Wednesday, July 27, 2005


Flashman On the March by George McDonald Fraser

"When all other trusts fail, turn to Flashman"- Abraham Lincoln

"For an instant, even I was appalled. But only for an instant." - H.P. Flashman

When Sir Harry Flashman (VC, KCB) finds himself in desperate need of a quiet and quick exit out of Trieste ("ain't much of town unless your in trade or banking or some other shady pursuit...") to duck the enraged uncle of yet another amorous conquest, he ends up escorting a load of silver intended to support the British Expedition to Abyssinia in 1868. And with that, the twelfth packet of the Flashman Papers begins...

Flashman On the March is the latest Flashman novel penned by George MacDonald Fraser. Fraser lifted Flashman wholesale out the famous Victorian book Tom Brown's Schooldays by Thomas Hughes. In Hughes book, Flashman was the bullying, cowardly tormentor of Brown and his friends at the Rugby School, before being expelled for drunkeness.

Fraser has asked the timeless question: what happens next? And so began the Flashman Papers, Harry Flashman's unvarnished memoirs, set down in Flashman's old age. The long-running series of historical fiction (the first of which appeared in 1968) traces Flashman's illustrious career in the British Army, dropping him into most of the major historical events and almost all of the unmitgated military disasters of the era.

Flashman, though bluff and bold-faced in appearance, is a caddish, bullying, womanizing coward who manages, through luck, knavish skill and consummate acting, to find himself hailed as a Victorian hero in the first book. The remaining books follow a similar formula with Flashy trying desperately to get out from under while maintaining his dauntless facade and reputation, lecherously pursuing every available female in reach and pocketing any "blunt" and credit he finds along the way. His adventures include escaping the destruction of the British Army in Afghanistan in 1842 (where he accidentally develops his heroic reputation), skulking through the Sikh War and Soboran, bedding Lola Montez during the Schleswig-Holstein crisis, battling Skrang River pirates in Borneo, keeping the mad Queen of Madagascar happy, and instigating the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War. Other honors include the Indian Mutiny, the Taiping Rebellion, the March on Beijing, Little Big Horn and the American Civil War (serving on both sides, no less). And that really just covers the major engagements....

In Flashman On the March, Flashman finds himself reluctantly hooked into the British Expedition to Abysinnia. The Abysinnia Expedition was one of those stranger-than-fiction events that lurk in the back annals of history. Launched expressly for the purpose of rescuing a handful of British hostages being held by Emperor Theodore, the Abysinnia Expedition saw 12,000 British troops travel deep into the interior of Abysinnia to face down Theodore's army.

Flashy finds himself cajoled by Robert Napier ("Bob the Bughunter" as Flashman terms him) into journeying into the interior to cement a secret alliance with the Gallas, preventing Theodore and the hostages from escaping the British by cutting off their retreat. Needless to say, Flashy finds himself on the sharp end yet again, ducking out on his enemies, cavorting with his female guide (also a jealous contender for the Galla throne), hobnobbing with the insane Emperor Theodore, and generally behaving with a reckless disregard for honor, duty or anything but the preservation of his own skin and reputation.

Flashman is very refreshing...and utterly politically incorrect. Fraser has gifted him with an unmitigated honesty that tars all the players involved with equal amounts of scorn, blame and praise (where necessary). Flashman provides Fraser with a worthy pawn for history's canvas and allows him to weave Flashman's disreputable adventures seamlessly with real historical figures (thus we've seen Flashman annoying Lord Cardigan, trying (and failing) to befuddle Lincoln, hoaxing Bismark into a boxing match...and many, many more escapades) helping to bring both the historic characters and their times into new light.

Here's a brief excerpt:

"You gather from this that I was in a tranquil, optimistic mood as I set off on my Abyssinian odyssey, ass that I was. You'd ha' thought, after all I'd seen and suffered in my time, that I'd have remembered all the occasions when I'd set off carefree and unsuspecting along some seemingly primrose path only to go head first into the pit of damnation at t'other end. But you never can tell.

I couldn't foresee as I stood content in the bow, watching green fire foaming up from the forefoot, feeling the soft Adriatic breeze on my face, hearing the oaths and laughter of the Jollies and the strangled wailing of some frenzied tenor in the crew - I couldn't foresee the screaming charge of long-haired warriors swinging their hideous sickle-blades against the Sikh bayonets, or the huge mound of rotting corpses under the precipice at Islamgee, or the ghastly forest of crucifixes at Gondar, or feel the agonizing bite of steel bars against my body as I swung caged in the freezing gale above a yawning void...

Aye, it's an interesting country Abyssinia"


The Flashman novels are more then just an adventurous farce however. Fraser's descriptions of Flashman's many battles quite literally take the reader into the heart of the fight, presenting, alongside the humor and comic aspects of Flashman's adventures, a deep and abiding feel for the horror, chaos and confusion that permeates the martial engagements. Given that Fraser fought in Burma in WWII (see "Quartered Safe Out Here", his war memoirs for details) in an environment that had far more in common with 19th century warfare then with the 20th, it is not surprising that he can bring both a historian's acumen and personal experience to bear on events.

Fraser's latest Flashman book (and frankly all the books in the series) is a throughly enjoyable romp and highly recommended.

For some information on Abyssinia, check out the Abyssinia Cyber Gateway. Intersted ina quick primer on Abyssinnia? Check out the ever dependable Wikipedia.

One of the many figures who pops up in Flashman's latest is George A, Henty, a British author who basically started the "boy's own" series of adventure novels in the 19th century. Henty also wrote about the Abyssinia Expedition (and accompanied it)in The March to Magdala. You can peruse some of his works online here, but alas, not his book on Abyssinia.

There's a fair number of Flashman sites online including The Royal Flashman Society of Upper Canada, The Flashman Society, and the Royal Flashman Society of Southwest Virginia, which includes the Flashman Macropedia site which is bursting with Flashman background and trivia.

Lastly, here's a peek at Tisisat Falls, which plays a key role in Flashy's latest tome and provides yet another opportunity for Flashman to give readers keen insight into the deplorable depths of his character...no I'm not going to explain it, but it is, bluntly, classic Flashman.

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1 comment:

ResoluteReader said...

Great review, great series of books. I've been desperately waiting to read the latest Flashman - but the cost of the hardback here in the UK is so ridiculously high, that I'm still hanging on for the paperback.

What I particularly like about Fraser's Flashman novels is that he shows us the real attitudes of the people at the heart of building the Empire - Flashman's character, with his racism, his views on women etc is just an honest account of what most of the people in charge of making and defending the colonies really believed. In that respect alone, Fraser has illuminated an important period of history, and made us laugh along the way.