“FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” (1975) Book Review

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.

“FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” (1973) Book Review

“FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” (1973) Book Review

Serving as the fourth entry in George MacDonald Fraser’s The Flashman Papers, this 1973 novel continued the story of Harry Flashman, a character previously from the 1857 novel, “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” and now a British Army officer in Fraser’s novels. This particular novel, “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE”, recalled Flashman’s experiences during the Crimean War (1854-1856) and Imperial Russia’s expansion into Central Asia. 

One could say that “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” could almost serve as a prequel to Fraser’s 1975 novel about the Sepoy Rebellion, “FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME”. Almost. But it seemed quite obvious to me that the latter is a sequel to the 1973 novel. At least two supporting characters from this novel reappeared in “FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME”. And the theme of Imperial Russia’s attempts to wrestle control of India from Great Britain in the 1975 novel, began in this novel.

The 1973 novel began with Harry Flashman enjoying the London social scene with his beautiful wife, Elspeth. With Great Britain on the brink of war against Russia on Turkey’s behalf, the cowardly Flashman believed that the only way to avoid combat was to have his Uncle Bindley secure him a post with the Board of Ordinance – the British Army’s armory. However, Flashman’s luck failed to hold (not surprisingly) and his meeting with the young German prince, William of Celle (a relation of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert) led him to become a staff galloper for Lord Raglan, the British Army’s Commander-in-Chief. The new position drew Harry against his will into the chaos of the Crimean War and in becoming a participant of one of history’s most infamous cavalry engagements – the Charge of the Light Brigade. This famous military action also led him to becoming a prisoner-of-war at the estate of a Cossack nobleman named Count Pencherjevsky

At Count Pencherjevsky’s estate, Starkosk, Flashman has a reunion with a former Rugby schoolmate, Harry “Scud” East. After the two English prisoners learned of Russia’s plans to invade India and kick the British out, they decided to make their escape following a serf uprising at Starkosk. Unfortunately for Flashman, a sleigh accident led to his recapture by the Russians and a political officer named Count Nicholas Ignitieff. Flashy’s incarceration at Fort Raim led him to an acquaintance with two famous Muslim freedom fighters from the state of Kokodad, Yakub Beg and Issat Kutebar. Luck finally caught up with Flashman, when he and his two new acquaintances are rescued by Yakub Beg’s mistress, Ko Dali’s daughter, and a band of Kokodans. Following the rescue, Harry participated in one last action against the Russians against his will . . . so to speak.

I must admit that “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” turned out to be a well-structured and well-written novel. Unless I am mistaken, the novel was written into three parts – the London prelude, Flashman’s Crimean War experiences that included his time as a prisoner-of-war at the Starkosk estate, and finally his incarceration at Fort Raim and experiences with the Kokadans. Fraser began the novel on a strong note and finished it in a similar manner. My only sole complaint centered on Flashman’s journey to Starkosk and his time at the estate. In short, it seemed to me that the sequence threatened to bog down the pace. I suspect that Fraser’s in-depth look into Imperial Russian serfdom during this sequence is responsible. As much as I found it interesting, I also wondered if Fraser got caught up in his subject, which would seem ironic considering his failure to explore American slavery in the 1971 novel, “FLASH FOR FREEDOM!”. As much as I had enjoyed Flashman’s time spent with Count Pencherjevsky and his family on the Starkosk estate, no one felt more relieved than me when he and “Scud” East finally escaped, thanks to a serf uprising. I had become rather weary of Flashman’s period as a prisoner-of-war.

Despite some of my problems with the novel, I cannot deny that “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” is a well-written novel. Fraser did an excellent job in recapturing London during the early and mid 1850s and Great Britain’s pro-war mood on the cusp of the Crimean War. He also expertly drew readers into the world of the British Army during the first months of the war. His description of the Army caps and hospitals at Alma just before the Battle of Balaclava literally had me cringing in my seat a bit:

“So the siege was laid, the French and ourselves sitting down on the muddy, rain-sodden gullied plateau before Sevastopol, the dismalest place on earth, with no proper quarters but a few poor huts and tents, and everything to be carted up from Balaclava on the coast eight miles away. Soon the camp, and the road to it, was a stinking quagmire; everyone looked and felt filthy, the rations were poor, the work of preparing the siege was cruel hard (for the men, anyway), and all the bounce there had been in the army after Alma evaporated in the dank, feverish rain by day and the biting cold by night. Soon half of us were lousy, as some wags said, who’d holiday at Brighton if he could come to sunny Sevastopol instead?”

Another memorable passage featured Flashman’s participation in the Light Brigade Charge. Fraser did a superb job in describing not only the Battle of Balaclava, but particularly the Light Brigade Charge. I found his description of the famous military charge filled with heady action, chaos and terror – especially from Flashman’s point-of-view:

“I had only a moment to look back – my mare was galloping like a thing demented, as I steadied, there was Cardigan, waving his sabre and standing in his stirrups; the guns were only a hundred yards away, almost hiddenin a great billowing bank of smoke, a bank which kept glaring red as though some Lucifer were opening furnace doors deep inside it. There was no turning, no holding back, and even in that deafening thunder I could hear the sudden chorus of yells behind me as the torn remnant of the Light Brigade gathered itself for the final mad charge into the battery. I dug my heels, yelling nonsense and brandishing my sabre, shot into the smoke with one final rip from my bowels and a prayer that my gallant little mare wouldn’t career headlong into a gun-muzzle, staggered at the fearful concussion of a gun exploding within a yard of me – and then we were through, into the open space behind the guns, leaping the limbers and ammunition boxes with the Russians scattering to let us through, and Cardigan a bare two yards away, reining his beast back almost on its haunches.”

However, one of my favorite chapters in the novel featured Flashman and the Kokordans’ attempts to destroy the Russian gunboats filled with weapons to be used against the Kokordans and the invasion of India. Before this battle took place, Ko Dali’s daughter drugged the cowardly officer with hashish (bhang) in order to force him to overcome his fear for the operation. The scene of the cowardly Flashy acting like George Armstrong Custer on crack struck me as one of the funniest passages in the entire series:

“God, what a chaos it was! I was galloping like a dervish at Kutebar’s heels, roaring ‘Hark forrard! Ha-ha, you bloody foreigners, Flashy’s here!’, careering through the narrow spaces between the sheds, with the muskets banging off to our left, startled sleepers crying out, and everyone yelling like be-damned. As we burst headlong onto the last stretch of open beach, and swerved past the landward end of the pier, some stout Russian was bawling and letting fly with a pistol; I left off singing ‘Rule, Britannia’ to take a shot at him, but missed, and there ahead someone was waving a torch and calling, and suddenly there were dark figures all around us, clutching at our bridles, almost pulling us from the saddles towards a big go-down on the north side of the pier.”

George MacDonald Fraser did take historical liberties with one particular character – the novel’s main villain, Count Nicholas Ignatieff. The author described the Russian character in the following manner:

“And as our eyes met through the cigarette smoke I thought, hollo, this is another of those momentous encounters. You didn’t have to look at this chap twice to remember him forever. It was the eyes, as it so often is – I thought in that moment of Bismarck, and Charity Spring, and Akbar Khan; it had been the eyes with them, too. But this fellow’s were different from anything yet: one was blue, but the other had a divided iris, half-blue, half-brown, and the oddly fascinating effect of this was that you didn’t know where to look, but kept shifting from one to the other.

For the rest, he had a gingerish, curling hair and square, masterful face that was no way impaired by a badly-broken nose. He looked tough, and immensely self-assured; it was in his glance, in the abrupt way he moved, in the slant of the long cigarette between his fingers, in the rakish tilt of his peaked cap, in the immaculate white tunic of the Imperial Guards. He was the kind who knew exactly what was what, where everything was, and precisely who was who – especially himself. He was probably a devil with women, admired by his superiors, hated by his rivals, and abjectly feared by his subordinates. One word summed him up: bastard.”

The above passage described Flashman’s opinion of Ignatieff during their first meeting on the road to Starkosk. They met for the second time, when Flashman and “Scud” East overheard Ignatieff, Czar Nicholas I and other Russian officials discuss plans to invade India during a secret meeting at Starkosk. And their third and final encounter happened after Flashman was recaptured, following his escape from Starkosk and attempt to reach the British lines on the Crimean peninsula. It was Ignatieff who tossed Flashman into the prison at Fort Raim. From what I have read, the real Ignatieff had never been quite the villain as portrayed in “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE”. Fraser even admitted that he taken liberties with the character in order to provide the novel with a main villain. Mind you, I believe he could have done that a lot easier with a fictional character. Why he had decided to take a historical figure and change his character in order to make him an effective villain is beyond me.

After reading “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE”, it is easy to see why it remains very popular with many fans of Fraser’s novels. It is a well written comic-adventure tale filled with interesting characters – fictional and historical. The novel also featured two very unique passages, namely the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade and the usually cowardly Flashman behaving in a brave and aggressive man during a major battle. “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” also happened to be one of those rare Flashman novels that began and ended on a strong note. Not only does it remain popular with many Flashman fans, I personally consider it to be one of Fraser’s better works.

“FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” (1982) Book Review

Below is my review of “FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS”, author George MacDonald Fraser’s seventh novel in theFlashman Papers series: 

“FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” (1982) Book Review

Set during the Old West of 1849-50 and the mid 1870s, “FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” has the distinction of being the first novel in the Flashman Papers series to begin outside of Great Britain. It will not be the last, but it certainly was the first. Penned by George MacDonald Fraser and published in 1982, the novel also happens to be my favorite in the series.

Since this particular novel happened to be an immediate follow-up to Fraser’s third novel, “FLASH FOR FREEDOM!”“FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” began where the 1971 novel had ended – on the streets of New Orleans, Louisiana in the early spring of 1849. British Army officer Harry Flashman had just testified at Captain John Charity Spring’s trial, enabling the psychotic sea captain to avoid being convicted for slave trading in U.S. waters. In return, Spring agreed to provide Flashman passage back to England. Unfortunately for both men, Fatehad a different path in mind when they encountered one of Flashman’s old nemesis at a local saloon – a slave trader/planter named Peter Omohundro, whom young Flashy had encountered on a northbound Mississippi River steamboat several months ago. After Spring killed the aggressively suspicious Omohundro during a brutal saloon fight, he and Flashman ended up seeking refuge with another one of Flashy’s past acquaintances from “FLASH FOR FREEDOM!” – the red-haired Cockney-born madam named Susie Wilnick. Flashman’s reunion with Susie proved to be just as sensuous as their last encounter. After a few bouts of sex, Susie asked him to marry. Lacking in any morals, yet providing a great deal of practicality, Flashman accepted her proposal. And being a steel-minded businesswoman, Susie dealt with the insane Captain Spring in the following manner, during supper:

“But by and by he (Spring) said less and less, and that none too clearly; I was just beginning to wonder if the drink had got to him for once when he suddenly gave a great sigh, and a staring yawn, caught at his chair arms as though to rise, and then fell face foremost into the blancmange.

