Sunday, December 21, 2008

R.I.P. Sir Harry Flashman, V.C,, K.C.B., K.C.I.E., etc.

As usual, I have a large stack of books that have been piling up over the term to read over Christmas, but none so eagerly anticipated as Flashman on the March by George McDonald Fraser. Alas, this was also a very bittersweet read for me, because as I blogged last February, George McDonald Fraser died on January 2, 2008 at the age of 82. This of course means that Flashman on the March, the twelfth novel in the Flashman series, would also be the last.

While in P.E.I. this summer, I devoured a stack of books comparable to the one I now have with me, with Flashman and the Angel of the Lord, Flashman and the Dragon, and Flashman and the Tiger among them. I had also purchased Flashman on the March, but decided to wait until Christmas to read it -- delaying the final gratification of an unread Flashman novel until an appropriate time.

And now I'm done. Sigh. For those unfamiliar with the series, Fraser published the first novel, Flashman, in 1969. Harry Flashman was a character in Thomas Hughes' best-selling Victorian novel Tom Brown's Schooldays, who was a bully and a coward, ultimately expelled for drunkeness. Fraser picks up on the seventeen-year-old Flashman's story at the moment of expulsion, when he returns home to announce his shame to his father. Flashman pere, a drunkard of failing fortunes carrying on with a much younger mistress, announces that there is nothing else for it but for young Harry to enter the army on a purchased commission. And so he does, but not before taking a romp in the sack with his father's mistress. Upon being posted to a unit in Scotland, Flashman then seduces an empty-headed beauty named Elspeth, and being found out, is forced to marry her by her wealthy industrialist father.

So sets the tone for the novels to come: Harry is the ultimate bully, womanizer, cad, bounder, and coward. He is posted to Afghanistan and is present for the retreat through the Khyber Pass and the Siege of Jalalabad, and comports himself with cowardly elan throughout -- always the first to run, always behaving reprehensively whenever his own skin is at stake, and never passing up an opportunity to seduce a startling array of beautiful women. Managing to take refuge in a small fort outside Jalalabad during the siege, he spends it prostrate with fear on his bunk will the enlisted men curse him for a coward. When the Afghans breach the fort, in a moment of delirious terror he scoops up the Union Jack and regimental colours in the hopes that if he presents them to the attackers, he might be spared. As it happens, he doesn't have time to hand them over, as he gets knocked unconscious and buried by a falling wall. He is the only survivor in the fort, and when he is found by the counterattacking British, they see him cradling the flag and colours as if defending them with his very person. All of which makes him a national hero, feted by the Duke of Wellington himself and awarded the Victoria Cross by the Queen. Not a word of his cowardice comes to light.

And so it goes for twelve novels, with Flashman a remarkably clear-eyed observer of history and candid commentator on his own vices. He falls entirely reluctantly into historical crisis-points like Afghanistan, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Harper's Ferry incident, and the Indian Mutiny. The series' conceit is that the novels are the secret memoirs of Harry Flashman, written in his 90s, found by George McDonald Fraser "wrapped in oilskin" at an estate auction in the late 1960s. McDonald presents himself as "editor" of the memoirs, offering footnotes commenting on the historical context Flashman describes.

The fact of the matter is -- and this is something attested to by numerous historians of the mid-late Victorian period -- Fraser's novels are extremely accurate in their history. They are in their way the ultimate intersection for a literary scholar and historical dilletante like myself: historical education wrapped up in a great story.

Flashman on the March has Flashy co-opted into the 1867 British mission to rescue prisoners held by the mad King Theodore in Abyssinia. As usual, Flashman finds himself where he is largely through his own vices: returning from Mexico to Europe, he dallies with the daughter of a German nobleman during the cruise, and is found out in his behaviour upon making port in Trieste. To escape the retribution of the noble, he takes on a mission to deliver funds for the upcoming mission in Abyssinia -- and once there, is suborned to the mission as a secret emissary to rival tribes in order to buy support for the British project.

I won't retell more of the story than that, other than to share a very typical Flashman moment. His guide (of course) is a beautiful young woman of noble blood, with whom he has torrid sex all the way along. She has saved his life on a few occasions, and Flashy finds himself quite affectionate with her -- all of which matters for naught when Flashy's skin is at stake. They find themselves, fleeing pursuers, headed directly over the massive Tisiat Falls, and Flashman manages to snag some low-hanging branches, with his beautiful guide clinging to his leg:

There was only one thing to be done, so I did it, drawing up my free leg and driving my foot down with all my force at Uliba's face staring at me open-mouthed, half-submerged as she clung to my other knee. I missed, but caught her full on the shoulder, jarring her grip free, and away she went, canoe and all, the gunwale rasping against my legs as it was whirled away downstream. One glimpse I had of the white water foaming over those long beautiful legs, and then she was gone. Damnable altogether, cruel waste of good womanhood, but what would you? Better one should go than two, and greater love hath no man then this, that he lay down someone else's life for his own.

Of course, nothing is too easy for Flashman, and his erstwhile lover and guide survives to wreak vengeance later ...

So no more Flashman novels. I guess there is nothing else for it but to start with the first one again ...

1 comment:

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