With Flashman’s Lady, the Sixth Packet of The Flashman Papers, George MacDonald Fraser sprung a couple of changes on the series. The first, and more important of these was to break the strict chronological sequence of the Packets to date, by going back to fill in part of one of those two substantial gaps left in Harry Flashman’s career to date, and the second, via the mediation of the Packet’s first editor, Elspeth Flashman’s sister Grizel de Rothschild, to introduce a running commentary in the form of excerpts from Lady Flashman’s own diaries.
The first of these changes overlaps with the first part of Royal Flash but goes on to extend Flashman’s career as far as 1845 (up until the beginning of his service in the First Sikh War) by taking him far away from England, Elspeth at his side (at least metaphorically) all the way.
Once again, Fraser (or Flashman) is presenting two ‘heroic’ adventures into one story which, together with the long and gently enjoyable introduction to Flashy’s unexpected sporting career, breaks the story down into three phases and environments.
The first of these leads us into the long-gone world of early-Victorian cricket, in which Flashman briefly but brightly shines. We’re back in 1842, with the ‘Ero of Jooloolabad enjoying life on Morrison’s money, or such of it as can be distributed via Elspeth. This leads one day to a chance encounter with a tall, well-set-up brown-haired stranger who recognises Flashy even as our favourite cad has no idea who he is.
Appropriately, given the end of the previous adventure, this strapping young man is none other than Tom Brown, full of Christian admiration and forgiveness towards Flashy the hero, and complete with invitation to play for a Rugby Old Boys against Kent. Flashman’s about to turn it down with disdain until he learns the match is to be played at Lords’.
On the great day, Flashy finds himself frozen out (after all, he did tell Brown he was going to do his training down the Haymarket, among the hem-hem ladies) but the crowd recognises the great hero and after some uncricket-like chanting, Flashy’s given an over.
This is not cricket as we know it now. Overs consist of four balls, and round-arm bowling has not long since come in. Flashy bowls fast, seriously fast, seemingly unscientifically. But in amongst his abiding cynicism towards the world, Flashy genuinely loves the game, and off the second ball of his second over, putting his heart and mind into it, he bowls Felix, one of the legendary batsmen of the era.
Felix was skill but, the very next ball, luck enables Flashy to dismiss Fuller Pilch, another giant of a batsman, caught and bowled. Which leads Flashy facing Alfie Mynn, a third legend. And Flashy duly completes the first recorded instance of a hat trick (and it’s both a hat and a trick) by appealing for LBW against a ball going well-wide, whilst leaping across the Umpire’s view!
Nevertheless, it does gain Flashy invitations to play the following summer, and he does secure two very respectable sets of figures against two highly respectable teams.
That’s where Flashman’s problems start. The lovely Elspeth has accompanied him but when Flashy wants to share his triumph with her, she’s nowhere to be found. Eventually, he locates her in the archery alleys, being shown how to draw a bow by a rather dark-skinned gentleman who has his arms round her. All very innocently of course.
The newcomer is Don Solomon Haslam, a very wealthy merchant from out East, who is also a cricket fan and devastated to have missed Flashy’s feat. On the other hand, he’s more than somewhat infatuated with the golden-haired Elspeth.
Haslam’s about all winter, hosting with generosity, always in with the news, enough so to impress old Morrison. The Flashman’s become especial favourites of his, though Harry’s got a very keen eye open for reasons why.
Things come to a head in the early summer of 1843. Having offended both Lola Montez and Otto Bismarck, as we already know, Flashy’s happy to be out of London at a Cricket week, by Alfie Mynn’s invitation. He and Elspeth are guests of Haslam. Meanwhile, Uncle Bindley (who has definitely travelled to the Paget side of the family) is arranging a substantial and prestigious position at Horse Guards. All is sunny.
Of course, there’s the minor matter of the London bookie whose money Flashy has very unwisely taken, and Mrs Leo Lade, mistress to some elderly Duke who Haslam catches Flashy shagging in the dressing room. And Haslam’s got to go back east to check his estate and he’s got this brilliant idea about taking Elspeth with him (with Morrison as chaperone) for a jolly sunny cruise.