Susie glanced at me, lifting a warning finger. Then she got up, pulled his face out of the mess, and pushed up one eyelid. He was slumped like a sawdust doll, his face purple.

“That’s all right,” says she. “Brutus!” And before my astonished eyes the butler went out, and presently in came two likely big coves in reefer jackets. At a nod from Susie, they hefted Spring out of his chair, and without a word bore him from the room. Susie sauntered back to her place, took a sip of wine, and smiled at my amazement.

“Well,” says she, “we wouldn’t ‘ave wanted ‘im along on our ‘oneymoon, would we?””

With Spring gone, Flashman no longer has a speedy means to reach England. Another chance to leave the Mississippi Valley and prosecution for slave stealing appeared when Susie announced her decision to close down her New Orleans whorehouse and take her retinue of slaves – prostitutes and servants – to San Francisco in California. The departure could not have come sooner for Flashman, as he had discovered during a stopover in St. Louis, Missouri:

“It wasn’t only the plague that worried me, either; St. Louis was the town where a few weeks earlier they’d been posting rewards of a hundred dollars for my apprehension, describing me to a T and warning the citizenry that I had Genteel Manners and spoke with a Foreign Accent, damn their impudence.”

I have been a fan of the Flashman novels for many years. But there are a few of them I would describe as truly epic. In my opinion, one of those epic novels happened to be “FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS”. Fraser did a superb job in capturing the breath and scope of the American West in both the late 1840s and mid 1870s. His description of Flashman’s wagon train journey from Independence to Santa Fe that included a hair-raising interlude at Bent’s Fort was a masterpiece. I can also say the same for the sequence that featured Flashman’s harrowing escape from the Mimbreno Apaches across the New Mexico desert, featured in the last chapters of Part One.

Fraser wrote this particular saga in two parts. Part One, entitled “The Forty-Niner”, covered Flashman’s experiences in the United States and the Far West between 1849 and 1850. In this section, Flashman’s “marriage” to Susie Wilnick (he already had his wife Elspeth waiting for him back home in England) led to him becoming a wagon train emigrant and de facto captain during the period known as the California Gold Rush; the lover of Cleonie, one of Susie’s slave whores; manger of Susie’s Santa Fe whorehouse; a scalp hunter under the leadership of one John Joel Glanton (known to Flashman as “Gallantin”) in New Mexico’s Del Norte Valley; and eventually the son-in-law of the Mimbreno Apache chief, Mangas Colorado; and husband of the latter’s precious daughter, Sonsee-Array aka Takes Away Cloud Woman. After six months with his bride and her Apache relatives, which included the famous Geronimo, Flashman finally makes his escape and head northeast. While being chased by Apache warriors through the grueling Jornada Del Muerto desert, he is rescued by the famous Western tracker and guide, Kit Carson.

Part Two – called “The Seventy-Sixer” – was set between 1875 and 1876. It centered on Flashman and his wife Elspeth’s visit to the United for the Centennial celebration. The journey not only led to a series of reunions with acquaintances from the American Civil War, but also with those Flashman had met during his first visit to the West. Flashman’s reunion with a Sioux leader named Spotted Tail led directly to one with an old lover out for revenge and his minor participation in the Battle of Little Bighorn with Custer and the Seventh Calvary. Flashman’s visit also led to his acquaintance of a young man who managed to – not quite break his heart – but tweak it a bit.

In my review of “FLASH FOR FREEDOM”, I had complained of Fraser’s uneven portrayal of antebellum United States. I have no such complaints for this novel. Fraser did a much superior job in describing the antebellum United States and especially the West. In fact, I cannot recall finding any evidence of uneven pacing or historical inaccuracies, as I had done in the 1971 novel. What I really enjoyed about this novel was Fraser’s feel for both the novel’s period and landscape. One of his best passages featured his description of Kanzas Landing, Independence, and Westport (now Kansas City) in Missouri during the spring of 1849:

“They tell me that Kansas City nowadays covers the whole section, but in those days the landing and Westport and Independence were separated by woodland and meadow. And I wonder if today’s city contains more people than were crowded along the ten miles from Independence to the river when I first saw it in ’49: there were thousands of them, in tents and lean-tos and houses and log shacks and under the trees and in the few taverns and lodging-places; they were in the stables and sheds and shops and storehouses, a great swarming hive of humanity of every kind you can imagine – well, I remember the Singapore river in the earlies, and it was nothing to Westport-Independence. The whole stretch was jammed with wagons and carts and carriages, churning the spaces between the buildings into a sea of mud after the recent rain, and through it went the mules and oxen and horses, with the steam rising from them and the stench of hides and dung and smoke filling the air – but even that was nothing to the noise.

Every other building seemed to be a forge or a stable or a warehouse, a-clang with hundreds of hammers and the rasp of saws and the crack of axes and the creak of wheels and the thump and scrape of boxes and bales being loaded or unloaded; teamsters snapped their whips with a “Way-hay, whoa!”, foremen bellowed, children shrilled, the voices of thousands of men and women blended with it all in a great eager busy din that echoed among the buildings and floated off to be lost in the surrounding forest.”

Flashman’s first meeting Sonsee-Array – Mangas Colorado’s youngest daughter – struck an interesting note with me. It made me realize how much Flashman’s character had matured in the eight to nine years since his adventures in Afghanistan. In the first novel, 1969’s “FLASHMAN”, the 19 year-old British officer had an encounter with an Afghan dancer named Narameen that led to her being raped by him. Narameen also happened to be the lover of one of his enemies. Eight years later, while in the company of John Joel Glanton and his scalphunters, Flashman met the Apache chief’s daughter. First, he managed to save her from being raped by an Irishman he disliked named Grattan Nugent-Hare. When offered to “take her” himself, Flashman handled the situation with a lot more delicacy than he did with Narameen:

“You must understand the effect of this, of Flashy imposing his winning ways on that fortunate native wench. There she was, a helpless prisoner in the hands of the most abominable ruffians in North America, who had butchered her menfold before her eyes and were about to subject her to repeated rape, possible torture, and certain death. Up jumps this strapping chap with splendid whiskers, who not only kills out of hand the cad who is molesting her, but thereafter treats her kindly, pets her patiently, and absolutely asks permission to squeeze her boobies. She is astonished, nay gratified, and, since she’s a randy little minx at bottom, ready to succumb with pleasure. All thanks to style, as inculcated by Dr. Arnold, though I wouldn’t expect him to claim credit for it.

And mark the sequel. When other of her tribesmen, having got wind of the massacre, attack the scalp-hunters by night, she is alarmed for her protector. If he joins in the scrap – the last thing I’d have done, but she wasn’t to know that – harm may come to him, so being a lass of spirit she ensures his neutrality by clouting him behind the ear with a rock. Then, when her tribesmen have wiped out or captured most of the marauders (Gallantin and a few others alone escaped) she is at pains to preserve her savior from the general vengeance. Had he been a man without style, she’d have been the first to set about him with a red-hot knife.”

I found it ironic that his actions in “FLASHMAN” nearly cost Flashman his life on two separate occasions. Yet, in“FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS”, his actions ended up saving him and leading him to becoming husband to another, namely Sonsee-Array and son-in-law to Mangas Colorado. One of the novel’s funniest passages featured Flashman’s conversation with the Apache chief. I would include the conversation if I could, but it is rather long and would be better appreciated in its full glory. But Flashman had this to say about him:

“Sonsee-array was beside me, her hand slipping into mine, the sullen faces round us were indifferent rather than hostile, the Yawner (Geronimo) shrugged – and Mangas Colorado gave us a final curt nod and stalked away. Just the same, I couldn’t help thinking that old Morrison hadn’t been such a bad father-in-law.”

Before one starts thinking that Harry Flashman had learned to treat women with more respect by the age of 27, consider his earlier behavior toward Cleonie – one of Susie Wilnick’s mulatto prostitutes. The two had begun an affair during the wagon train journey along the Santa Fe Trail and continued it in Santa Fe. Cleonie, who had the bad luck (and stupidity) to fall in love with Flashy; proposed that they abandon Susie and head for El Paso, Texas. He agreed. Being the complete black-hearted villain, Flashman sold Cleonie to a priest acting as an agent for a Navaho chieftain on the night of their departure for two thousand dollars:

“I picked up my gear from the summer-house when he’d gone, and went quickly down through the crowded Plaza to the livery stable, where I slung my few traps over the mule, rode out on the Albuquerque trail. I won’t say I didn’t regret Cleonie’s absence – clever lass, fine mount, charming conversationalist, but too saucy by half, and she’d never have earned us two thousand dollars between Santa Fe and El Paso, not in a month of Sundays.”

It took Cleonie nearly twenty-seven years to seek revenge for his betrayal in Part Two of the novel.

The novel’s second half featured some interesting aspects in the story. One of the novel’s funnier moments dealt with Flashman’s reunions with Army officers he had met during the American Civil War – including some humorous descriptions of William Sherman and Philip Sheridan:

“So now you see Flashy in his splendid prime at fifty-three, distinguished foreign visitor, old comrade and respected military man, with just a touch of grey in the whiskers but no belly to speak of, straight as a lance and a picture of cavalier gallantry as I stoop to salute the blushing cheek of the new Mrs. Sheridan at the wedding reception in her father’s garden. Little Phil, grinning all over and still looking as though he’d fallen in the river and let his uniform dry on him, led me off to talk to Sherman, whom I’d known for a competent savage, and the buffoon Pope, whose career had consisted of losing battles and claiming he’d won.”

But nothing quite beat Flashman’s reunion with the infamous George Armstrong Custer. Fraser best described the American Army officer’s over-the-top personality with the Flashmans’ visit to a New York theater with Custer and his family:

“So we five dined frequently, and visited the theater, of which Custer was a great patron; he was a friend of Barrett the actor, who was butchering Shakespeare at Booth’s, and would sit with his eyes glued to the stage muttering “Friends, Romans, countrymen” under his breath.

That should have made me leery; I’m all for a decent play myself, but when you see someone transported from reality by them, watch out. I shan’t easily forget the night we saw some sentimental abomination about a soldier going off to the wars; when the moment came when his wife buckled on his sword for him, I heard sniffing and supposed it was Libby or Elspeth piping her eye. Then the sniff became a baritone groan, and when I looked, so help me it was Custer himself, with his hand to his brow, bedewing his britches with manly tears.”

In fact, during the Flashmans’ first dinner with the Custers, the emotional George Armstrong got on Flashy’s nerves with his constant complaints about his superiors in Washington and warbling about the Englishman’s own military service. Flashman responded by having a little sport with Custer’s ego in this hilarious scene at a New York restaurant:

“”Luck of the service,” says I, and because I was bored with his croaking I added: “Anyway, I’ve never been a general, and I’ve only one American Medal of Honor, you know.”

This was Flashy at his most artistic, you’ll agree, when I tell you that I knew perfectly well that Custer had no Medal of Honour, but his brother Tom had two. I guessed nothing would gall him more than having to correct my apparent mistake, which he did, stiffly, while Tom studied the cutlery and I was all apologies, feigning embarrassment.”

