Sunday, 24 July 2011

Review: Flashman on the March

Flashman on the March by George MacDonald Fraser (2005)

The twelfth installment of the Flashman papers continues the memoirs of  Sir Harry Flashman*; famed hero, decorated officer of the British Army, one of the most outstanding figures of the Victorian era and a complete fraud. 

This time, the year is 1867 and Flashman, on the run from the Mexicans after the execution of Emperor Maximilian and an irate Austrian nobleman whose daughter Flashman deflowered on the boat trip to Trieste, makes his escape by agreeing to escort a shipment of silver to General Napier, who is leading the British expedition to free a party of Europeans held captive by the Emperor of Abyssinia.  It seems a safe enough job–until Napier tells Flashman how delighted he is to see him.  This can only mean one thing:  Sir Harry is up to his neck in trouble again. Before he knows what's happening, he's on a secret mission to secure an alliance with a local queen with the queen's usurpation-minded sister as a guide while dodging bandits, unfriendly tribes, and the forces of an emperor who makes Caligula look like a study in reason and sanity. Could things get any worse?  Of course they could.

Flashman is one of the most brilliant creations in historical fiction.  When George MacDonald Fraser brought him to life in Flashman (1969), he did such a marvelous job of "editing" Sir Harry's "long lost" memoirs that many perfectly respectable historians reviewed the novel under the impression that it was a genuine historical find.  This is particularly surprising when you consider that Flashman was not, in fact, created by Fraser, but was lifted from the novel Tom Brown's Schooldays where Flashman was the cowardly bully at rugby who was expelled.  Fraser then took up the question of what happened to Flashman after expulsion and we learn that young Harry soon joined the British Army, won the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan, and went on to become one of the greatest heroes of his age–that is, until the old scoundrel wrote his memoirs at the age of ninety when he reveals that it was all an utter lie and that he was, in fact, still a bully and coward as well as a rake, thief, and general scoundrel who happily spent his time fornicating when he wasn't running for his life while crying like a baby.  Still, Flashman may be a poltroon, but he's no idiot, so he manages to show remarkable wit and resourcefulness as he gets mixed up in some of the greatest wars of the century while bedding most of its notorious women.

Flashman on the March is the last of the novels completed by Fraser before his death in 2008 and shows that even in his 80s he hadn't lost his touch.  Flashman is still the anti-hero who is still capable of charming the reader, Fraser still loads the book with incredible detail backed up with copious footnotes that often correct Flashman's "errors" and we get a page-turner of a comic adventurer wrapped around an obscure yet fascinating episode of British Imperial history as well as a portrait of one of the worst monsters ever to sit on any throne in the form of Emperor Theodore of Abyssinia.  The only criticism I have is more backhanded praise in that with his neat turns of phrase and attention to detail, Fraser makes the book a slow read because the reader is constantly tempted to re-read passages or pop off to the Internet for a bit of independent research.

Sad to say, we will now never know what happened to Flashman at Rorke's drift or how he ended up in Mexico or what fills in any of his other missing adventure.  Unless, that is, someone else takes up the job of editing Sir Harry's yet unopened packets of memoirs.
*FLASHMAN, Harry Paget, brigadier-general, V.C., K.C.B., K.C.I.E.: Chevalier, Legion of Honour; Order of Maria Theresa, Austria; Order of the Elephant, Denmark (temporary); U.S. Medal of Honor; San Serafino Order of Purity and Truth, 4th class; b. May 5, 1822, s. of H. Buckley Flashman, Esq., Ashby, and Hon. Alicia Paget; m. Elspeth Rennie Morrison, d. of Lord Paisley, one s., one d. Educ. Rugby School, 11th Hussars, 17th Lancers. Served Afghanistan 1841-2 (medals, thanks of Parliament); chief of staff to H.M. James Brooke, Rajah of Sarawak, Batang Luper expedn, 1844; milit. adviser with unique rank of sergeant-general to H.M. Queen Ranavalona of Madagascar, 1844-5; Sutlej campaign, 1845-6 (Ferozeshah, Sobraon, envoy extraordinary to Maharani Jeendan, Court of Lahore); polit, adviser to Herr (later Chancellor Prince) von Bismarck, Schleswig-Holstein, 1847-8; Crimea, staff (Alma, Sevastopol, Balaclava), prisoner of war, 1854; artillery adviser to Atalik Ghazi, Syr Daria campaign, 1855; India, Sepoy Mutiny, 1857-8, dip, envoy to H.R.H. the Maharani of Jhansi, trooper 3rd Native Cavalry, Meerut, subseq. att. Rowbotham's Mosstroopers, Cawnpore, (Lucknow, Gwalior, etc., V.C.); adjutant to Captain John Brown, Harper's Ferry, 1859; China campaign 1860, polit, mission to Nanking, Taiping Rebellion, polit, and other services, Imperial Court, Pekin; U.S. Army (major, Union forces, 1862, colonel (staff) Army of the Confederacy, 1863); a.d.c. to H.I.M. Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico, 1867; interpreter and observer Sioux campaign, U.S., 1875-6 (Camp Robinson conference, Little Big Horn, etc.); Zulu War, 1879 (Isandhlwana, Rorke's Drift); Egypt 1882 (Kassassin, Tel-el-Kebir); personal bodyguard to H.I.M. Franz-Josef, Emperor of Austria, 1883; Sudan 1884-5 (Khartoum); Pekin Legations, 1900. Travelled widely in military and civilian capacities, among them supercargo, merchant marine (West Africa), agriculturist (Mississippi valley), wagon captain and hotelier (Santa Fe Trail); buffalo hunter and scout (Oregon Trail); courier (Underground Railroad); majordomo (India), prospector (Australia); trader and missionary (Solomon Islands, Fly River, etc.), lottery supervisor (Manila), diamond broker and horse coper (Punjab), dep. marshal (U.S.), occasional actor and impersonator. Hon. mbr of numerous societies and clubs, including Sons of the Volsungs (Strackenz), Mimbreno Apache Copper Mines band (New Mexico), Khokand Horde (Central Asia), Kit Carson's Boys (Colorado), Brown's Lambs (Maryland), M.C.C., White's and United Service (London, both resigned), Blackjack (Batavia). Chmn, Flashman and Bottomley, Ltd; dir. British Opium Trading Co.; governor, Rugby School; hon. près. Mission for Reclamation of Reduced Females. Publications: Dawns and Departures of a Soldier's Life; Twixt Cossack and Cannon; The Case Against Army Reform. Recreations: oriental studies, angling, cricket (performed first recorded "hat trick", wickets of Felix, Pilch, Mynn, for 14 runs, Rugby Past and Present v. Kent, Lord's 1842; five for 12, Mynn's Casuals v. All-England XI, 1843). Add: Gandamack Lodge, Ashby, Leics.

1 comment:

  1. Very neat review of the last of the Flashman papers.

    Flashman is by anyone's standards a complete and utter scumbag. Yet he is a very likeable protagonist. My feelings are that this is because he is, with the reader, completely honest and he is also that rare bird, a man who is completely comfortable with who he is.

    I'm saddened that we'll never know all of his adventures, but I can't really see anyone other than GMF being able to transcibe the Flashman papers with such style.