FLASHY TO THE RESCUE -- from The New Yorker
George MacDonald Fraser's latest Flashman novel.
by JOHN UPDIKE
Issue of 2005-11-21 Posted 2005-11-14
"Flashman on the March" (Knopf; $24), George MacDonald Fraser's twelfth book about the Victorian rogue and soldier Flashman, finds both the author and the hero in dauntless fettle, the former as keen to invent perils and seducible women as the latter is, respectively, to survive and to seduce them. Fraser, an Englishman schooled in Scotland, served with the Highland Regiment in India, Africa, and the Middle East, before settling on the Isle of Man. He has written other fiction, plus history, autobiography, and film scripts, besides serving as Flashman's assiduous editor; the series is presented, under the over-all title "The Flashman Papers," as its protagonist's memoirs, which need only a few footnotes and spelling corrections to become excellent entertainments. It was a brilliant stroke of Fraser's, in the first volume, "Flashman" (1969), to retrieve a minor figure in Thomas Hughes's greatly popular, intensely Christian best-seller "Tom Brown's School Days" (1857) and reanimate him as a lauded though inadvertent hero in the service of the British Empire. Hughes introduces Flashman simply as "Flashman the School-house bully," who likes to organize tossing the smaller boys at Rugby School in a blanket: "What your real bully likes in tossing, is when the boys kick and struggle, or hold on to one side of the blanket, and so get pitched bodily on to the floor; it's no fun to him when no one is hurt or frightened." Hughes is at pains to explain that "bullies are cowards, and one coward makes many," but, beyond that, he is so little interested in Flashman that he dismisses him in a paragraph, halfway through the book, for getting "beastly drunk" on gin punch amply overlaid by beer. The famed pious headmaster, Thomas Arnold, "who had long had his eye on Flashman, arranged for his withdrawal next morning."
Thus rusticated, Flashman languished for more than a century until he was reborn as Fraser's cavalryman. In "Flashman," the former Rugby bully confesses his expulsion to his father and persuades this guardian, and his dead mother's brother, Uncle Bindley, to arrange and pay for his enlistment in the Eleventh Light Dragoons, Prince Albert's Hussars. The regiment has recently returned from India and is not apt, Flashman calculates, to be posted abroad again soon. But, under the war-loving, blockheaded Lord Cardigan, it swiftly resumes its quest for military glory, in the India and Afghanistan of 1839-42, taking Flashman with it. The great joke of his initial outing is that, though behaving with consistent selfishness and poltroonery, he not only emerges unscathed but is awarded a medal, with sentimental effusions, by the Queen. He is the antihero of Empire, the negative of the imperial virtues, printed as a positive in the muddle of battle. The irony weakens, though, in the course of the eleven sequels. To survive and triumph as he invariably does, Flashman must manifest at least two admirable traits: an almost supernatural gift for languages that carries him through many a covert operation, and a winning way with women that does much the same thing. Women get him out of as much trouble as they get him into, and the reader gathers an impression of a personal attractiveness and coolheadedness of which scarcely a hint existed in the craven bully of the relentlessly cautionary "Tom Brown's School Days." Hughes's text allowed him only to be "big and strong" and to have "a bluff off-hand manner, which passed for heartiness, and considerable powers of being pleasant when he liked." The early Flashman of "Flashman" is thoroughly vicious, hitting out at women and hiding behind the battlefield heroics of braver men, and Fraser's tone is mordantly satiric, at the expense of the Victorian upper classes. As the series proceeds, however, its antihero becomes a hero in spite of his own professions to the contrary.
Additionally to our hero's credit belongs the historical and ethnographic interest of the cumulative "Flashman Papers"; he is a keen observer and appreciator of the Empire's adversaries even as they strive to slay him. Of all his guises, none is more appealing than the ninety-year-old retiree who in the latest of his published papers ruminates:
You can always tell when something is coming to an end. You know, by the way events are shaping, that it can't last much longer, but you think there are still a few days or weeks to go . . . and that's the moment when it finishes with a sudden bang that you didn't expect. Come to think of it, that's probably true of life, or so it strikes me at the age of ninety–but I don't expect it to happen before tea. Yet one of these days the muffins will grow cold and the tea-cakes congeal as they summon the lads from belowstairs to cart the old cadaver up to the best bedroom. And if I've a moment before the light fades, I'll be able to cry, "Sold, Starnberg and Ignatieff and Iron Eyes and Gul Shah and Charity Spring and all the rest of you bastards who tried to do for old Flashy, 'cos he's going out on his own, and be damned to you!"