Although Part Two seemed to lack the epic scope of Part One, it did feature some memorable passages. In Part One, Flashman met several Sioux warriors on the journey west, through trail guide Dick Wootton. One of them was a future leader named Spotted Tail. Part Two featured a series of events that began with Flashman’s reunion with the Sioux leader Spotted Tail in Chicago, Illinois and one of his braves, Standing Bear. Thanks to that particular reunion, our fearful hero attracted the attention of a businesswoman named Mrs. Arthur B. Candy. She wanted to use Flashman’s fame in a land scheme in the Dakota Territories and invited to join her in an excursion to the area. Flashman and Mrs. Candy’s journey to the Dakota Territory was not very interesting, despite accompanying George Custer and the Seventh Calvary. But it did feature a colorful description of cavalry troopers boarding a Powder River steamboat in order to continue their journey to the Greasy Grass country:

“It was about ten days out of Bismarck that we came to the Powder mouth, where a great military camp was taking shape. With the arrival of Terry’s advance guard, and Gibbon only a few days’ march away, there was tremendous work and bustle; the Far West was back and forth ferrying troops and stores and equipment; her steerage was a bedlam of men and gear, while our deck was invaded by all manner of staff-wallopers in search of comfort; Terry held his meetings in the saloon; messengers went galloping pell-mell along the banks; a forest of tents and lean-tos sprang up in the meadows; the woods rang and hummed with the noise of men and horses, rumours of Indian movement far to the south were discussed and as quickly discounted; no one knew what the blazes was happening – indeed, it was like the beginning of any campaign I’d ever seen.”

More importantly, Flashman discovered that he had become a target of revenge. Mrs. Candy turned out to be none other than Cleonie, the former lover he had sold to the Navaho. Through her, he ended up becoming a captive of the Sioux on the eve of the Little Bighorn Battle at Greasy Grass. How Fraser’s “intrepid” hero ended up escaping the Sioux and participating in the infamous battle featured an interesting little scene involving him and a real life Sioux woman named Walking Blanket Woman:

“I looked at her now, giving her the full benefit, the sweet little soul – and like all the rest, she succumbed. As I say, it’s true, and here I am, and I can’t explain it – perhaps it’s the whiskers, or the six feet two and broad shoulders, or just my style. But she looked at me, and her lids lowered, and she glanced across the river where the troopers were riding down the coulee, and then back at me – this girl whose brother had been killed by my people only a few days back. I can’t describe the look in her eyes – frowning, reluctant hesitant, almost resigned; she couldn’t help herself, you see, the dear child. Then she sighed, lifted the knife – and cut the thongs securing my hands to the yoke.

“Go on, then,” says she. “You poor old man.”

Well, I couldn’t reply with my mouth full of gag, and by the time I’d torn it out she had gone, running off to the right with her hatchet and knife, God bless her.”

Although Flashman managed to survive the battle, he ended up as a prisoner of one Frank Grouard, who was known to the Sioux as Standing Bear. According to Fraser’s novel, Grouard turned out to be Harry and Cleonie’s son, who has spent most of his years being raised by the Navaho and later, the Sioux. What Fraser did was take the historical figure of Frank Grouard – the son of a Tahitian woman and an American missionary – and incorporated him into Flashy and Cleonie’s illegitimate son. However, Cleonie’s revenge plot fell to pieces, due to her son. Due to his dislike of her (and I do not blame him), Frank decided to spare his black-hearted father. And both father and son not only discovered that they shared similar traits, they also took a shining to each other.“FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” featured that rare occasion in which Flashy had ever expressed any kind of emotion or regard for one of his offspring. When Frank decided to reject his offer to be officially recognized as his son, the two parted in one of the most touching scenes written by Fraser:

“”Frank!” I roared.

He checked at the crest and looked back. I felt such a desolation, then, but I couldn’t move after him, or say what I wanted to say, with all the sudden pain and regret for lost years, and what had come of them. I called up to him.

“I’m sorry, son, about it all.”

“Well, I’m not!” he called back, and laughed, and suddenly lifted his arms wide, either side. “Look, Papa!” He laughed again, and then he had ridden over the skyline and was gone.”

Although the novel featured a vast array of historical figures that included Dick Wootton, Spotted Tail John Joel Glanton, Mangas Colorado, Geromino, Kit Carson, Ulysses S. Grant, Frank Grouard, Crazy Horse and most memorably, George Armstrong Custer; Fraser did not fail his readers in providing some interesting fictional characters. Since the novel had picked up where “FLASHY FOR FREEDOM!” left off, Fraser allowed his readers to briefly reacquaint themselves with one of his best creations, the infamous Captain John Charity Springs. Another veteran from “FLASHY FOR FREEDOM!” turned out to be the Cockney-born New Orleans madam, Susie Wilnick, who had a larger role in this novel as Flash Harry’s 3rd or 4th wife (I lost count). I adored Susie. She was a sentimental, sensual and hard-headed businesswoman. She knew Harry for the rogue he truly was, but did not care. Even when she suspected him of sleeping around her stable of whores, she managed to pay him back by sleeping with the head of their teamsters – an Irish-born former Army officer named Grattan Nugent-Hare. Nugent-Hare turned out to be another interesting character created by Fraser. Although soft-spoken and practical, he turned out to be another rogue (who had left Santa Fe with some of Susie’s money) – only he lacked Harry’s sense of style. Flashman’s second bride in the novel turned out to be the Apache princess, Sonsee-Array aka Takes Away Clouds Woman – Mangas Colorado fictional daughter. She was an interesting, yet haughty and demanding thing who fully appreciated Harry’s sexual prowess. The real Mrs. Harry Flashman (namely Elspeth) had a major role in the novel’s second half. And she was just as charming, sexy and simple-minded as ever – even in her early fifties. There are times when I suspect that Elspeth might not be as stupid as she appears to be. I really enjoyed reading Harry’s suspicions that she may have had a tumble in the grass with Spotted Tail during a conference between the U.S. government and the Sioux and Cheyenne nations.

One last fictional character that played a major role in “FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” was Cleonie Grouard, one of Susie’s prostitute slaves. She first caught Flashman’s attention during the wagon journey from Independence to Santa Fe. Once their affair had caught hold, Flashman ignored Susie’s other whores and focused his attention upon her, impressed by her style and looks. It did not take Cleonie very long to put down Flashy’s one time tumble with another slave named Aphrodite:

“”We all know – that is, if Aphrodite is to be believed.” She gave me an inquiring look, still with that tiny smile. “I, myself, would have thought she was rather . . . black . . . and heavy, for Master’s taste. But some men prefer it, I know.” She gave a little shrug. “Others . . .” She left it there, waiting.”

While their affair continued in Santa Fe, Cleonie also exposed Flashman’s lack of any real love for Susie:

“You do not love Miz Susie. And soon you will be leaving her, will you not?”

I found it interesting that Cleonie was shrewd and clever enough to spot Flashman’s true feelings regarding the other prostitutes he had slept with and Susie . . . and yet, she failed to sense his lack of any love toward her. Had love on her part truly blinded her? Perhaps. I also suspect that Cleonie’s own ego and pride made it difficult for her to even consider that Flashy felt the same about her, as he did about Susie, Aphrodite or any of the other whores in Susie’s stable. I am not saying that she deserved the fate that Flashman had dished out to her – being sold to the Navahos and enduring five years of captivity. She did not. And Flashman certainly deserved the fright that he had endured from of her vengeance, some 27 years later. But . . . I have never liked Cleonie. Not really. My dislike has nothing to do with some belief that she was a poorly created character. On the contrary. I believe that Fraser did an exceptional job in creating her character. But after reading “FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” for the umpteenth time, I cannot help but feel that she was one egotistical bitch.

Do I have any quibbles about “FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS”? Well . . . yes. Although well written and with a strong finish, the novel’s second half is not as strong or epic as the first half. Flashman’s adventures at Bent’s Fort in the novel’s first half led to the fort’s destruction and his meeting with a group of mountain men:

“I dug in my finger-nails and pulled, and pulled, until I could no more. I rested my face on one side, and above the scrubby grass in my line of sight there were the legs of a pony, and I hardly had time to think, oh, dear Jesus, the Indians . . . when a hand took me by the shoulder and rolled me over, and I was blinking up into a monstrously-bearded face under a fur cap, and I pawed feebly at a fringed buckskin shirt that was slick with wear, and then the beard split into a huge grin of white teeth, and a voice said:

“Waal, ole hoss, what fettle? How your symptoms segashooatin’? Say, ifn thar wuz jest a spoonful o’ gravy to go with ye, I rackon yore baked just ’bout good enough to eat!””

And here is where Fraser nearly grounded the novel to a halt by devoting a page-and-a-half to the mountain men’s dialect, which the author described as “plug-a-plew”. I would give more samples of their dialect, but frankly Fraser had provided too much of it, by allowing the mountain men to reminisce about Bent’s Fort in a conversation that nearly lasted two pages. Honestly, I really could have done without it. Also, was it really necessary to use a historical figure like Frank Grouard as the love child of Flashman and Cleonie – two fictional characters? I realize that Fraser must have found his character fascinating, but . . . he could have easily created another fictional character to serve as their son. I also had a problem with the route Fraser had chosen for Flashman and Susie to take to California. Early in the novel, Susie made it clear that she planned to relocate her establishment to Sacramento, California:

”It sounded reasonable, I said, but a bit wild to establish a place like hers, and she chuckled confidently.

“I’m goin’ ready-made, don’t you fret. I’ve got a place marked down in Sacramento, through an agent, an’ I’m movin’ the whole kit caboodle up the river to West next Monday – furnishin’s, crockery, my cellar an’ silver . . . an’ the livestock, which is the main thing.””

And how did Susie plan to move her establishment from New Orleans to Sacramento?

“Why, up to Westport an’ across by carriage to – where is it? – Santa Fe, an’ then to San Diego.”

All I can ask is . . . why? Why did Fraser have Flashman and Susie attempt that convoluted trail from New Orleans to Sacramento? They could have easily traveled by steamboat from New Orleans to the Red River and later, to Texas. From Texas, they could have traveled to Santa Fe in New Mexico. And from Santa Fe, they could have traveled along the Gila River Trail to San Diego, California. All they had to do was travel up the coast to San Francisco and later, Sacramento. Or . . . . a less convoluted route could have taken them upriver to St. Louis, Missouri. From there, they could have taken another steamboat across Missouri River to Westport. From there, all they had to do was following the Oregon Trail to Fort Hall in present-day Idaho and take the California Trail all the way to Sutter’s Fort. From there, they would have an easy journey from Sutter’s Fort to Sacramento. Instead, Fraser laid out a more convoluted route. And I suspect that he did so in order for Flashman to be captured by the Mimbreno Apaches and spend six months with them.

