The Flashman Papers 1842/3 & 1847/8: Royal Flash

The second packet of The Flashman Papers, published in 1970 as Royal Flash, gave notice of George MacDonald Fraser’s burgeoning confidence as a writer. It’s simultaneously the ‘more-of-the-same-only-different’ that every successful series must embrace, and a completely different kettle of fish. There are no military campaigns this time out, no Wars, no honours, no glory undeserved or public reward. This time, all Flashy gets for his efforts is the one thing really important to him: his own skin, preserved intact.
The first major difference between this book and Flashman lies in Fraser’s whole-hearted acceptance that he has a successful series on his hands. As I remarked, Flashman – a book written entirely on spec – is merely the first in a series in potentia: there are the barest minimum of references to incidences later in Flashman’s career.
On the other hand, just the first section of Royal Flash, the part set in 1842-43, throws up a half dozen references to other parts of Flashy’s career, and by no means all of these hints and asides will come to fruition in full-scale memoirs. From the outset, however, Flashman is placed in the context of his own, long life, a life permanently in motion.
Before going on to discuss the events of this book, I do have to comment upon it’s unusual structure. There is a four year gap between the short events of 1842-43, which exist to set-up the situation that will dominate the larger part of the story, Flashman and Fraser make no attempt to establish what happens during this awkward gap, except that at least part of it was spent in another military engagement, and whilst the book itself picks up almost immediately from its predecessor, the 1847 section starts with one of the great mysteries of The Flashman Papers.
All we know, when Flashy resumes his tale, is that he is but lately returned to London, seeking rest whilst he recuperates from the effects of a pistol ball being dug out of his back. Where he got this, save that it was out of England, who from, why and in what circumstances is not explained, nor will Fraser ever return to this scenario over the next four decades.
It’s an awkward and weak transition, which contributes little to the ongoing story, and given that one of Fraser’s underlying purposes in this novel is to set Flashy’s adventures up as the real-life original for one of the most famous romantic adventure novels of all time, it does undermine the book overall, to me at least.
But what’s it all about, you ask?
The first part recounts, in 1842, whilst pursuing his vicious amusements, Flashy’s meeting with a young Irish woman, Mrs Rosanna James, and a young German Count, Otto von Schonhausen, though his family name is somewhat more familiar: Bismarck. Needless to say, Flashy encounters the unlikely pair when on the run, this time from the Police who have just raided the gambling hell where Flashy and his old Rugby pal, Speedicut, have been frequenting.
The sober, humourless Otto wants to hand Flashy over to the Police, though since he’s the ‘ero of Joolloolabad, the Police are having none of it, and anyway, saucy Rosanna is all for shielding him, all the way to her bed. The pair are lovers only for a week, though, and are driven apart by Mrs James’ temper, and a fortunately inaccurately thrown pisspot.
Nevertheless, it leaves Flashy keen on getting his own back on the pair, which he achieves the following year: Bismark by luring the self-righteous, arrogant Prussian into a boxing match with a former British champion, the latter by prompting her exposure on the London stage when she is attempting to establish herself as the famous Spanish dancer – Lola Montez.
It’s all good, clean vindictive fun from Flashy, and that’s how it stays until that point, four years later, when he’s back in London and already considering a rapid departure on discovering that the Morrisons have practically moved in, and he’s expected to be going to help to find upper class husbands for the two unmarried daughters.
Which is when a fawning letter arrives from Bavaria, on behalf of the Countess de Landsfeld, beseeching him on account of their old friendship to come to her side, to perform a service only he can perform. Oh, and here’s £500 travelling expenses, by the way.
It’s all very suspicious, especially as Flashy can’t remember tumbling any German Countess’s, but the £500 is a powerful incentive and with the Morrisons around…
But, as we all knew it would be, it does turn out to be a trap. The Countess de Landsfeld turns out to be our dear old chum, Lola Montez, the unofficial ruler of Bavaria, and very autocratic about it. She’s lured Flashy into the country, got him all worked up and ready to trot, and then dropped a somewhat plump blonde German baroness on him. Flashy is discovered in flagrante delicto and hauled off to the local copshop, accused of sexual assault, all of which is designed to create a very nice pickle for our hero, as an inducement to carry out the designs of the plot’s ringleader: Count Otto von Bismarck.