It may be Fraser himself, born in 1926, who is feeling valedictory. The Flashman of "Flashman on the March," describing his intricate sub-rosa role in General Robert Napier's Abyssinian campaign of 1867-68, slips into nostalgic remembrance often enough to render an inventory of his previous adventures. In recalling how he (uniquely) survived a plunge down the Blue Nile's Tisisat Falls, he evokes other near-drownings:
I've known what it is to drown, on several occasions, most memorably in the Skrang river with a blowpipe dart in my ribs, and upside down in that infernal drain beneath Jotunberg Castle, and at the bottom of a bath in the amorous clutches of the demented Queen of Madagascar, but only in the maelstrom under the Blue Nile falls was I unable even to struggle feebly as I drifted upwards through that silvery radiance, the agony of suffocation gradually changing to a dreamy languor.
An encounter with the earthy Queen of Wollo Galla revives memories of the Empress of China, the Maharani of the Punjab, the Rani of Jhansi, and Queen Victoria ("our own gracious monarch") herself. Twirling a revolver takes him back to the American Southwest; being tossed onto a roaring fire reminds him of how "during my service in the Punjab I had the misfortune to be basted on a gridiron"; being placed in chains evokes being caged in Russia, "and the Gwalior bottle dungeon, and China when the Imps collared me before Pekin." An atrocity perpetrated by Abyssinia's Emperor Theodore fetches to his mind's eye the "mass scalpings and blowing from guns and the knouting of a Russian peasant" that he witnessed in his adventure-laden years. Though Flashman has the resilience of a comic-book hero, his testimonies to nineteenth-century barbarities are not comic. Fraser's carefully documented slaughters weight these cheerful potboilers with history's grim ballast–at the risk, it might be said, of jaggedly dividing the reader's attention as he flips back and forth to the copious endnotes, a total of sixty-two in this novel, making nearly twenty distractingly informative extra pages.
Flashman's breezy language and assumptions reveal a good deal of the Empire's inner life. To its servants, at least on Flashman's level, it was a way out of foggy England, and a welcome sexual holiday. "One of the things that has always enchanted me about African women with an appetite," he confides, "is that they don't waste time before indulging it. Where their European sisters have to be jollied into the supine position . . . ladies of colour tend to make straight for the mutton." Illustrations follow:
A tall figure advanced silently into the shaft of moonlight from the high narrow window–a figure in a robe of saffron silk which slid to the floor without a sound, revealing a splendid golden body swaying slowly towards me, slim hands clasped over her breasts and then falling away to caress her hips as she passed from the moonbeam into the shadow.
In case we don't get the picture, Flashman explains, "It was being borne in on me that the moral climate of Abyssinia was not quite that of our own polite society." He becomes almost a bore on the topic:
In Ab society, which as I've told you is probably the most immoral on earth (Cheltenham ain't in it), rogering the hostess is almost obligatory, part of the etiquette, like leaving cards, and not at all out of the way in a country where it's considered a mortal insult to praise a woman's chastity, since it implies that she's not attractive enough to be galloped.
