Flashman in the Great Game is taken from the Fifth Packet of the Flashman Papers and, as both the title, and its historical proximity to the previous volume would indicate, concerns Flashman’s involvement in the Indian Mutiny.
It’s the longest book to date in terms of its history, and in order to keep the book at a manageable length and still include all the various incidents that went to make up the history of the Mutiny, Fraser has to develop a piecemeal approach, with Flashman taken out of action for months at a time, in order to elide the times when there is nothing for him to get directly involved in.
Before dealing directly with the story, I’d like first to comment on the success of Fraser’s approach to these books, which is demonstrated beautifully in both this and the preceding chapter of the Papers. By this point, Fraser is in full flow: his research is comprehensive and convincing, and his eye for stringing incidents together without undue contrivance, to place one individual in all the significant places, is operating smoothly. Flashman in the Great Game covers more than two full years, yet reads as a continuous story, in the way that Flashman at the Charge (for all its merits) fails to do.
But then, the Indian Mutiny was an enormous thing, and an enormity, and Fraser, though Anglocentric by his nature, makes sure to let us see both sides of it.
What most distinguishes this book, and which will remain uninterrupted until the end of the series, is Fraser’s wholesale mastery of Flashman’s voice. We never forget that we are reading private, and honest memoirs, told in a conversational manner by a natural raconteur. Every phrase, every sentence, is characteristic of Harry Flashman, his upbringing, his times, his thoughts and his self-obsessions. There are no ordinary, simple, declarative sentences, confined purely to fact . Every word is written to be read aloud: Flashy may be recollecting from an immense distance in time, but his memories are clear, usually impeccable, and when he walks among them, he is there in his own past.
Older and wiser Flashman may be, but even in his dotage he remains what he has always been, a cad, a scoundrel, an out-and-out bounder, and unashamed. His spirit fills every word. I doubt that any of his imitators, post-Fraser, writing series featuring the historical adventures of other members of the Flashman family, can incarnate time, place or person remotely like Fraser.
Let us then look at what befalls Flashy, both upwards and downwards, in this latest packet.
It begins at Balmoral, where Flashman and Elspeth are welcome guests: Flashy’s golden- (and empty-) headed wife is a great favourite of Victoria, whilst the shooting-obsessed Albert seems to have completely forgotten that our hero was supposed to kept his young cousin, William, from getting his head blown off.
It’s all very comfortable but trust us, that isn’t going to last, and for once – he is almost indignant in his surprise at the turn of events – it’s not Flashy who brings things down about his ears but rather the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston. Old Pam is concerned about reports of cakes passing among Indian hands, chapattis, rather, whose appearance is linked historically to periods of unrest and a prophecy that the Raj will end on the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Plessey – the following year.
Flashman might have put paid (temporarily) to Russia’s military schemes through Central Asia, but his old pal Count Ignatieff is still active subversively. Flashman knows Ignatieff, and he knows India, and how to go underground, where Ignatieff is working. Who better a man to go to India, ferret out the conspiracy and put Ignatieff in his place, eh?
Practically anybody but the coward Flashman, really, but there’s no point in trying to even state that case. This is not the junior officer, full of funk, but a seasoned campaigner, who has been lionised in the public eye for fifteen years now (and who has gained certain things from the experience). Flashy’s name is cemented in place: not even he could convince anyone else that he was a coward.
So, India it is to be, most unwillingly but unresistingly. But not before the horrible shock of Ignatieff himself turning up at Balmoral the next day and, during a day’s shooting, trying to mistake Flashy for a stag. Oh yes, the Great Game is afoot.
As the chapattis have started passing in Jhansi, a province now under direct rule by the Raj after shunting aside the widow of the previous Maharajah (and his son who she has adopted), Palmerston directs Flashman to Jhansi. The Ranee, Lakshmibai, is old by Indian standards (conjuring up visions for Flashy of a wizened old woman) and she’ll no doubt be persuaded to moderate her demands for restitution in the face of such a manly hero as our Flash.