I could easily consider “FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” as my favorite novel in the Flashman Papers series, due to its setting. After all, I have always been a big aficionado of the history of the American West. And I will admit that the novel’s setting is one of the reasons why I have enjoyed it so much. The novel does have its share of small problems. I believe that Fraser got carried away in his description of mountain men following the scene that featured the destruction of Bent’s Fort. If I must be honest, I believe that the author went a bit too far in using a historical figure like Frank Grouard as the son of Flashman and Cleonie – two fictional characters. I thought it was unnecessary. Susie’s planned route from New Orleans to Sacramento, via Santa Fe and San Diego, seemed convoluted. And the second half is not as interesting as the first half (a common flaw in many Flashman novels). But “FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” is a delicious and well-written saga filled with fascinating historical figures like Mangas Colorado and George Armstrong Custer; as well as interesting and well-written fictional characters such as Susie Wilnick, Grattan Nugent-Hare and Cleonie Grouard. The novel also offered a well-documented look at the United States – especially the American West – before and after the Civil War. Quite frankly, I consider it to be one of George MacDonald Fraser’s finest works.

“ROYAL FLASH” (1975) Review

[12.jpg]

Below is a review I had written of the 1975 adaptation of George MacDonald Fraser’s novel,“ROYAL FLASH”:

 

“ROYAL FLASH” (1975) Review

Directed by Richard Lester, “ROYAL FLASH” is a 1975 adaptation of George MacDonald Fraser’s 1970 novel of the same title, the second in a series of twelve (or thirteen) novels and stories about a cowardly British Army officer during the Victorian Era. Both the novel and the movie are comedic spoofs of Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel, “The Prisoner of Zenda”, about an Englishman assuming the identity of a look-a-like European prince.

This movie does not seemed to be well-liked by many fans of THE FLASHMAN SERIES. One, it was adapted from one of Fraser’s least popular Flashman novels. Two, many of those fans balked at the idea of the medium-height blond Malcolm McDowell portraying the tall, dark-haired Harry Flashman. And three, many did not care how Richard Lester had included the same slapstick comedy that he had used in his two ”MUSKETEERS” movies. It is not surprising that ”ROYAL FLASH” not only failed to make an impact upon the box office in 1975, it remained unpopular for many years.

I must admit that Fraser’s 1970 novel never became a favorite of mine. Because it was a send-up of ”The Prisoner of Zenda”, it struck me as being somewhat unoriginal. And while I managed to tolerate Lester’s slapstick humor in the ”MUSKETEERS” movies, there were times when it seemed a bit too much in ”ROYAL FLASH”. Well . . . except in a few scenes in which I will comment upon later. As for Malcom McDowell being cast in the title role . . . I had no problems with his performance. In fact, I found it more than satisfying.

In a nutshell, ”ROYAL FLASH” began with Captain Harry Flashman being feted in 1843 London for his heroic exploits during the disastrous First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42). Actually, Flashman’s actions were less than heroic. Being the coward he was, he surrendered to the enemy . . . before British artillery saved him from captivity via a barrage. British troopers came upon his unconscious body – with him clinging to a Union Jack flag – and mistook him as a brave military fighter who was not only the last survivor of Piper’s Fort, but as someone who had fought until the bitter end. Following Flashman’s return to England, the British officer met two people who would endanger his life on the European continent four years later – future chancellor and creator of modern day Germany, Otto von Bismarck; and the Irish-born actress/dancer (if you can call her one) and courtesan, Rosanna James aka Lola Montez. He had met the pair while fleeing from a whorehouse being raided by the police. Being a lustful ladies’ man, Flashy managed to charm Rosanna (or Lola) into a tumultuous affair. And being a vindictive scoundrel, he made an enemy out of Bismarck by manipulating the latter into a boxing demonstration with the famous boxer John Tully. Eventually, Flashman grew weary of Lola’s penchant for using a hairbrush on his backside during sex and ended the affair on a bad note. Four years later, Flashman received a letter from Lola, now mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria, asking him for a favor. Upon his arrival in Bavaria, Flashman is framed for the attempted rape of Bavarian countess by Lola and ended up in the clutches of Bismarck and his top henchmen, Rudi Von Sternberg. The pair coerced him into impersonating a Danish prince named Carl Gustaf, set to marry the Duchess Irma of Strackenz. According to Bismarck, the real Prince Carl had contacted a sexually transmitted disease, making it impossible for him to marry the Duchess. As Flashman will eventually discover, Bismarck’s reasons behind this deception are a lot more devious. The German politician did not wish for the Duchess to marry a Dane, since the marriage might tilt the balance on the Schleswig-Holstein Question and interfere with his plans for a united Germany.

Many years have passed since I last saw ”ROYAL FLASH”. Many years. And after reading several articles about its shortcomings, I really did not expect to enjoy it as I had done in the past. And yet . . . I did. Very much. Yes, I found some of the slapstick humor rather annoying. I can definitely say this about the sequence that featured the police raid on the London brothel, Flashman’s rather silly attempt to prove his marksmanship to the Bavarian military officers, and his duel against Rudi Von Sternberg inside the dungeon that held the real Carl Gustaf. But there were some slapstick moments that struck me as hilarious. One scene involved Flashman (in disguise as Prince Carl) accidentally smashing a bottle against the head of some poor chump during the christening of Strackenz’s new rail train. Another hilarious scene involved Flashman’s “honeymoon” night with the frigid Duchess Irma; along with Flashman’s attempts to escape from Bismarck and his thugs during his indoctrination as the fake Prince Carl. Also, the movie ended with a witty and rather funny duel of “Hungarian” roulette between Flashy and Von Sternberg, after the latter managed to interrupt Flashy’s flight from Germany.

Hardcore fans of THE FLASHMAN SERIES have condemned the choice of Malcolm McDowell for the role of Harry Flashman. It is quite apparent that the actor bore no physical resemblance to the fictional Flashman. But as far as I am concerned, McDowell more than made this up with his superb performance as the amoral and cowardly British officer. Personality wise, McDowell captured Flashman’s personality to a T. For me, he was Flashman personified.

There were other actors who struck me as perfectly cast in their roles – Oliver Reed as the manipulative and vindictive Otto von Bismarck, Britt Ekland as the beautifully cold Duchess Irma, Joss Ackland as the intimidating Danish patriot Sapten, and an unknown Bob Hoskins as the persistent London police officer who led the raid on the whorehouse. I also enjoyed Lionel Jeffries and Tom Bell as two of Bismarck’s thugs – Kraftstein and DeGautet. I must admit that it took me a while to warm up to Alan Bates’ performance as Bismarck’s top henchman, the Hungarian-born Rudi Von Sternberg. His Rudi seemed cooler, more mature and less jovial than Fraser’s literary version. But in time, I learned to appreciate Bates’ slightly different take on the role. However, the one performance that failed to impress me belonged to Brazilian-born actress, Florinda Bolkan, who portrayed the fiery Lola Montez. The filmmakers not only made the mistake of casting a Latin actress in the role, Lester allowed her to portray Lola as a Continental European. After all, the character was originally the Irish-born Rosanna Gilbert James before becoming the famous dancer, Lola Montez. Either Ms. Bolkan should have portrayed Lola as Irish, or Lester and the other filmmakers should have cast an Irish actress or one from the British Isles in the role.

Thankfully, there is a great deal more to enjoy in ”ROYAL FLASH”. George MacDonald Fraser did a first-rate job of adapting his novel into a screenplay. In fact, I found it a little more enjoyable than his novel. Anyone who has seen the ”MUSKETEER” movies must know that Lester had incorporated more realistic style fencing in the movies’ fight scenes. In other words, the sword fights featured a great deal of more bashing and kicking than any elegant swordplay. Thankfully,”ROYAL FLASH” provided more elegance in its sword fights. I especially enjoyed McDowell’s skills during the kitchen fight sequence that turned out to be a fake rescue perpetrated by Von Sternberg. The legendary cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth did an excellent job of capturing the beauty of German locations featured in the film. However, I could have done without that soft focus look that seemed to scream ”period piece”. Utilizing Unsworth’s photography, Alan Barrett’s costume designs and Terence Marsh’s production designs; Lester managed to effectively recapture England and Germany during the 1840s.

I realize there are hardcore fans of THE FLASHMAN SERIES who will never accept ”ROYAL FLASH” as a worthy adaptation of Fraser’s 1970 novel. But you know what? Who cares? Seeing it again after so many years, made me realize that it had not lost its touch. At least not for me. In fact, I believe that the movie deserves a better reputation than the one it has possessed for the past three decades.

Portraying HARRY FLASHMAN

Portraying HARRY FLASHMAN
Are there any fans of The Flashman Papers, a series of novels about a 19th century British Army officer, written by the late George MacDonald Fraser? 

The origins of Fraser’s fictional series began with another British author, namely the 19th century lawyer and author, Thomas Hughes. It was Hughes who first introduced the character of Flashman in his 1857 semi-autobiographical novel, ”Tom Brown’s School Days”. The novel told the story of Hughes’ years at the famous public school for boys, Rugby. Among the characters featured in the novel turned out to be an older student named “Flashman”, who bullied both Tom Brown and another student named Harry “Scud” East. Flashman’s appearance in the novel ended when Headmaster Dr. Thomas Arnold kicked him for drunken behavior.

Over a century later, a Glasgow journalist named George MacDonald Fraser took the character of Flashman, gave him a full name – Harry Paget Flashman – and wrote a novel about his early years as a British Army office in Great Britain, India and Afghanistan, following his expulsion from Rugby. The novel also featured Flashman’s experiences during the First Afghan War. The results turned out to be ”FLASHMAN”, which was published in 1969. Fraser followed up ”FLASHMAN” with three short stories published under the title, ”FLASHMAN AND THE TIGER”and ten more novels. The last novel, ”FLASHMAN ON THE MARCH” was published three years before Fraser’s death.

Fraser had written Flashman’s tales from the latter’s point-of-view. The interesting thing about the character was that despite being a war hero – he had been decorated for his actions in the First Afghan War, the Sepoy Rebellion (aka the Indian Mutiny) and the American Civil War, and possibly other military actions – his character had not changed much from his portrayal in Hughes’ novel. Flashman’s character could be described as cowardly, cynical, unfaithful (although his wife Elspeth was equally so), spiteful, greedy, racist, sexist, and lustful. In short, he was completely amoral. However, Fraser also portrayed Flashman as a hilarious and very witty man with a pragmatic view of the world and society in the nineteenth century.

For a series of novels that have been very popular for the past forty years, only one novel has been adapted for the screen. In 1975, Dennis O’Dell and David V. Picker produced and released an adaption of Fraser’s 1970 novel,”ROYAL FLASH”. Based loosely upon Anthony Hope’s1894 novel, ”THE PRISONER OF ZENDA””ROYAL FLASH” told of Flashman’s experiences during the Revolutions of 1848 in Bavaria and the fictional Duchy of Strackenz, when he is coerced by German statesman Otto von Bismarck to impersonate a Danish prince set to marry a German princess. Bismarck fears that the marriage would tilt the balance on the Schleswig-Holstein Question and interfere with his plans for a united Germany. The producers hired Richard Lester (”A HARD DAY’S NIGHT”,”THE THREE MUSKETEERS” and ”THE FOUR MUSKETEERS”) to direct the film. Fraser wrote the screenplay and Malcolm McDowell was cast as Harry Flashman. Being a talented actor, McDowell had Harry Flashman’s personality traits down pat. However, the actor looked nothing like the literary Flashman. McDowell possessed blond hair and stood under six feet tall. The literary Flashman stood at least six-feet-two and possessed dark hair and eyes. In fact, he was swarthy enough to pass for a native of the Indian sub-continent in at least two or three novels or a light-skinned African-American slave in ”FLASH FOR FREEDOM!”. Although the movie did receive some moderate acclaim from film critics, the majority of Flashman fans hated it. In fact, they refuse to acknowledge or watch the film. In their eyes, not only did McDowell bore no physical resemblance to the literary Flashman, director Lester had chosen to infuse the film with bawdy buffoonery and slapstick (as he had done with the MUSKETEERS films) and ignore both the story’s historical context and the novels’ cynically irreverent tone.