Boringness on the subject threatens his creator, too; to keep his pot boiling, Fraser keeps tossing fresh female bodies into it. No sooner is Malee, with her abovementioned splendid golden body and "long lovely Egyptian face and huge eyes," chalked up than the formidable Uliba-Wark, her "proud Ethiopian head with its laughing eyes" and "voluptuous lower lip," her "lovely oiled limbs shining in the firelight," is wheeled into position, in turn to be supplanted by her plump but lusty half sister Masteeat and the bare-breasted warrior Miriam, a "little satin stunner" with "blue eyes, bigod," for a change. She is later referred to as "a bonny bint"; Fraser eruditely sprinkles the narrative with Victorian slang omitted from most assigned texts. Flashman remembers Uliba-Wark to have been "as splendid a piece of bounce as I'd seen," advises the reader to "never miss the chance of a rattle," and apologizes for his failure to observe all the details of an Abyssinian feast served by young women wearing brass collars and tiny aprons: "You don't, when your maise is being poured by a lovely little Hebe who rests her bare poont on your shoulder as she stoops to your cup." The unspeakable "n" word is liberally bestowed upon anyone with a skin darker than English custard, though anthropological distinctions are not ignored: "I studied the escorts, and a formidable pair they were, tall, splendidly built, black as night but not negroid with their long heads and chins and straight noses."
What light does the old, politically incorrect Empire shed, as Britain celebrates the bicentennial of Nelson's victory at Trafalgar, on America's present efforts to bring order and democracy to the benighted? In an introductory "Explanatory Note," the author speaks in his own voice of the Abyssinian War of 1868:
[It was] surely the strangest of all imperial campaigns, when a British Indian army invaded one of the least known and most dangerous countries on earth, and in the face of apparently insuperable hazards, and predictions of certain failure, marched and fought their way across a trackless wilderness of rocky chasm and jagged mountain to their goal, did what they had come to do, and marched out again with hardly a casualty. There has never perhaps been a success like it in the history of war. It took twelve thousand men, a mighty fleet, nine million pounds (a staggering sum at that time), a meticulous if extravagant organization, and a remarkable old soldier–and all to rescue a tiny group of British citizens held captive by a mad monster of an African king. Those were, to quote Flashman, the days.
Fraser returns in his endnotes to worry at the issues: "Should Britain have stayed, and pacified the country, assuming the white man's burden? There are those who think so. . . . Of one thing we can be sure: if Britain had stayed, revisionist historians would certainly have condemned it as another act of selfish imperialism." In the relaxed aftermath of victory, General Napier applies to imperialism the old Scots adage "Ye canna dae right for daein' wrang!"
Advantageously, the Abyssinian campaign had a precisely defined objective, the rescue of the British prisoners, who included Her Majesty's envoy to the court of the Emperor Theodore, Captain Douglas Cameron. The indignant British public was for action, though it disliked the cost of "a penny or more on the income tax." The Empire was global, and it drew upon loyal Sikh and Indian armies for this African intervention. Western technology still had the edge: the Abyssinians, Flashman reports, were "shot flat, massacred if you like, by Messrs. Snider and Enfield, gallant savages decimated by modern weapons." In the siege of his stronghold of Magdala, Theodore (who admired the British and wanted his son to go to school in England) committed suicide, relieving the Crown of the embarrassment of what to do with him. Napier exercised a conqueror's prerogatives by burning down Magdala and giving the territory to the Galla queen Masteeat–a historical figure, unlike Flashman's slimmer bints. The British, though the Foreign Office helped precipitate the war by ignoring a letter from the Abyssinian monarch to the Queen proposing a friendlier relationship, made shrewd use, once embarked upon their face-saving invasion, of local politics; Flashman's secret mission is to persuade, with a bribe of fifty thousand Maria Theresa dollars, Masteeat to encircle Magdala with her army and prevent Theodore's escape. Know your ground, spend what's needed for thorough preparation, quit while you're ahead, and leave nation-building to the natives, at each other's throats though they be: these would seem to be the lessons, possibly but not necessarily applicable to our second invasion of Iraq. History repeats, but always with differences. Abyssinia had no oil reserves worth securing, and its Coptic-flavored brand of Christianity wasn't inspiring terrorists in London. Flashman's own conclusion proposes "suggesting to Her Majesty's ministers that next time they get a letter from a touchy barbarian despot, it might save 'em a great deal of trouble and expense if they sent him a civil reply by return of post." But, if they had placated Emperor Theodore, George MacDonald Fraser would have had one less historical imbroglio to convert into a postmodern penny dreadful, which, along with its hero's hairbreadth escapes and blithe lechery, treats us to a piece of history that once made headlines as gripping and agitating as today's.