Flashy is not convinced, especially as the feather-brained Elspeth has already informed Ignatieff of his destination. India is India, familiar at once, though much changed since Flashman’s early heroics here (he has been back in one of those as-yet-unexplored gaps in his memoirs, but for the reader this is a first return to familiar ground and Fraser makes full use of the contrast between the bumptious nineteen year old tyro and the much more experienced thirty-four year old Colonel.
There are direct reminders of that early time, figures Flashman met fifteen years before, who are still in India and with whom he renews acquaintance, though not without his telling us of how they will not survive the coming conflict. One who does not have this sentence of death hanging over him is Ilderrim Khan, son of a long-deposed Afghani chieftain, blood brother to Flashman from ages gone. Ilderrim has a role to play in this new drama: Flashman does not tell us of his fate so soon…
Flashy’s plan is simple: get out to Jhansi as soon as he can, get himself introduced to the army and politicals on the ground, get in to see this ancient old bint and, at the first sign of trouble, disappear underground, using his ability to impersonate Pathans and Indians to survive. He quickly prepares the ground, lightly talking about going up against Ignatieff in secret, when all he plans to do is lay low and surface when it’s safe with some suitable story about getting so close but the luck running against him.
It’s a fine, Flashy plan, but it runs up against a massive hurdle early on, when our favourite rake actually meets Rani Lakshmibai.
For, whilst Lakshmi may be old by Indian standards, that only means that she’s a luscious, haughty and altogether alluring beauty aged twenty-nine, exactly the kind of woman to make Flashman’s whiskers stand on end and his mind start to run in old, familiar grooves.
Indeed, Lakshmibai is one of the few women of whom Flashman thinks with more than mere lust: even at the end of his life, writing these memoirs, he is still faintly misty at the thought of the Rani, and his adventures with her.
Of course he’s been sent here to seduce the Rani into compliance with the dictates of the Raj, but now Flashy’s out to seduce Lakshmibai in a much more earthy manner. And being Flashy, he gets his way after weeks of patient diplomacy in which Lakshmi reveals herself as every bit as expert as her pursuer.
This is where Flashman’s problems really start. Lakshmibai is passionate about her kingdom, her people, her wealth and India’s customs, whilst Flashy is passionate about her. Whether because she’s responding like any normal woman, or out of political calculation (or both). Lakshmi manipulates Flashman into a bit of snogging and grappling, and late at night summons him to a river pavilion in which the dirty is done in exhausting fashion. And hardly has the Rani slipped out than three Thuggee killers slip in, and it would have gone ill for our hero if his blood brother Ilderrim Khan hadn’t been suspicious and followed.
Now it’s time for Flashy to go underground, and he does so with a vengeance. With Ilderrim’s assistance, he transforms himself into Makarram Khan, a former India police officer but lately despatched by Ilderrim and, to occupy his time, he joins the British Army!
This shifts the scene to Meerut City, and places Flashy on the spot for the beginning of the Mutiny itself. There is still some time before this happens, time that Flashy occupies in his regiment along with his fellow sepoys, listening and learning their concerns and the ever-advancing rumours of things being done that will ultimate lead to the uprising, things that he (privately) dismisses.
It’s a fantastic deception, but Flashman is aided by it being immediately obvious that Makarram Khan is no new recruit, and has considerable army experience. Having caught Flashman out in a small deception – which the army doesn’t care about – they are far less concerned in exposing the bigger deception.
Indeed, one of Flashy’s slips leads to his being taken up by Colonel Duff Mason and made major domo (effectively, head butler) of his home, a position that, involving kicking backsides and sleeping with the prettiest chambermaids, is up Flashy’s street. He even attracts the attention of Mason’s widowed sister, Mrs Leslie who, once assured that Makarram Khan is practically Jewish, shows an inordinate interest in the ruined temple with the erotic friezes and an enviable appetite for emulating them, one-by-one.
