakshambai, the Rani of Jhansi.
The story began with Flashman receiving a summons from Prime Minister Lord Palmerston to join him at the Royal Family’s Scottish estate, Balmoral, in the early fall of 1856. Much to Flashman’s horror, he discovered that Palmerston wants him to journey to India and investigate a secret message that is being transmitted to many native villagers, sepoys (Indian soldiers under British command) and rulers alike, via a small stack of chapattis (Indian bread). Even worse, Flashman endured an unpleasant reunion with his former Crimean War foe, Count Ignatieff. The reunion resulted in a terrifying episode in the Highlands during a deer stalking party. And Ignatieff learned about Flashman’s India mission, thanks to the latter’s beautiful, but scatterbrained wife, Elspeth. Once Flashman arrived in India, he commenced upon his mission to investigate the mysterious chapattis exchange and guarantee the loyalty of Lakshambai, the Rani of Jhansi. But fate ended up dealing Flash Harry a cruel blow when a group of Thugee assassins attempted to kill him, following a clandestine tryst with the beautiful Rani. Suspecting mischief from Ignatieff (who has also arrived in India), Flashman’s Afghan friend, Ilderim Khan, urged him to hide from Ignatieff’s plots by impersonating a sepoy at the British cantonment (fort) in Meerut. Unfortunately, Flashman’s choice of location proved to be disasterous, for the cowardly officer found himself at the very place where the sepoy uprising began.
If I had to choose my favorite Flashman novel of all time, it would not be ”GREAT GAME”. Quality has nothing to do with my choice. I just happen to be a fanatic about the American Old West, which is why ”FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” remains my favorite. However, if I had to choose the six Flashman novels I consider supreme over the others, ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME”would be one of them. It is, without a doubt, one of Fraser’s finest works and one of the best historical novels I have ever read. There were times I found myself wondering about Fraser’s talent as a journalist. I believe that he certainly put it to good use in re-capturing not only London and the Scottish Highlands in the mid-19th century, but also British India.
The novel’s gem or centerpiece started with Flashman’s arrival in Jhansi and ended with his escape from the siege at Cawnpore. Mind you, I was impressed by other passages in the novel:
*Flashman’s frightening encounter with Ignatieff and a Russian assassin at Balmoral
*Flashman’s lustful last moments with his wife Elspeth and her feather fan
* Flashman and an Irish wannabe hero named Thomas Henry Kavanaugh’s hilarious journey through the streets of war torn Lucknow in an attempt to contact British military forces
*Flashman’s terrifying moments with the British artillery at Gwalior
Earlier, I had mentioned how Fraser gave readers glimpses of the 1857-58 uprising not only from the viewpoints of Flashman, other Britons and loyal Indians, but also from those who had fought against the British. This was very apparent in the passages that featured Flashman’s impersonation as a sepoy in Meerut. Fraser gave readers a solid peek into the sepoys’ discontent and suspicions toward British regard for their beliefs – feelings that eventually to their uprising. In the following passage, Fraser described the Meerut sepoys’ refusal to drill with the new Enfield rifles with its infamous greased cartridges:
It wasn’t the most tactful thing to say, to that particular sepoy; I thought Sardul would go into a frenzy, the way he wept – but he wouldn’t touch the cartridges. So it went, along the line; when the end had been reached only four other men out of ninety had accepted the loads – four and that stalwart pillar of loyalty, Flashy Makarram Khan (he knew his duty, and which side his bread was buttered).
So there it was. Carmichael-Smith could hardly talk for sheer fury, but he cussed us something primitive, promising dire retribution, and then dismissed the parade. They went in silence – some stony-faced, others troubled, a number (like old Sardul) weeping openly, but mostly just sullen. For those of us who had taken the cartridges, by the way, there were no reproaches from the others – proper lot of long-suffering holy little Tom Browns they were.”