And for what, apart from a little humiliation in respect of the insult Flashy perpetrated upon him, does Bismark want with our hero. The plot is connected to the infamous Schleswig-Holstein question, and Bismark in making the first in a series of steps that will result in German unification, under Prussian domination, years later in 1870.
And for what, apart from a little humiliation in respect of the insult Flashy perpetrated upon him, does Bismark want with our hero. The plot is connected to the infamous Schleswig-Holstein question, and Bismark in making the first in a series of steps that will result in German unification, under Prussian domination, years later in 1870.
But now we finally get to what, for Fraser, is the purpose of the book, which is to re-write that classic of Romantic Thrillers, Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda, with Flashy’s experiences providing the ‘real-life’, rather more racy and certainly less chivalrous circumstances from which Hope concocts his adventures.
The Prisoner of Zenda is a classic that has been in print since it was first published in 1894, a book of tremendous influence – references to ‘Ruritanian countries’ stem from this book. But it may no longer be as familiar in essence as it was when I was younger, so a quick précis should be in order. Essentially, the story is set in the European country of Ruritania, whose King is due to marry. He also needs to receive his sceptre of office once a year to maintain his throne, else it passes to his evil relative. But the King has been kidnapped by an adventurer named Rupert of Hentzau – the archetype swashbuckling, cheerfully amoral villain – and will miss his marriage.
His closest adherents concoct a desperate plan to substitute for the King his English countryman, a gentleman named Rudolph Rassendyll, who is almost identical to the King. Rassendyll carries out the impersonation, and assists in rescuing the King and re-substituting him in his true role.
However, Rassendyll and the Queen have fallen in love with each other, but with true noble sacrifice, they part forever, as Rassendyll can never return lest the plot be discovered.
In ‘real-life’ however, it’s rather different. For one thing, the background is political, and if Bismarck is involved, that means the ultimate ambition of the unification of Germany and, as its precursor, the infamous Schleswig/Holstein Question.

Nearly but not quite

I don’t understand that any more now than I did when reviewing the marvellous Danish TV series, 1864. Essentially, these were two provinces with mixed Danish/German populations, ruled by Denmark, whose transfer into the German Confederation was the initial step in Bismarck’s grand scheme.
Fraser introduces the Duchy of Strakenz, a tiny province to the east of Schleswig, ruled by the Duchess Irma, and in the same boat. The Duchess is to marry in a month’s time, to Prince Carl Gustaf, a minor member of the Danish Royal Family. Contrary to expectation, it serves Bismarck’s plans for the marriage to go ahead, but there is a problem. Carl Gustaf cannot go through with the marriage on the scheduled date, because Carl Gustaf has a dose of the clap.
Very unRuritanian, but entirely Flashman. Because of Flashy’s resemblance to Carl Gustaf, he is to take the Prince’s place and be married, and play the role until the real Prince will no longer pollute the body of his virgin bride (this being Flashman, we already know that she won’t be anything like a virgin when Carl Gustaf gets his turn with her).
So Flashy spends a month in intense training at being Carl Gustaf, becoming in the process as close to another man as it is humanly possible. Of course, since the Prince is clean-shaven, even to the skull, it means the sacrifice of Flashy’s bonny black curls and whiskers. On a more serious, and coldly callous level, it means having two sabre duel cuts inflicted on his head, to mimic those borne by the Prince.
Being Harry Flashman, our hero is full of panic at every turn at how this cannot work, but Otto von Bismarck is equally insistent that it will. His organisation is perfect, the knowledge he has collected in unbelievably detailed and under his control, it cannot fail. None of which reassures the true-born coward.
But in the face of all Flashy’s fears, it does work, completely. Even down to the initially cold, teenage virgin Duchess reckoning that this sex thing is not half bad after a couple of goes with her ‘husband’.