Elspeth’s ecstatic, if her brave Hector approves, which he very firmly doesn’t. So Haslam inveigles Flashy into a game of single wicket, with £2,000 if Flashy wins, and Elspeth in her sunbathing corsets if he loses or ties.
It ought to be a doddle. Except that The bookie, Tighe, wants Flashy to throw the match, seeing as how he’s red-hot favourite and all the betting’s going that way. It’s a tremendous pickle, with social devastation and Tighe’s bully-boys on one hand and his wife disappearing for a year or so with some damned n****r (Flashman-speak), and with some vigorous cheating on both sides, given the number of stools, it’s no wonder Flashman falls between all of them. There’s only one solution: Harry’s going East as well.
Neither Flashman nor Frasier do travelling, which is just as well, so several months elapse whilst the happy couple, and her miserable (in both senses) Scots father sail east under Haslam’s command, and a deuced dodgy-looking lot they are, with never an English voice nor a white face amongst them. And Haslam’s growing more native by the nautical mile.
Still, there is nothing but the coward’s paranoia to concern our boy Harry, until the party reaches Hong Kong, and there finally exists an opportunity for vicious living. It’s not to be found amongst the merchant class which, despite sporting eccentrics such as the sherry-sipping Chinese, Whampoa, and the excitable Jew, Catchick Moses, considers cards after seven to be dangerously racy. Indeed, Flashy needs Haslam himself to point him across the tracks, into the Chinese section, where ladies in tight dresses that can nevertheless be removed by an expert may be found.
As can ninjas.
Fraser doesn’t name them as such, though by this time Bruce Lee films had been all the rage for a few years, but it’s pretty damned obvious who the assassins Flashman is desperately fleeing from are meant to be. And as usual, it would be all up with Flashy if not for that significant moment of luck that comes to his rescue at such times.
For a group of Englishmen, some naval, some civilians, some native bearers, but all very handy, happen up the scene, and pull Flashy’s chestnuts out of the fire. He hears names that mean nothing to him, that mean nothing to readers that are not students of British Nineteenth Century history to the degree of George MacDonald Fraser even before he began these books. Because the leader is one James Brooke, or J.B. And he is one of the strangest and most unbelievable real-life characters Flashman has ever or will ever meet.
Do you know the name? I didn’t. Even now, almost forty years later, I cannot recall ever hearing of Brooke outside the pages of this novel, unless I have deliberately searched for his name and his history. Who is he? Wait a moment longer, because this is where the roof falls in on Harry Flashman. Don Solomon Haslam’s boat has sailed. It has Elspeth aboard but not John Morrison. Haslam has, during the past week, very quietly sold up all his holdings. His departure, and his taking of Elspeth Flashman, is deliberate. It is worked out that his true name is Sulemain Usman, and that he is a notorious Borneo Pirate. And he has kidnapped Flashman’s wife.
At that point, J.B. takes over the operation to rescue Mrs Flashman, with his men about him and, given Flashman’s reputation, assuming his enthusiastic participation. It is a romantic task, made the more pointed by Brooke’s excited, often florid and in Flashy’s eyes, decidedly schoolboyish responses, and it’s not until he queries why J.B. is getting himself so worked up that the others’ incredulity at his ignorance leads to his being told that James Brooke is who he is because he is the White Rajah of Sarawak, one of the two principal states of Borneo. He governs as absolute ruler.
Brooke has to be read to be believed. Flashman finds it difficult to credit that Brooke and his rule, colonial and paternal to a fault, really exists, and despite our respect for Fraser and his meticulous accuracy that has carried us through five and a half books thus far, I cannot be alone in finding Brooke to be so difficult to accept. He is so much the archetype of the least-convincing and most swash-buckling of Victorian schoolboy Empire fiction that the very idea that there could be a real avatar is so hard to swallow.
Part of it is a generational thing. Fraser was thirty years older than me, born and brought up under an Empire upon which the sun never set, and taught to believe in this as a good thing. I am a child of the mid-Fifties, when the Empire had already gone a long way towards extinction, in fact if not mind, and my education, my upbringing, all the liberal instincts by which I live lead me to an automatic rejection of the notion of Empire.
