“ROYAL FLASH” (1975) Review

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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.

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”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.

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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.

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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?”

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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.

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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.

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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.