Nevertheless, this being a Flashman memoir, there are a couple of flies in the ointment. The first is when Carl Gustaf’s childhood friend, Erik Hansen, turns up unexpectedly at the wedding and Flashy’s impersonation is tested to the very limit. The second and larger fly is that, ultimately, Bismarck’s plan does not rest on Flashy’s imposture going undiscovered, but rather that it be exposed – in the form of Harry Flashman’s dead body.
Fortunately, the true coward only ever sleeps lightly, no matter how cushy his situation, and when the moment comes, Flashy dodges the bullet in the back. Coward he may be, but Flashman is not unhandy as a scrapper if there really is no alternative, and once he’s got his would-be assailant down, he takes pleasure in torturing the truth out of him. Flashman was always going to be exposed as an unscrupulous plotter, to incite the German population of Strakenz into appealing to Prussia for protection. Only now he’s gone and spoilt the plot.
Needless to say, Flashy decides to run. Playing clever, he runs in the direction he would be least expected to head, planning to get into and across Germany. It has the merit of intelligent planning – but for the fact that he runs headlong into the Sons of the Volsung, Danish patriots in Strakenz, and friends and loyal supporters of the real Carl Gustaf.
With the imposter in their hands, the Volsungs are divided about what to do with him. One faction wants to top him now, for the sheer horrendous crime of having to pretend to be Carl Gustaf, no matter what was done to induce such a scheme (Flashy ladles on the soup for all he’s worth). The other faction wants to use him to rescue the imprisoned Prince, in the hope that he’ll sacrifice himself nobly in the process (don’t know the man, do they?)
Despite all his fears, Flashman does prevail. He even manages to beat off his personal Rupert of Hentzau, the buoyant Rudi von Starnberg. he even survives a heart-stopping headlong fall down an oubliette into ice cold water and comes back in typical timely fashion, but at the end of the day he leaves with his hackles raised, bidden to head for the border and never darken Strakenz’s doors again, and all without a word of thanks for having saved Carl Gustaf’s life.
So he returns via Strakenz city and robs the Duchy treasury of all its gold and jewels.
That’s not all though. Whilst Flashman has been cloistered in Strakenz, revolution has been sweeping across Europe. Kings and Chancellors have been toppling left, right and centre, and the Chartist Petition is being presented in Britain. And Flashy arrives in Munich just as Lola Montez is being forced to flee the city. His problem however is that he is carrying a valise with hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of jewellery etc., but doesn’t have a pfennig-piece in his pocket. Why not presume on Lola for a lift?
Though Lola is, understandably, not in the best frame of mind, given long enough the inevitable happens: the pair get drunk and have one last romping night. After which Flashy awakes, hungover, to find himself alone: Lola Montez had gone, her carriage and attendants have gone and Flashy’s valise of loot has also gone. At least she’s left him enough money to get himself home to London and Elspeth – whose main concern is whether he’s brought her anything back from Germany!
Whilst I have my reservations about the awkwardness of the split periods, and the premise of re-writing The Prisoner of Zenda is definitely not the strongest, Royal Flash is nevertheless a far better and far more mature book than its predecessor.
Fraser had sold the film rights to his first book for enough money to immediately retire from journalism, and take his family off to the Isle of Man for tax purposes, and the confidence and security he had so quickly establishes shows in the confidence and brio with which he approaches the second book.
Where Flashman spent much of its time being concerned with the history and the recreation of the time period the book occupied, it nevertheless didn’t show too much of Flashy’s personality as a memoirist. Royal Flash has this is spades. Every sentence is full of Flashy’s personality the unrepentant rogue and roué no longer caring for his image. Flashy’s thoughts and reactions, his splendid self-commentary, is active. He can’t recount a single incident without passing comment upon it, either directly through the opinions of his younger self, or as his older, considerably wiser but unchanged septuagenarian.
And that makes the book continually funny. Flashman, after a false start, has uplifted himself into a raconteur. He might be telling the story to a small circle of confidants and hangers-on, addressing them directly over the heads of the people his younger self is dealing with. This Flashy is both broader and considerably more multi-dimensioned.