When ”ROYAL FLASH” failed to generate any real heat at the box office, the movie industries on both sides of the Atlantic ignored Fraser’s novels for several decades. Also, Fraser’s experience with the 1975 movie had made him reluctant to hand over control of any screenplay adaptation of his novels. The author also complained about a lack of a suitable British actor to portray Flashman – which seemed to come off as a backhanded slap at McDowell’s performance. Fraser has always favored the Australian-born Hollywood icon, Errol Flynn, to portray Flashman. The actor had not only possessed a similar physique with the literary Flashman (both stood at 6’2”), but he also – according to Fraser – had the looks, style and rakish personality for the role. Unfortunately, Flynn had died in 1959, ten years before Fraser’s ”FLASHMAN” was published. The author also suggested that Academy Award winning Daniel Day-Lewis might be right for the role, claiming that ”He’s probably getting on a bit,” he “might make a Flashman . . . He’s big, he’s got presence and he’s got style.” In 2007, Celtic Films indicated on their website that they had a series of FLASHMAN TV films in development. Picture Palace have announced they are developing ”FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” for TV and that the script has been prepared by George Macdonald Fraser himself. Both companies took an extensive role in developing Bernard Cornwell’s ”SHARPE” (TV series). However, no further news has been forthcoming since this time and the project has been removed from both companies’ websites.

Hmmm . . . Daniel Day-Lewis. Granted Day-Lewis might have the height and dark looks of the literary Flashy, and he has the talent to carry the role; he seems a bit too lean for me. And he lacks the cowardly protagonist’s wide shoulders that made the latter look so impressive in a cavalryman’s uniform. But aside from Day-Lewis, who among today’s actors would be great for the role? I had once considered Australian actor Hugh Jackman, nearly a decade ago, when he first became famous thanks to ”X-MEN”. He stands at 6’2” tall and possess Flashman’s dark looks. But Jackman is now two months shy of 43. Perhaps he could still portray Flashman between the ages of 30-50, but that would make him unavailable for movie adaptations of the FLASHMAN stories set in the 1840s – when Flashman was in his 20s. And if I must be frank, Jackman seem incapable of portraying rakes. He can portray violent/aggressive types like Wolverine. But a rake? I once saw him portray a well-born rake in a movie with Ewan McGregor called ”DECEPTION”. For some reason, he did not seem like the right man for the role . . . at least to me. If there is one Australian who could possibly portray Harry Flashman, I would say it was Julian McMahon. Mind you, McMahon never had the same success in the movies that he had on television.  But . . . like Jackman, he stands at 6’2” and possesses the same dark good looks. More importantly, he has the style and air to successfully portray a well-born rake. Hell, he could do it, standing on one foot and singing at the top of his lungs. However, McMahon is now 43 and like Jackman, would be unable to portray Flashman in the adaptation of certain novels. His voice is a bit light and for some reason, I have great difficulty imagining him in a period piece.

Jonathan Rhys-Meyers might be a good choice. Granted, he does not have Day-Lewis, Jackman or McMahon’s height and build. But he has their dark looks. He is also talented and he has the style to portray a rake. More importantly, Rhys-Meyers is at the right age to star in the adaptations of nearly all of the novel, being 34 years old. Another good choice would be Henry Cavill, Rhys-Meyer’s co-star in ”THE TUDORS”.  He has the dark looks and talent to portray the 19th century rogue. And he has the height – 6’1” tall. And at age 28, he could portray Flashy in his 20s and 30s, which would make him available in the adaptation of most of the novels.

But there have been no plays to adapt any of the  FLASHMAN  novels.  Not since Celtic Films had indicated an interest in adapting ”FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE”, two years ago. But if Hollywood or the British film industry ever decide to adapt another story about Harry Flashman, I hope they will do right by the novels’ fans and pick the right actor . . . and director for the films.

“FLASH FOR FREEDOM!” (1971) Book Review

Below is my review of George MacDonald Fraser’s 1971 novel, “FLASH FOR FREEDOM”, which featured the character of British Army officer Harry Flashman:

“FLASH FOR FREEDOM!” (1971) Book Review

In my review of ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” (1975), I had stated that there are at least six novels from George MacDonald Fraser’s series about the adult adventures of Harry Flashman, the cowardly bully from ”Tom Brown’s School Days”, that I consider among the best that the author has written. One of these six novels happens to be ”FLASH FOR FREEDOM!”.

Published in 1971, the novel featured Harry Flashman’s experiences with the Atlantic trade of African slaves and the American slave system in the antebellum South. The novel took that great English symbol of cowardice, lechery and bigotry from the coast of Dahomey in West Africa, to the Caribbean, Washington D.C., New Orleans, the Mississippi River Valley, the Ohio River Valley and finally back to New Orleans.

——————-

”FLASH FOR FREEDOM!” began with Flashman’s arrival from the European continent, where a series of revolutions had appeared during the early spring of 1848 (see ”ROYAL FLASH”). Fearful of a class uprising that seemed to be brewing within a British radical group called the Chartists, Flashy’s father-in-law, John Morrison, arranged for Flashman to meet political figures like Benjamin Disraeli and Lord George Bentinck at a country house party in order to seek help in jumpstarting his own political career. But an encounter with an old nemesis from ”FLASHMAN” (1969) framed Flashman with card cheating . . . and the surprisingly innocent Flashy assaulted him. Morrison has Flashman shipped out of the country to ride out the scandal . . . on a slave ship bound for the western coast of Africa.

I had not been kidding when I claimed that ”FLASH FOR FREEDOM” was one of Fraser’s best novels. His passages featuring Flashman’s experiences aboard the Balliol College are masterful. Not only did the author give a detailed description of life aboard a 19th century slave ship, he provided readers with probably his best fictional creation – master of the S.S. Balliol College, Captain John Charity Spring. Not long after Flashman becomes a member of the Balliol College’s crew, he realize that his father-in-law has put him under the thumb of a Latin-quoting psychotic. In one sequence, Spring discoveres that another crewman, a mentally challenged young man named Looney, has pissed on the food prepared for the slaves:

“They gave Spring a hastily made cat, and he buttoned his jacket tight and pulled down his hat down.

‘Now, you b—-r, I’ll make you dance!’ cries he, and laid in for all he was worth. Looney screamed and struggled; each time the lashes hit him he shrieked, and between each stroke Spring cursed him for all he was worth.

‘Foul my ship, will you?’ Whack! ‘Ruin the food for my cargo, by G-d!’ Whack! ‘Spread your pestilence with your filth, will you?’ Whack! ‘Yes, pray, yes you wharfside son-of-a-b—h, I’m listening!’ Whack! ‘I’ll cut your b—-y soul out, if you have one!’ Whack! If it had been a regulation Army cat, I think he’d have killed him; as it was, the hastily spliced yarn cut the idiot’s back to bits and the blood ran over his ragged trousers. His screams became moans, and then silence, and then Spring flung the cat overboard.

‘Souse him and let him hang there to dry!’ says he, and then he addressed the unconscious victim. ‘And let me catch you at your filthy tricks again, you scum, so help me G-d I’ll hang you – d’ye hear!’

He glared at us with his madmen’s eyes, and my heart was in my mouth for a moment. Then his scar faded, and he said in his normal bark:

‘Dismiss the hands, Mr. Comber. Mr. Sullivan, and you, supercargo, come aft. Mrs. Springs is serving tea.'”

Needless to say, Spring’s enraged whipping of poor Looney would turn out to be an event that Flashman would later attempt to exploit for his own means.

Upon the Balliol College’s arrival upon the coast of West Africa, Fraser gave readers a bird’s eye view of how African slaves were purchased from African rulers like King Ghezo of Dahomey and European traders along the West Africa coastline. Fraser also provided readers with a peek into the kingdom of Dahomey (which eventually became Benin), its ruler and the latter’s famous female warriors – Dahomey Amazons – some of whom the Balliol College’s psychotic captain longed own for scholarly reasons.

When King Ghezo hands over six of his “Amazon” warriors to Captain Spring, the remaining women attack the Balliol College’s landing party during its trek back to the ship. One of the women (who had taken a slight fancy to Flashy) wounds one of the crewmen, an Englishman named Beauchamp Comber. Just before his death aboard the Balliol College, Comber confessed to Flashman that he was a Royal Navy agent charged with gathering evidence against Captain Spring and the other owners of the ship. One of the ship’s investors turned out to be Flashman’s pernicious father-in-law. The Balliol College eventually reach the Honduras coast, where the crew deliver the new slaves and pick up a half-dozen mulatto slave prostitutes to be delivered in New Orleans. But a U.S. Navy sloop under the command of the young and ambitious Captain Fairbrother spots the Balliol College and a brief sea battle ensues in which the slave ship is damaged and Springs is shot by a mentally challenged mate named Looney, at Flashman’s instigation. To avoid facing arrest for illegal slave trading, Flashy assumes the late Lieutenant Comber’s identity.

Once more, Fraser used his journalistic skills to good use in his description of what is known by historians as the Middle Passage. He went into great detail about how slavers dealt with captured slaves being held below deck. Fraser also described the practice of some sailors to mate with female slaves in order to impregnate them. This sexual practice was used to ensure a higher value among these female slave and any racially mixed children they might produce. Flashman is assigned to have sex with a Dahomey female slave he has named Lady Caroline Lamb.

Another interesting aspect about this passage in the novel was how Fraser revealed the racism and herd mentality of white Westerners like Flashman, Captain Spring and the Balliol College’s first mate, Mr. Sullivan. Following Comber’s death, Spring refused to immediately bury the Royal Navy officer at sea, after one of the slaves had died on the same day and was tossed into the sea. Apparently, the slave captain found the idea of a white man and a black man being “buried” in the same area within hours of each other. And in the following passage, Mr. Sullivan seems to have a ready answer for Flashman’s ponderings about the slaves’ docile behavior:

”If they’d had a spark of spirit the niggers could have torn them limb from limb, but they just sat, helpless and mumbling. I thought of the Amazons, and wondered what changed people from brave, reckless savages into dumb resigned animals; apparently it’s always the way on the Coast. Sullivan told me he reckoned it was the knowledge that they were going to be slaves, but that being brainless brutes they never thought of doing anything about it.”