After surviving the outbreak of the uprising in Meerut, Flashman return to Jhansi for safety and discovered that another sepoy rebellion had occurred at its British cantonment. Flashman, Ilderim and a few other Ghazi (Afghan) soldiers decided to head for the British cantonment at Cawnpore. Once more, Flashy’s bad luck reared its ugly head when he and his companions discovered that the sepoys had revolted there, as well. However, the British commander at Cawnpore – General Hugh Wheeler – had foreseen a possible revolt by the sepoys and made plans to create a makeshift garrison for the British community (military and civilian), Eurasians and loyal Indians. Fraser painted a detailed description of Wheeler’s command at Cawnpore. But his description of the sepoys’ attack on June 23, 1857 really blew my mind:
”They were re-forming, a bare hundred yards off; the ground between was littered with dead and dying beasts and men. I had barely time to gulp a mouthful of warm, muddy water and seize my musket before they were howling in at us once more, and this time there were pandy infantrymen racing behind them.
‘One more volley!’ bawls Wheeler. ‘Hold your fire, there! Aim for the horses! No surrender! Ready, present – fire!’
The whole wall blasted fire, and the charge shook and wavered before it came rushing on again; half a dozen of them were rearing and plunging up to the entrenchment, the sabres were swinging about our heads, and I was rolling away to avoid the smashing hooves of a rider coming in almost on top of me. I scrambled to my feet, and there was a red-coated black devil leaping at me from the parapet; I smashed at him with my musket butt and sent him flying, and then another one was at me with his sabre, lunging. I shrieked as it flew past my head, and then we had closed, and I was clawing at his face, bearing him down by sheer weight. His sabre fell, and I plunged for it; another pandy was rushing past me, musket and bayonet extended, but I got my hand on the fallen hilt, slashing blindly; I felt a sickening shock on my head, and fell, a dead weight landed on top of me, and the next thing I knew I was on my hands and knees, with the earth swimming round me, and Wheeler was bawling.”
Ironically, one of my favorite passages featured some of the rebelling sepoys’ reaction to encountering their former commanders, following General Wheeler’s decision to surrender to their new leader, the Nana Sahib. I personally feel that it featured some of Fraser’s best writing:
”Four mutineers were hurrying up and down the untidy convoy, calling out and searching, until they spotted Vibart and his family – and then they ran hallooing and calling ‘Colonel sahib! Mem-sahib!’, and seized on the family’s baggage, and one of them, beaming and chuckling, lifted Vibart’s little lad on to his shoulders, piggyback, while the others shouted and shoved and made room for Mrs. Vibart in a wagon. Vibart was dumbfounded, and two of the mutineers were weeping as they took his hand and carried his gear – I saw another one at it, too, an old grizzled havildar of the 56th, standing on the entrenchment gazing down into the ruin of the barracks with tears running down his white beard; he was shaking his head in grief, and then he would look no more, but turned about and stared across the maidan, still crying.”
Despite the grim tone of the novel’s subject, ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” featured some hilarious moments. I had already pointed out a hilarious scene that involved Flashman traveling through the streets of Lucknow with an Irish hero wannabe named Kavanaugh. Two of them included quotes made by Flashman’s Afghan friend, Ilderim. While they were still in Jhansi, the Ghazi not only commented upon Flashy’s successful womanizing, but also mocked the British officer’s stubborn belief in Lakshambai’s alleged affection for him:
”Ilderim glanced at me witheringly, and bit his nail in scorn.
‘Bloody Lance,’ says he, ‘ye may be the bravest rider in the British Army, and God knows thou art no fool – but with women thou art a witless infant. Thou hast coupled this Hindoo slut, hast thou not?’
‘Damn your impudence –‘
‘I thought as much. Tell me, blood-brother, how many women hast thou covered, in thy time?’ And he winked at his mates.
‘What the devil d’you mean?’ I demanded.
‘How many? Come, as a favour to thy old friend.’
‘Eh? What’s it to you dammit? Oh, well, let’s see . . . there’s the wife, and . . . er . . . and, ah-‘
‘Aye – ye have fornicated more times than I have passed water,’ says this elegant fellow. ‘And just because they let thee have thy way, didst thou trust them therefore? Because they were beautiful or lecherous – wert thou fool enough to think it made them honest? Like enough. This Rani has beglamoured the – well then, go thou up and knock on her palace gate tonight, and cry “Beloved, let me in.” I shall stand under the wall to catch the pieces.’”