It all makes for a long, slow, confident build-up to the meat of the story which, when it happens, comes overnight and is horrendous on and on until the end of the story.
What it boils down to is a lack of confidence between the men and the officers. The proximate cause is a new issue of ammunition, a paper cartridge issued to the troops, which is to be ripped open and poured into their rifles. The cartridge is waxed, but the men have come to believe, immovably, that it is greased, and greased with animal fats and bones that will break their castes. Added to this a pig-headed insistence on trying to convert the men from Hinduism to Christianity, and India is ripe for a rising against their British masters.
The cartridge in the flashpoint. The doctrinaire Colonel Carmichael-Smith insists on issuing them. Ninety-five percent of his men refuse it and are court-martialled and broken. The Mutiny begins as an uprising to free the prisoners: it rapidly becomes a shocking atrocity. All the Britons – including wives and very young children – are slaughtered with terrible viciousness. Flashman, forgetting he is in native garb, attempts to assist his kind but is mistaken for a rebel, and receives a head wound that incapacitates him.
This is the first of a number of hiatuses. The injury addles Flashman’s wits for long enough to get him away from doomed Meerut and, slowly, back to Jhansi and Ilderrim’s protection, and the delay is long enough to cover the dramatically uninteresting developments of the Mutiny, until its next flashpoint, in Jhansi.
By the time Flashman reaches Jhansi, its terror has already taken place, and Lakshmi has placed herself, with finality, among the rebel leaders. Flashman refuses to believe her part in the Massacre, which equals that already experienced at Meerut, but there is nothing for him here. he and Ilderrim set off with a small band to contact the Army (though Ilderrim’s men quickly slip off to enjoy the chance to play bandit in this now lawless country).
This leads to an amusing, but at the same time extremely telling interlude when Flashman and his companion fall in with Rowbotham’s Mosstroopers. These latter are a band of civilian horsemen, under the command of the eponymous Rowbotham, touring the country and killing mutineers. They are ordinary men, with no military background, and no real discipline: just ordinary men who have seen horrors no-one should experience, and who have reacted with their own horrors.
The Mosstroopers are based off Cawnpore, which they regard as a safe stronghold, but this is a colossal delusion: their approach coincides with a night raid by the sepoys, the Mosstroopers are slaughtered, and Flashy gets behind the lines with a severely sprained ankle that would normally mean days of immobility but which here gets him fifteen seconds grace before he’s firing back. Cawnpore is under siege, and its defenders are dying by inches.
There is an immediate shock for Flashman when he recognises one of the other trapped defenders: it is ‘Scud’ East again, part of the reinforcements transferred from the Crimean area once the Mutiny began. And it is a very penitent East, seeking absolution from Flashman for abandoning him in the previous book, and confessing that, yes, indeed, he would not have cut out on Flash without the spur of hatred of the latter’s treatment of blonde and naked Valla.
This flabbergasts Flashman, and he is cold and cutting with East, despite the probability that both will soon be dead. East wants to be forgiven for something Flashman has no reason, nor intention, of forgiving him. Indeed, in his usual manner, Flashy quickly lets the encampment know that he was abandoned, left to the Russians.
Death is inevitable but, mysteriously, the Mutineer’s leader, Nanna Sahib, offers a truce, a chance for the British to leave, unharmed, their wives and children untouched. It is a suspicious offer, but Flashy strains every sinew to have the offer accepted: trusting the Mutineers is extremely doubtful, but refusal is certain death.
And the truce is a trap, a deceitful, horrific trap. Ilderrim Khan, insisting on wearing his uniform, is slaughtered before ever getting near the boats, one of many picked off by unanswerable treachery. And then, with everyone of the banks of the Ganges, the Mutineers open fire.