I found it interesting that both Flashman and Sullivan used race as an excuse to the newly captured slaves’ ”docile”behavior. Neither man bothered to consider the possibility that a series of traumatic experiences – being captured as prisoners of war, enduring a trek from the interior to the coast; and being tossed into a barracoon or holding place, before being loaded aboard the Balliol College. Instead, they indulged in some kind of herd mentality and dismissed the slaves’ behavior as typical of their race.

—————–

Forced to continue his disguise as Comber, Flashman becomes acquainted with various American politicians that happened to be sympathetic to the abolitionist cause. One of them turned out to be one-term Congressman Abraham Lincoln. I must admit that I enjoyed Fraser’s portrayal of the future president as a shrewd, manipulative and humorous man. Lincoln not only spotted Flashman as a rogue, but suggested that he might also be one. The novel also featured a dinner conversation in which Lincoln expressed his exasperation with the abolitionist movement and especially the presence of blacks in the United States. If ”FLASH FOR FREEDOM” had been published for the first time in the past twenty years, Lincoln’s opinion of blacks would not have seem surprising. But in 1971 (when the novel was first published), his opinion probably did. Ironically, many 19th century abolitionists – black and white – had harbored ambiguous or even contemptuous feelings toward Lincoln’s moderate views.

Congressman Lincoln manages to blackmail Flashman into traveling to New Orleans in order to testify against Captain Spring. It seemed the sea captain had survived Looney’s attack. Having no desire to be exposed as a charlatan, Flashman manages to escape from his U.S. Navy escort in New Orleans and seek refuge at a brothel owned by an English Cockney madam named Susie Wilnick. Fraser must have visited New Orleans, while researching for this novel . . . and fallen in love. Not only did he describe the Crescent City circa 1848 in great detail, but also allowed Flashman to fall in love with the city. This segment also introduced the character of Susie Wilnick, the red-haired madam who will end up having a major impact upon Flashy’s life in the novel, ”FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS”. Before Flashman can board a ship bound for Europe, local agents of the Underground Railroad, an organization that aids escaped slaves, snatches him. They deliver him to their leader, a Mr. Crixus. He “recruits” Flashman into escorting a wanted escaped slave named George Randolph to Canada, via a steamboat journey up the Mississippi River.

Flashman’s meeting with Mr. Crixus of the Underground Railroad is where Fraser committed a major mistake. The mistake centered around Crixus’ description of the Underground Railroad as an organization that sent agents into the Southern states to help slaves escape to the North and Canada. And according to Mr. Crixus, many or most of these agents happened to be white. This might be one of those rare times in which Fraser’s research may have failed him. The Underground Railroad was not as organized as the author had indicated. It simply consisted of anti-slavery sympathizers who assisted any runaway slave that managed to reach their homes in the Free States. Granted, there were a few like the wanted runaway Harriet Tubman and the white Virginian John Fairfield, who made excursions into the South to free slaves. But their numbers were few and usually operated in the Upper South. Either Fraser had known this and made the Underground Railroad more organized for the sake of the story, or he simply embraced the myth of it being highly organized and mainly operated by white abolitionists.

———————

This segment also introduced the character of George Randolph, an infamous runaway slave whom Flashman was recruited to escort up the Mississippi Valley. Randolph’s self-righteousness and conceit proved to be a thorn in Flashy’s side. Yet, his presence in the story allowed Fraser to sharpen his writing skills and describe the society that existed in the Lower Mississippi Valley with his usual penchant for detail. Flashman’s journey up the Mississippi not only revealed steamboat travel in the antebellum South, but also the colorful characters that populated that particular region – including slave traders and planters that acquired new money from the slave trade and the cotton plantations. Fraser also contrasted these slave and cotton magnates to the more haughty and refined planters from older regions of the South like Virginia, Kentucky and the Carolinas:

”All very fine, in a vulgar way, and the passengers matched it; you may have heard a great deal about Southern charm and grace, and there’s something in it where Virginia and Kentucky are concerned – Robert Lee, for instance, was as genteel an old prig as you’d meet on Pall Mall – but it don’t hold for the Mississipi valley. There they were rotten with cotton money in those days, with gold watch-chains and walking-sticks, loud raucious laughter, and manners that would have disgraced a sty.”

The dialogue spoken by these Mississippi Valley citizens seem a lot more cruder than what one would have heard coming from Robert E. Lee’s mouth. Which makes me wonder if Fraser had read Kyle Onscott’s 1957 novel about slavery,”MANDINGO”:

”Don’ you give me none o’your shines, ye black rascal! Beds, by thunder! You’ll lay right down where you’re told, or by cracky you’ll be knocked down! Who’re you, that you gotta have straw to keep your tender carcase offen the floor? ‘Tother hands is layin’ on it, ain’t they? Now, you git right down there, d’ye hear?”

———————-

George Randolph’s refusal to play the docile slave ends up endangering his life and Flashman’s chances to leave the South. The runaway slave’s conceit ends up attracting the attention of a slave trader named Peter Omohondro (my God, what a name!). Flashman makes his escape over the rails and into the Mississippi River and swims toward the state of Mississippi. He eventually ends up at a cotton plantation called Greystokes, where he is hired as an observer. There, Flashman’s use of slave women as concubines attracts the attention of Greystokes’ mistress, Annette Mandeville.

I must say that was a little disappointed that Fraser never bothered to delve into any detail about life on a Mississippi cotton plantation. Instead, he focused upon Flashman’s misery at being stuck in the U.S. and far from home. He also touched upon the English officer’s frustration at his dalliances with women he viewed beneath contempt – namely Greystokes’ female slave population. This segment also dealt with Flashman’s observations of the Mandevilles’ pathetic marriage. Mr. Mandeville, who was a noveau riche cotton planter, had married the daughter of a Creole aristocrat. Mandeville had married for love and his wife, for money. And yet, it is the haughty Annette who regards her husband with contempt. And Flashman ends up sharing her feelings whenever Mandeville brags about Annette’s non-existent sexual desire for him.

——————–

Not surprisingly, Flash realizes that the haughty Mrs. Mandeville has a yen for him and the two embark upon a sexual affair for a few months. The affair becomes easy to conduct, due to Mr. Mandeville’s frequent business trips. Flashman tries to incite expressions of emotion or passion from his mistress, but she seems to regard him as nothing more than her own personal bed warmer. The affair eventually ends when Mandeville returns home earlier than expected:

”We had just finished a bout; Annette was lying face down on the bed, silent and sullen as usual, and I was trying to win some warmth out of her with my gay chat, and also by biting her on the buttocks. Suddenly, she stiffened under me, and in the same instant feet were striding up the corridor towards the room, Mandeville’s voice was shouting:

“Annie! Hullo, Annie honey, I’m home! I’ve brought –“ and then the door was flung open and there he stood, the big grin on his red face changing to a stare of horror. My mouth was open as I gazed across her rump, terror-stricken.”

I must admit that I found the above passage a little evocative. How often does Fraser allow Flashman to be caught in a compromising position, while nipping his bed partner’s ass? On the other hand, I found Harry’s attempts to provoke some kind of passionate response from Annette Mandeville rather irritating – and a little out of character. It was quite obvious that she saw him as nothing more than a mere stud. And she was not the first female character to use him in such a manner. So, why was it important to Flashman for Annette to express some kind of affection toward him? Ego? These scenes between Flashman and Mrs. Mandeville seemed a bit off to me.

———————

Upon discovering his wife in bed with Flashman, Mandeville goes ballistic and threatens the former’s life. However, one of the planter’s slave trading friends offer to sell Harry as a mixed-blood slave to his cousin, an Alabama cotton planter with a plantation near the Tombigee River. Harry finds himself tossed into a slave cart bound for Alabama. Also in the cart is a beautiful light-skinned slave named Casseopeia “Cassy”.

Mandeville’s discovery of Flashman and Annette’s affair was a well-written segment that featured one of the Englishman’s most terrifying moments in the novel. I found it terrifying not because of the possibility of Flashman facing death, as he had done fleeing the Dahomey Amazons, facing gunfire from the U.S. Navy or fleeing from Peter Omohundro’s suspicions. What made this sequence terrifying was that Mandeville’s friends, Luke Johnson and Tom Little, were sending him into the constant hell of black slavery. I think that Mandeville had put it best:

”One of my friends here, he got a prime idea. His cousin a planter over to Alabama – quite a ways from here. Now my friend goin’ over that way, takin’ a runaway back to another place, and he ready to ‘blige me by takin’ you a stage farther, to his cousin’s plantation. Nobody see you leave here, nobody see you git there. An’ when you do, you know what goin’ to happen to you? You goin’ to be stripped an’ put in the cane-fields, ‘long with the niggers! You pretty dark now – I see mustees as light as you – an’ by the time you labored in the sun a spell, you brown up pretty good I reckon. An’ there you’ll be, Slave Arnold, see? You won’t be dead, but you’ll wish you were! Ain’t nobody ever goin’ to see you, on account it a lonely place, an’ no one ever go there – ifn they do, why you just a crazy mustee! Nobody know you here, nobody ever ask for you. An’ you never escape – on account no nigger ever run from that plantation – swamps an’ dogs always git ‘em. So you safe there for life, see? You think you’ll enjoy that life, Slave Arnold?”

——————

During their first hours together inside the slave cart, Cassy tries to comfort Flashman. But when she realizes that he is a white man being punished by Mandeville, Cassy’s own racism towards whites – generated from years of enslavement – kicks in:

”’Well, now one of you knows what it feels like.’ She went back to her corner. ‘Now you know what a filthy race you belong to.’”

Cassy ignores him for several more hours, while Flashman tries to convince Johnson and Little to release him. Eventually, she overcomes her disgust toward Flashman’s race and conspires to free them both from the slave cart. She attracts the two slave traders’ attention by faking sex with Flashy (must have been a great temptation for the poor devil), before killing the pair. Cassy and Flashman dump the bodies and head for Memphis.

The above sequence brought back memories of Flashman’s conversation with the Balliol College’s first mate about the Africans’ disposition to be docile about becoming slaves. Yet, in a near ironic twist, the very same thing nearly happened to Flashman inside the slave cart. Especially after Luke Johnson and Tom Johnson refused to heed his pleas to release him. Just before Cassy could laid out her plans for escape, Flashman seemed on the verge of surrendering to years of slavery for himself. And I found it interesting that Cassy turned out to be the one instrumental to their escape. Then again, I should not have been surprised, considering the Englishman’s cowardly and obsequious nature.

———————-

The pair arrives in Memphis, Tennessee; where Flashman puts Cassy on the market to be sold. Again, Fraser’s journalistic eye comes to the fore. Flashman’s description of the Tennessee metropolis seemed to center around two words – rain and mud. But his account of a slave auction struck me as another example of Fraser’s ability to send his readers back into the past:

If you’ve never seen a slave auction, I can tell you it’s no different from an ordinary cattle sale. The market was a great low shed, with sawdust on the floor, a block at one end for the slaves and auctioneer, and the rest of the space taken up with the buyers and spectators – wealthy traders on seats at the front, very much at ease, casual buyers behind, and more than half the whole crew just spectators, loafers, bumarees and sightseers, spitting and gossiping and haw-hawing. The place was noisy and stank like the deuce, with clouds of baccy smoke and esprit de corps hanging under the beams.”