But one of the funniest moments focused upon Flashman acting as a native escort for a red-haired British widow named Mrs. Leslie at Meerut, out for an afternoon ride. Apparently, the attractive lady had developed a lust for our hero, not realizing that he was a British officer impersonating an Afghan-born sepoy:
”’You Pathans are not truly . . . Indian, are you? I mean . . . in some ways you look . . . well, almost . . . white.’
‘We are not Indian at all, mem-sahib,’ says I. ‘We are descended from the people of Ibrahim, Ishak and Yakub, who were led from the Khedive’s country by one Moses.’
‘You mean – you’re Jewish?’ says she. ‘Oh.’ She rode in silence for a while. ‘I see. How strange.’ She thought some more. ‘I . . . I have Jewish acquaintances . . . in England. Most respectable people. And quite white, of course.’
Well, the Pathans believe it, and it made her (Mrs. Leslie) happy, so I hurried the matter along by suggesting next day that I show her the ruins at Aligaut, about six miles from the city; it’s a deserted temple, very overgrown, but what I hadn’t told her was that the inside walls were covered with most artistically-carved friezes depiciting all the Hindoo methods of fornicating – you known the kind of thing: effeminate-looking lads performing incredible couplings with fat-titted females. She took one look and gasped; I stood behind with the horses and waited. I saw her eyes travel round from one impossible carving to the next, while she gulped and went crimson and pale by turns, not knowing whether to scream or giggle, so I stepped up behind her and said quietly that the forty-fifth position was much admired by the discriminating. She was shivering, with her back to me, and then she turned, and I saw that her eyes were wild and her lips trembling, so I gave my swarthy ravisher’s growl, swept her up in my arms, and then down on to the mossy floor. She gave a little frightened moan, opened her eyes wide, and whispered:
‘You’re sure you’re Jewish . . . not . . . not Indian?’
‘Han,mem-sahib,’ says I, thrusting away respectfully, and she gave a contented little squeal and grappled me like a wrestler.”
The novel also featured more memorable incidents and moments – including Flashman’s reunion with his old classmate and fellow prisoner-of-war, Harry “Scud” East that proved to be at first, caustic, and later, bittersweet; and his terrifying experience at being mistaken for a rebellious sepoy, following General Hugh Rose’s victory at Gwalior. But . . . there were a few flies in the ointment, so to speak. One, the last third of the novel seemed like an aftermath following Flashman’s experiences at Jhansi, Meerut and Cawnpore. He spent most of that period as an intelligence staff officer or as a prisoner of the Rani of Jhansi.
Speaking of the Rani, she and Flashy had a curious conversation about the British Empire, and also the differences between British and Indian customs that left me baffled. I found myself wondering why Harry Flashman, of all people, would go to such lengths to defend the Empire and the British way of life to an Indian queen. Mind you, I am certain that he had nothing against it, being both patriotic and racist. But why did it mattered so much to him that Lakshambai agree with his opinion on the joys of the British rule? One could say that he was simply doing his job. Yet, there was something about Flashman’s responses that made him look like an over earnest schoolboy. Especially when one considers that despite his patriotism, the Empire has kept Flashy from England and safety more times that he care to remember. The entire conversation . . . or should I say Flashman’s responses to the Rani’s objections against the Empire rang false and out of character for me.
Another problem I had with ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” turned out to be the presence of Count Nicholas Ignatieff in the story. Granted, he seemed just as ruthless as he had been in ”FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE”. But aside from his attempt to get Flashman killed at Balmoral, his presence in the story seemed rather weak. Almost unnecessary. Ignatieff did have an opportunity to torture Flashman in the dungeon beneath the Jhansi palace. But Lakshambai cut short the torture session, made Flashman her prisoner and Ignatieff permanently disappeared from the story.
Despite these minor flaws, ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” is still a magnificent historical novel. Fraser filled his story with enough different elements – drama, action, comedy, terror, tragedy and suspense – that allowed it to become one of the most well written novels I have ever read. Through Flashman’s eyes, the author left me laughing, breathless and surprisingly enough, in tears. In fact, I find it surprising that the novel never won any literary awards. A shame, really. For I believe that it certainly deserved a great deal of them.
Filed under: Book Review, Essay | Tagged: british empire, company rule, flashman, george macdonald fraser, history, literary, politics, sepoy rebellion, victorian age | 1 Comment »