One of the four boats gets away, only one. Flashman is aboard, still in native dress. So too is East, but East has been bayoneted in the back, and is dying. His end is the same that Thomas Hughes wrote for him. His final words are delivered to Flashman, and they are ‘Tell the Doctor…’, but it is a doctor a long way away and no longer of this life, and whilst Flashman has no time for East or his kind, he too feels the loss of someone he knew as a weakling schoolboy, forever trailing gamely behind…
The treachery of Cawnpore, and the news of the utter massacre that followed, is another flashpoint in the story. Flashman’s escape accords with the actual events that that boatload experienced, but his reward is to spend several months recuperating in the house of a loyal Prince: recuperating mentally as well as physically, as the daily events of the Mutiny move forward, and the Army begins the long process of rolling back the rebels and restoring the control of the Raj (though this time it is of the British Government, not the East India Company, a point that Flashman (understandably) and Fraser (surprisingly) more or less omits.
He returns to the fray at Cawnpore again, after it has been recaptured by General Havelock (whom Flashy has nicknamed the First Gravedigger). It’s a time of general security for him, busying himself with intelligence and avoiding the fighting, which has now begun to swing decisively in the British favour. The hiatus is furthered extended after the Army moves on to retake Lucknow, where Flashy is laid up for months with cholera, and for once genuinely too ill to participate, or even take in what’s going on around him.
By the time he’s up and about again, typically slowly, Lucknow is under siege but, unlike at Cawnpore, awaiting relief from the main forces led by Colin Campbell, the commander-in-chief. Flashman finds himself conscripted to take part in a wholly unbelievable, but completely accurate incident where Irish Civilian T. Henry Kavanaugh, a supposed expert on Lucknow street geography, blacks up (literally) and passes through the crowds to guide Campbell’s men in by the best route.
It’s a comic interlude of jaw-dropping fatheadedness, and all of it true, except perhaps for Flashman getting a quick screw out of it from a compliant young lady, for five rupees (provided by Kavanaugh).
But the tide has now turned with a vengeance. The Mutiny is being swept backwards: it is only a matter of time, and Flashman will be allowed to go home. But the story isn’t complete. Flashy was sent to India to deal with Lakshmibai, and at the last he still has to face that task. Leaders like Tantia Tope and Nanna Sahib can, and will, be killed or executed, but Britain wants the Rani alive. She’s young, she’s famous, and despite the intensity with which she has fought the British, there is a British squeamishness about making war on women.
So Flashman must go underground in Jhansi, and contact Lakshmi, to offer a chance to live with honour. An attack can be made, but it can be undermanned by a specific exit, out of which the Rani can escape into protective custody.
Flashy’s perfectly willing to renew acquaintance with the lovely Lady, though not under these specific circumstances, thank you very much. Nevertheless, his reputation depends on tackling the commission, and he gets in easily enough and gets a suitably cryptic message taken to the Rani. Or so he thinks, until the message is interrupted. By Count Nicholas Ignatieff.
Within moments, Flashman is being stretched on the rack, but his torment is only momentary: he has not even had chance to blurt everything out when Lakshmi herself intervenes, ordering his release, castigating Ignatieff and dismissing him, never to cross Flashman’s path seriously again. As soon as they’re alone, she’s all over our hero, kissing him, weeping on his limbs, the full works, but as soon as he’s stumbled out his message, he’s imprisoned, and held again for several weeks, wondering what the hell is going on.
Ultimately, he’s released, but he remains a prisoner, part of the Rani’s party as they use the escape loophole provided by Flashman’s plan. But there is no rendezvous with British pickets: Lakshmibai has used the pot to her own ends, going on the run with Flashman still her captive.
Not for long though. There is little room for manoeuvre: Lakshmibai releases her English captive, her may-have-been lover, freeing him to go back to the Army. Half in love with her, Flashman pleads with her to come with him, to surrender and spare herself. But the Rani cannot and will not surrender, and Flashman does not leave: the camp is attacked by British cavalry, and Lakshmi is killed before his eyes. He is holding her body when he is knocked unconscious.