Very colorful indeed. Yet, there was something about the slave auction segment that disturbed me. Through Flashman’s eyes, Fraser focused on the entertaining and colorful auctioneer, the auction’s location and the male attendants’ reaction to Cassy’s attempts to raise her price (via a strip tease, apparently). Not once did Fraser give the readers a glimpse – however brief – into the other slaves’ reaction to being sold like stock on parade. Granted, Flashman is not the type who would care about their feelings. But being an observant man, surely he would have noticed the reaction of those slaves who were sold before Cassy? Like I had said, I had found this particular aspect of the sequence slightly disappointing.

———————-

In the end, someone buys Cassy for $3,400 dollars. After Flashman purchases steamboat tickets and clothes for them both, Cassy escapes from the Memphis slave pen and board a northbound steamboat with Flashman. During the trip up the Mississippi River, Flashman and Cassy become lovers. And the Englishman discovers that his companion has great ambitions and an exceedingly strong will. He also discovers that her trust of him is not as strong as he had assumed:

”And yet I know that you are not by nature a kind man; that there is little love in you. I know there is lust and selfishness and cruelty, because I feel it when you take me; you are just like the others. Oh, I don’t mind – I prefer that. I tell myself that it levels the score I owe you.”

Unfortunately, the pair discovers that Flashman had purchased tickets for a steamboat bound for St. Louis, Missouri, instead of their intended location, Louisville, Kentucky near the Ohio River. They are forced to travel all of the way to St. Louis. There, Flashman discovers that he is wanted for slave stealing and the murders of Luke Johnson and Tom Little. Flashman and Cassy board another steamboat to take them from St. Louis on the Mississippi Rover to Pittsburg, Pennsylvania at the end of the Ohio. However, the Ohio River freezes near Owensboro, Kentucky and the pair is forced to leave the safety of the steamboat. At a Kentucky tavern near the river, Flashman and Cassy have an unpleasant encounter with a slave catcher named Buck Robinson. Flashy ditches Cassy and flees across the frozen Ohio, with the escaped slave, along with Robinson and his friends close at his heels. Cassy proves to be more dependable when she saves Flashman after he had been shot in the ass in this well written passage:

”It was so bitter that I screamed, and she turned back and came slithering on all fours to the edge. I grabbed her hand, and somehow I managed to scramble out. The yelping of the dogs was sounding closer, a gun banged, a frightful pain tore through my buttock, and I pitched forward on to the ice. Cassy screamed, a man’s voice sounded in a distant roar of triumph, and I felt blood coursing warm down my leg.

‘My God, are you hurt?” she cried, and for some idiot reason I had a vision of a tombstone bearing the legend: “Here lies Harry Flashman, late 11th Hussars, shot in the arse while crossing the Ohio River”. The pain was sickening, but I managed to lurch to my feet, clutching my backside, and Cassy seized my hand, dragging me on.”

I strongly suspect that Fraser may have been inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous 1851 novel, ”UNCLE TOM’S CABIN”; when writing Flashman and Cassy’s flight across the Ohio River. The pair eventually seek refuge at an abolitionist’s home in Portsmouth, Ohio. There, Flashman is reunited with Abraham Lincoln. Buck Robinson catches up with them and Lincoln defends Flashy and Cassy in a scene that has become legendary with fans of the FLASHMAN novels:

”Buck was mouthing at him, red-faced and furious, but Lincoln went on in the same hard voice.

‘So am I, Buck. And more – for the benefit of any shirt-tail chawbacon with a big mouth, I’m a who’s-yar boy from Indiana myself, and I’ve put down better men than you just by spitting teeth at them. If you doubt it, come ahead! You want these people – you’re going to take them?’ He gestured toward Cassy. ‘All right, Buck – you try it. Just – try it.’

The rest of the world decided that Abraham Lincoln was a great orator after his speech at Gettysburg. I realized it much earlier, when I heard him laying it over that gun-carrying bearded ruffian who was breathing brimstone at him.”

In the above passage, Fraser continued to tear down the prevailing view of Lincoln as some modest, gentle giant who found himself caught up in national politics. Fraser’s portrayal of Lincoln revealed a tough and intimidating man to the rough-neck Buck Robinson. And once more, he managed to blackmail Flashman into returning to New Orleans for John Charity Spring’s slave smuggling trial. Before Flashman could leave Ohio, a Canada-bound Cassy says good-bye to him in one of the funniest scenes in the novel:

”’There,’ says Mrs. Payne. ‘I think you may kiss your deliverer’s hand, child.’

I wouldn’t have been surprised if Cassy had burst out laughing, or in a fit of raage, but she did something that horrified Mrs. Payne more than either could have done. She bent down and gave me a long, fierce kiss on the mouth, while her chaperone squawked and squeaked, and eventually bustled her away.

‘Such liberties!’ cries she. ‘These simple creatures! My child, this will never-‘

‘Good-bye,’ says Cassy, and that was the last I ever saw of her – or of the two thousand dollars we had had between us.”

As noted the recent passage, Flashman discovers that Cassy had quietly taken the remaining money they had “earned” in Memphis. No wonder she remains one of my favorite female characters in the FLASHMAN novels.

———————

After a U.S. marshal escorts our hero back to New Orleans (thanks to Lincoln), Flashman appears in court to testify against Spring for smuggling slaves into the U.S. Due to the testimonies of two of Spring’s “cargo”, Flashman realizes that the insane captain had been conveying American-born slaves to New Orleans, when the U.S. sloop had captured the Balliol College. Which meant that Spring had not broken the law by conveying American slaves. This also meant that Flashman had the means to avoid testifying against Spring and avoid being exposed as a fraud.

I must admit that this latest sequence featured one of the funniest moments in the novel. I especially enjoyed the testimonies of two female slaves named Drusilla and Messalina. The novel ends with the charges against Captain Spring are dismissed and Flashman asking for passage back to Europe aboard the Balliol College. From the psychotic Spring, Flashy learns that his father-in-law had passed away; leaving his beloved Elspeth a rich woman. Unfortunately for Flashman, another year or two will pass before his return to England . . . as ”FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” will reveal.

———————

As I had stated at the beginning of this article, I consider ”FLASH FOR FREEDOM” to be one of the best from the FLASHMANseries. Through Flashman’s jaundiced eyes, Fraser revealed a richly detailed account of the African slave trade during the mid 19th century. In fact, Fraser’s account of the trade is one of the most detailed I have ever read in any fictional story – from the Balliol College crew’s preparation of the slave deck, to the crew’s expedition to Dahomey and King Gezo’s court; from the Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean to the slave marts of Honduras and Cuba; and finally the Balliol College’s encounter with a U.S. Navy frigate in the Gulf of Mexico. I have to admit that Fraser’s writing was supreme in the novel’s first half.

Once Flashman reached the United States, the story became unevenly paced. From the moment Captain Fairbrother sent Flashman to Washington D.C. to the moment when the Englishman boarded the Sultana Queen with George Randolph and black Underground Railroad agents posing as slaves, the story raced at a fast pace. Perhaps too fast for my tastes. The story managed to slow down to a leisurely pace in order to describe Flashman’s trip up the Mississippi River aboard the Sultana Queen. But upon his arrival at Greystokes, the Mandevilles’ plantation, the story’s pace quickened again. And for the second time, it slowed down when Mandeville caught Flashman in bed with the missus. This meant that Fraser never bothered to give readers a detailed account of life on a Mississippi cotton plantation. Instead, he focused upon Flashman’s affair with Annette Mandeville.

I also found myself surprised by Fraser’s description of the Underground Railroad. For a writer who usually went through a great deal to incorporate historical accuracy into his novels as much as possible, he certainly failed to do so in regard to the abolitionist organization. The Underground Railroad had never been as organized as Fraser described it in the novel. Most of the agents lived above the Mason-Dixon line. And they simply assisted those slaves that managed to reach the Free States with food, clothing and temporary shelter. The Underground Railroad was never dominated by white agents that escorted runaways out of the South. Granted, personalities like Harriet Tubman, John Fairfield and John Brown may have engaged in such activities, but they were rare in numbers and usually operated in the Border or Upper South. Regardless of whether they were successful or not, the runaway slaves bore most or all of the responsibilities for their bids for freedom.

And I never understood how Captain Spring managed to avoid being convicted of slave smuggling in the end. Granted, the slaves he had picked up in Honduras and Cuba were all American-born . . . save for one. There was also the Dahomey slave, Lady Caroline Lamb. Captain Fairbrother of the U.S. Navy had certainly met her. I never understood how the Federal judge managed to overlook her presence aboard the Balliol College. Flashman claimed that she had not been shackled. And because of this particular testimony, she was not deemed a non-American slave aboard Spring’s ship. Frankly, I found this a bit too thin . . . but what can one say?

One last problem I had with ”FLASH FOR FREEDOM” centered around Fraser’s portrayals of non-white characters. Mind you, he had provided strong portrayals of West African characters in the novel’s first half. However, King Gezo was a historical figure, Lady Caroline Lamb was a passive bed mate for Flashy, and not one of the Dahomey Amazons had a name – not even the leader who had taken a fancy to Flashman. With the exception of two, the African-Americans featured in the novel’s second half ended up being mere background characters. Even worse, the only two slave characters of African descent were light-skinned. George Randolph was one-quarter black and Cassy was one-eighth black. Both were light enough to pass for white, bar a few physical characteristics that hinted their African ancestry. And once again, I stumbled across another disappointment. Granted, Fraser probably needed Cassy light enough to pass for white during her and Flashman’s flight up the Mississippi River. But why Fraser thought it was necessary to portray Randolph as light-skinned? What exactly was the author trying to hint? That only light-skinned African-Americans were intelligent enough to be interesting characters?

But despite my misgivings about ”FLASH FOR FREEDOM”, I still consider it to be one of Fraser’s better works. First of all, I thought it took a great deal of guts on his part to write a serio-comic story that featured African slavery as its main theme. The only other works of art that I can recall that dared to even touch upon the subject seemed to be an episode of”BEWITCHED” called (5.02) “Samantha Goes South For A Spell” in which Samantha Stevens ends up trapped in 1868 New Orleans, the 1971 movie ”SKIN GAME” and its 1974 remake, ”SIDEKICKS”. And despite the novel’s grim subject matter, Fraser provided some very funny moments:

*Flashman’s attempt to seduce Fanny Locke (soon to be Duberly) at the political house party at Cleeve House

*A cabin boy’s offer to sexually service Flashman

*One of the Dahomey Amazons’ interest in Flashman

*Abraham Lincoln sniffs out Flashman as a scoundrel

*Cassy’s passionate farewell to Flashman

*Captain Spring’s trial in New Orleans

*Flashman’s reaction to John Morrison’s death

But there are two humorous scenes that truly stood out for me. One involved Flashman’s description of Captain Spring and his wife:

”At any rate, he lost no opportunity of airing his Latinity to Comber and me, usually at tea in his cabin, with the placid Mrs. Spring sitting by, nodding. Sullivan was right, of course; they were both mad. You had only to see them at the divine service which Spring insisted on holding on Sundays, with the whole ship’s company drawn up, and Mrs. Spring pumping away at her German accordion while we sang ‘Hark! the wild billow’, and afterwards Spring would blast up prayers to the Almighty demanding his blessing on our voyage, and guidance in the tasks which our hands should find to do, world without end, amen. I don’t know what Wilberforce would have made of that, or my old friend John Brown, but the ship’s company took it straight-faced – mind you, they knew better than to do anything else.”