Fraser sold the film rights to this book as well, and in 1975 it was actually made, with a screenplay from the author. Malcolm McDowell starred as Flashman, Oliver Reed as Bismarck, Britt Ekland as Duchess Irma and Alan Bates as Rudi von Starnberg. With Fraser as the writer, the film stayed pretty consistent to the book, but was not a success: McDowell, in particular, can’t attain the larger-than-life dimensions of Flashy and in general, despite the quality and aptness of the casting, no-one really convinces in their part.
No further books in the series have been filmed but, as we’ll see, not many of them are actually conducive to the dramatic unity, nor the condensation of film. Perhaps, if someone ever has the guts to present Flashman as Fraser writes him, a television series might work, but it all depends on finding an actor who can stand up to be history’s most heroic coward.

History and Memories
This little section will follow each blog. It will focus on those moments in each book where Flashman’s reminiscences touch upon periods of his career not directly related in The Flashman Papers, and those moments when Flashman’s memory lets him down and contradicts his ‘official’ record.
P9. In discussing the difference an individual can make to the course of history, with reference to his to-be-related tale of how his rudeness to a minor statesman changed the face of history, Flashman mentions that his failure as a ‘hero’ and as a half-decent soldier costs General Lee at Gettysburg and prevents him from capturing Washington, with drastic consequences for the American Civil War. Though many of his fans desperately wanted a Civil War adventure, this story went untold due to sheer lack of interest in the subject from Fraser. There are many references to this period in the Papers.
P12. Flashman reflects on the many places he’s gambled: playing nap with gold dust in the Australian diggings, held a blackjack bank on a South Sea trader, played poker in a Dodge City livery stable with pistols on the blanket, and found less cheating in all of these than in one evening at a London club. The Australian Gold Rushes mainly took place between 1851 and 1855, much of which period goes uncovered, and it’s reasonable to suggest the South Sea trader incident may have taken place to or from Australia, whilst Flashman’s time in Dodge also goes unrecorded, though we will hear that our hero served as Deputy Marshall to ‘Wild Bill’ Hickock. Of course.
P42. On 7 February 1882, Flashman witnesses John L Sullivan win the first World Heavyweight Boxing Championship against Paddy Rye and wins $10 betting on the outcome with Oscar Wilde. Five months later, we will learn from a later book, Flashman will be with the British Army in Egypt!
P55. Flashman mentions seeing the Duke of Wellington present at Lola Montez’s humiliation, with his Duchess. Fraser admits a slip (in Flashman’s memories!), the Duchess having died some years previously.
P59 & 60. All we learn of Flashman’s escapades in 1847 are that he has been on military service during Royal Flash’s four year lacuna, episodes that will be detailed in Packets 6 and 9 of the Papers, but that leaves a gap of some eighteen months ending with his return to London, with dishonestly earned cash in his pocket and hoping for a few months rest after having had a pistol ball dug out of the small of his back (a later reference establishes that the original shot took him in his side), but how, when, where and from who remains a mystery. There being no significant military action in the gap, we can only assume a private – and disreputable – affair.
P64. Among the more astonishing letters Flashman has received in his life are the letter of thanks had from Confederate President Jefferson Davies (details of which will be expanded upon in later books) and his letter of reprieve in Mexico, during the Maximillian affair, which also goes unrecorded.
P159. Flashman expands on his experiences of imprisonment, identifying Libby Prison (the Confederate Prison in the Civil War) and Botany Bay. Again, presumably that relates to Flashman’s involvement in the Gold Rush.
P162. Flashman refers to having an affair with the famous Lily Langtry before hers with the Prince Regent. Unless Flashman is referencing an encounter with a young Lily on Jersey, prior to her marriage, there would appear to be only a very narrow window of opportunity for that, in 1874/5, as Flashman spent much of that period in America, as we shall see.
P179. Flashman and Rudi von Starnberg debate the fashion clash between Checked and Striped trousers . Flashman is decidedly in favour of Checks. As this was an 1847 fad, either he was in London for longer than he admits before shooting off to Germany, or he has been in the city earlier in the year before getting shot.


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