Flashman wakes to find himself in the single most perilous moment of his life. His arm is broken, and his scream of pain sees him brutally gagged, but that is far from the worst of it. In his native dress, he’s been mistaken for a rebel, and he is strapped to the mouth of a cannon at Gwalior. When it is fired, the ball will smash him to pieces.
It’s the most desperate moment of his life, but this is no longer the panicky tyro. A memory of Rudi von Starnberg helps settle Flashman’s mind into a cold calmness, and he is able to attract the attention of an officer, who halts the firing, removes the gag, and goggles at what Flashy tells him. Yet Fraser is able to end this mercifully short sequence with one of his most uproarious jokes: as soon as he is free, Flashman – who outranks everyone as Colonel – orders the other rebels strapped to cannons to be freed. This provokes a manly tear from those around, at the Colonel’s compassion: not a bit if it, Flashy says, the way things are being run around here, one of them’s bound to be Lord Canning.
It’s all but over now. Flashman has once again survived. His service is over, he’s gathered enough loot to build himself a country house in Leicestershire, and had a gushing letter from Elspeth, though that’s clouded a little by her enclosing a book gifted by the odious Lord Cardigan. Apart from that, Flashman’s not got a lot out of his Indian adventure, not when you look at the honours being handed out to all and sundry.
But that’s before a presentation from Lord Canning, the Governor-General, of the Victoria Cross. On top of which, though it’s not official until he gets back to England and is properly invested, Victoria has been tasteless enough to knight him! Two in one go: Sir Harry and Lady Flashman, hey?
All in the garden is well, but Flashman adventures don’t end like that, do they? After all, there’s that book, very popular in London it is. Which book would that be, pray? Why, none other than Tom Brown’s Schooldays, by ‘an Old Boy’. Featuring, who’s that? Notorious school bully Harry Flashman?
With a shriek of outrage over this traducing of his reputation, the fifth Packet ends.
It’s a lovely, gorgeous book, steeped in the details of the infamous Mutiny and, within and even above the limitations of Flashman’s British viewpoint and obvious prejudices, is as fair as it can be to both sides. Flashman’s lack of any real concern about anything not directly affecting him underpins his often scrupulous honesty and accuracy, and whilst I can’t see the story finding favour with a sub-Continental audience, Flashman in the Great Game wears no open prejudices on its sleeve, and is careful to point out how and where British reactions to the Mutiny could have been far less restrained than, in fact, they were.
History and Memories
This little section follows each blog. It focuses 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.
P14. Flashman explains the lapse of time between the conclusion of his activities in Central Asia as being down to contracting cholera from the cooking of an Afghan lover, which put him on his back for several months, bringing us to summer 1856.
p57. Flashman refers to ‘tight corners’ in Afghanistan, Madagascar, Russia and St Louis. The Madagascar reference is yet to be explained.
P126. A list of impersonations Flashman has performed includes Danish Prince, Texas slave-dealer, Arab Sheikh, Cheyenne Dog Soldier and Yankee navy lieutenant. The first two of these have been featured in the Second and Third packets but none of the others will be explained. At no point does Flashman ever get near Arabia, although the Cheyenne reference may be accounted a slip in light of the Seventh Packet. Improbable as it may sound, Flashman’s term of navy duty may be yet another element of the great and much-regretted American Civil War adventure that Fraser had no interest in writing.
P258. ‘Hellish experiences’ – Flashman ranks the Siege of Cawnpore alongside Balaclava, Kabul, Greasy Grass and Isandlwhana. The first two we have seen, Greasy Grass will be recounted in the Seventh Packet but Isandlwhana belongs to the Zulu War, only a fragment of which (excluding that experience) was written, in the title story if the Eleventh Packet.
P261. ‘the slow boom-boom of drums’ in the forest night. Flashman recalls hearing it in Dahomey, South America and Borneo. The first of these refers to the Third Packet and the last will be disclosed in the Sixth but there are no references to assist us in determining where, when or why Flashman was in South America.