Another passage that I found particularly hilarious was U.S. Navy Captain Fairbrother’s reaction to finding the slave Lady Caroline Lamb inside his cabin, aboard the Balliol College:

”’Mr. Comber,’ says he, ‘there’s one of those black women in my berth!’

‘Indeed?’ says I, looking suitably startled.

‘My G-d, Mr. Comber!’ cries he. ‘She’s in there now – and she’s stark naked!’

I pondered this; it occurred to me that Lady Caroline Lamb, following her Balliol College training, had made her way aft and got into Fairbrother’s cabin – which lay in the same place as my berth had done on the slaver. And being the kind of gently-reared fool that he was, Fairbrother was in a fine stew. He’d probably never seen a female form in his life.”

”FLASH FOR FREEDOM” had its share of virtues. But what really stood out in the novel was its collection of some of the most interesting fictional characters created by Fraser. Yes, the novel had its share of historical figures like Benjamin Disraeli, King Gezo and Abraham Lincoln. But the fictional characters proved to be the novel’s finest assets. Fraser introduced his readers to characters like the imbecilic and pathetic Looney, the Dahomey Amazon that took in interest in Flashy, the intense and enthusiastic Underground Railroad agent Mr. Crixus, the conceited and self-involved George Randolph, the ever suspicious slave trader Peter Omohundro, the pathetic Mandeville and his cold and controlling wife Annette, and the brutish slave catcher Buck Robinson. But two characters stood above the rest. They were the beautiful, yet ruthless and determined fugitive slave, Casseopeia; and the psychotic master of the Balliol College, Captain John Charity Spring. In fact, I would say they were among the best of Fraser’s creations.

I might as well add that the novel was not perfect. Its description of the Underground Railroad was historically incorrect. Most of the African-American characters were poorly conceived, with the exception of two that happened to be light-skinned. And the novel’s second half seemed to be marred by uneven pacing. Fortunately, the virtues outweighed the flaws. Fraser did an excellent job of creating semi-humorous story from the grim topic of slavery. The story had its share of drama and action. It provided a detailed account of the Atlantic slave trade during the mid 19th century. And the novel also featured some of the most fascinating fictional characters in the entire FLASHMAN series. In the end, I believe it is one of the best novels written by George MacDonald Fraser.

“FLASHMAN” (1969) Book Review

“FLASHMAN” (1969) Book Review

Forty-one years ago, an old literary character was re-introduced to many readers, thanks to a former Scottish journalist named George MacDonald Fraser. The author took a character from a famous Victorian novel and created a series of novels that placed said character in a series of historical events throughout the middle and second half of the 19th century.

The 1857 novel, ”TOM BROWN’S SCHOOLDAYS”, told the story of a young English boy named Tom Brown and his experiences at the famous school, Rugby, during the 1830s. One of Tom’s travails focused on his abuse at the hands of an older student – a bully – named Flashman. However, Flashman got drunk at a local tavern and in the following morning was expelled by Rugby’s famous headmaster, Dr. Thomas Arnold. Fraser took the Flashman character, gave him a first name – Harry – and continued his story following the expulsion from Rugby in the 1969 novel, ”FLASHMAN”.

The beginning of the novel saw the seventeen year-old Harry Flashman trying to find a new profession following his expulsion from Rugby. Due to his father’s wealth and his maternal Uncle Bindley Paget’s social connections, Flashman found a position as a junior officer in one of Britain’s most elite Army regiments, the 11th Hussars aka the Cherrypickers. And thanks to his talent for toadying and projecting a sense of style (inherited from his aristocratic late mother), Flashman managed to win the support and favor of the regimental commander, the haughty James Thomas Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan. Unfortunately, Flashman’s ideal life as a leisurely Army officer came to an end. His involvement with the French mistress of a fellow officer kicked off a series of events that led to Flashman being swept into the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842). One of those events included seducing one Elspeth Morrison, the sixteen year-old daughter of a wealthy Scottish merchant. After being forced to marry her by her relations, Flashman was kicked out of the 11th Hussars and sent to India by Lord Cardigan, who regarded the marriage as a step down the social ladder for the usually favored young Army officer.

It was in Afghanistan that Flashman earned the nickname, “Bloody Lance” by taking credit for his servant’s killing of four Afghan attackers. There, he also met one Ilderim Khan, the son of a pro-British Afghan nobleman and became the latter’s lifelong friend and blood brother. This friendship would end up saving Flashman’s life during the Sepoy Rebellion in”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME”. Flashman also managed to earn two deadly enemies – an Afghan warlord named Gul Shah and his mistress (later wife), a dancer named Narreeman. The source of the pair’s enmity toward Flashman originated with his rape of Narreeman.

More importantly, ”FLASHMAN” allowed readers to view many important events of the First Anglo-Afghan War. Not only did Flashman meet many historical figues such as Lord Cardigan, Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, the Duke of Wellington, but also Alexander Burnes, Akbar Khan, William Macnaghten, Thomas Arnold, and the incompetent commander of the British Army in Afghanistan, General William Elphinstone.

I must admit that my opinion of the novel has changed a great deal over the years. Originally, I held a low opinion of”FLASHMAN” for years, comparing it to the more epic-like sagas such as ”FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” (1973),”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” (1975)”FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” (1982) and ”FLASHMAN AND THE DRAGON” (1985). I still regard these four novels in a higher regard than ”FLASHMAN”. But I must admit that perhaps I had been a little unfair in my regard for the 1969 novel. It is actually a solid adventure story filled with historical interest, witty humor, sharp action and excellent pacing. Some fans of The Flashman Papers have expressed disgust or disenchantment with the Harry Flashman character portrayed in this novel. I suspect that a great deal of these negative opinions may have stemmed from Flashman’s rape of Narreeman. And I understand. However, many of these fans also complained about the young British officer’s crass style and manner – especially toward his father’s mistress, Judy. One has to remember that Harry Flashman aged from 17 to 20 years old in this story. He did convey some semblance of the style, common sense and instinct that would fool many people and serve him for years. But as an adolescent on the threshold of twenty, he had yet to learn some of the hard facts of life. As for his rough treatment and negative opinion of Judy, I suspect that his ego suffered a massive blow, when she rejected him, following a one-time bout under the sheets. A blow that he obviously had failed to recover from after six decades, while ”writing” his memoirs.

”FLASHMAN” also had its share of interesting fictional characters. I have already mentioned the villainous Gul Shah and his mistress (later wife) Narreeman. I have also mentioned the young Afghan who became a close friend of Flashy’s, Ilderim Khan. But he had an even larger role in ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME”. And as I had mentioned, Elspeth also appeared in the novel. However, her presence in the novel would not be truly felt, until the last chapter that featured Harry’s homecoming. Fraser barely explored her personality in the novel, but he did allow a peek into her promiscuous and self-absorbed nature in that last chapter. One particular character, Sergeant Hudson, proved to be a reliable source of defense for Flashman during the retreat from Kabul. During this event, Flashman experienced one of the most bizarre moments of his life, while being rejected by the young wife of an Army officer named Mrs. Betty Parker, whom he was trying to seduce:

“‘What the devil’ says I. ‘What’s the matter?’

‘Oh, you brute!’ she hissed – for she had the sense to keep her voice down – ‘you filthy, beastly brute! Get out of my tent at once! At once, d’you her?’

I could make nothing of this, and said so. ‘What have I done? I was only being friendly. What are you acting so damned missish for?’

‘Oh base!’ says she. ‘You . . . you . . .’

‘Oh, come now,’ says I. ‘You’re in very high ropes, to be sure. You weren’t so proper when I squeezed you the other night.’

‘Squeezed me?’ says she, as though I had uttered some unmentionable word.

‘Aye, squeezed. Like this.’ And I reached over and, with a quick fumble in the dark, caught one of her breasts. To my amazement, she didn’t seem to mind.

‘Oh, that!’ she says. ‘What an evil creature you are! You know that is nothing; all gentlemen do that, in affection. But you, you monstrous beast, presume on my friendship to try to . . . Oh, oh, I could die of shame!’

If I had not heard her I shouldn’t have believed it. God knows I have learned enough since of the inadequacies of education given to young Englishwomen, but this was incredible.”

This last encounter with Mrs. Betty Parker struck me as a hilarious metaphor for the blindingly naïve morality that had began to encroach early Victorian society.

”FLASHMAN” also provided some interesting historical vignettes from the First Anglo-Afghan War. And young Flashman managed to witness or participate in a good number of them. The novel allowed him to be the sole surviving British witness to the murder of political officer, Sir Alexander Burnes and his younger brother, Charles. He also witnessed the murder of another political officer named Sir William Macnaghten, along with Last Stand at Gandamak and the Siege of Jalalabad. But Fraser’s pièce de résistance in ”FLASHMAN” proved to be the disasterous Kabul retreat in which the British contingent under General Elphinstone were forced to march from Afghanistan to India in cold weather and dire circumstances:

“From other accounts of that frightful march that I have read – mostly Mackenzie’s and Lawrence’s and Lady Sale’s – I can fit a few of my recollections into their chronicle, but in the main it is just a terrible, bloody nightmare even now, more than sixty years after. Ice and blood and groans and death and despair, and the shrieks of dying men and women and the howling of the Ghazis and Gilzais. They rushed and struck, and rushed and struck again, mostly at the camp-followers, until it seemed there was a slashed brown body every yard of the way. The only place of safety was in the heart of Shelton’s main body, where the sepoys still kept some sort of order; I suggested to Elphy when we set off that I and my lancers should ride guard on the womenfolk, and he agreed at once. It was a wise move on my part, for the attacks on the flanks were now so frequent that the work we had been doing yesterday was become fatally dangerous. Mackenzie’s jezzailchis were cut to ribbons stemming the sorties.”

Reading the above passage made me wonder about the wisdom of the current Western presence in Afghanistan. And there is nothing like a British military disaster to bring out the best of Fraser’s writing skulls. It proved to be the first of such passages in novels like ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” and ”FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS”.

In the end, Fraser did a solid job in initiating what would proved to be The Flashman Papers in his first novel,”FLASHMAN”. Granted, the novel’s first part set in England struck me as slightly rushed. And the Harry Flashman character seemed a bit crude in compare to his characterizations in the novels that followed. Like many other readers, I found his rape of the Narreeman character hard to stomach. But Fraser did an excellent job in re-creating early Victorian Britain, British India, Afghanistan and the First Anglo-Afghan War. In short, ”FLASHMAN” turned out to be a solid start to an excellent series of historical novels.