Both of us are too intelligent to believe that either extreme is the sole truth, even though I am far less well read than the late author. For Fraser, the chance to introduce Brooke, to illuminate his story in a manner that acknowledges the implausibility of it yet reflects its actuality, is probably the major reason for this book, and the middle section, in which Flashy joins Brooke’s actual expedition against the river pirates, is the longest part of the story of three tales.
Fraser instinctively applauds – as does Sarawak history and the country’s memories, for Brooke began a dynasty that ruled until 1946 and which Sarawak looks back on his favour – and I instinctively shudder with embarrassment at the cultural imperialism. That was directed at eradicating brutality, exploitation, murder and torture. There are no easy answers.
Ultimately, the river expedition achieves partial success. The pirates are beaten but not broken, and Harry is reunited with Elspeth. Unfortunately, this happens to be on Usman’s ship, steaming away from Borneo at a rate of knots, with Flashy recovering from a gash in the ribs that Elspeth’s unfettered joy in being with her paladin again threatens to tear open once more.
Where do we go from here? Usman still loves and venerates Elspeth and loathes Harry as an unclean beast, unfit to worship his golden vision, let alone roger her senseless, but once he has allowed Elspeth to know her beloved is alive and there, he has removed his own power to kill Flashy. Nevertheless, they are still his prisoners, with no sign of release unless Harry does something about it.
Which, when the ship strikes harbour, on an island of black subjects, he does, breaking free, swimming ashore and demanding to be taken to the British Consul. Usman is panicked off his head at this development, but not for the reasons you’d think. Despite Flashy’s assumptions, this is not the British possession, Mauritius, but the independent island Kingdom of Madagascar.
Where Britains – where whites – have no status, no authority, no rights. They are slaves. They are Lost.
Madagascar is ruled by the mad Queen Ranavalona, who Fraser portrays in accordance with contemporary opinion and historical conclusion that was only just beginning to be reinterpreted, as a literal madwoman, and a homicidal maniac whose only apparent interest in her rule is the opportunity presented to her for an ongoing wave of mass murder in brutal terms. Flashy becomes her salve, a indeed are all the very few Europeans in the country which, in his case, means becoming Sergeant-General of her Army (a gloriously over-promoted Drill Instructor) and her lover.
Though this latter really is a case of the biter bit since Ranavalona’s regard for Flashy’s, er, staff is no more profound or personal than his for a prime pair of bumpers, heh?
If you are a trifle uncomfortable about this same story containing both Brooke and Ranavalona, with no other connection between them than that Harry Flashman serves under both in a most contrived manner of succession, then you may care to reflect that this strange pair of historical mysteries are ironic shadows of one another in the contrast between how they treat their respective subjects.
Or you may as well accept that one of the names of the game that Fraser plays over this sequence of novels is that Harry Flashman’s long career involves him getting involved in most, if not all, of the significant trouble-spots of the middle-to-late Nineteenth Century, no matter how remote one is from another and especially how utterly unbelievable it is that any one man should have even a tenth of them in common.
It is a mark of Fraser’s skill that he is able to make so many of such transitions not just believable but plausible. Sometimes, however, the contrivance has to become a little bit too obvious for the good of the story. There is no true way to place the White Rajah and the Mad Queen side by side. This is just something that we shall have to grin and bear. After all, Flashman at the Charge did something similar, if a lot less hard to swallow, in its cramming together of the Crimea and Russia’s forgotten expansionist wars in Central Asia.
So far as Madagascar is concerned, the Queen’s rule is not welcomed by all. Both Britain and, especially, France had Empirical designs upon the island and its resources, and they had designs towards putting Ranavalona’s much nicer, and considerably more pliable son, Rakota, on the throne in her place. Rakota, incidentally, is keeping Elspeth safe from his mother’s knowledge, and Elspeth is, of course, completely oblivious to any of the Madagascar her petrified husband is facing.
Needless to say, the terrified Flashy is going to be a key component of the plot to get Ranavalona’s army away from her whilst she is deposed. And almost equally needless to say, the plot fails and, in order to ‘prove’ his innocence, our hero has to undergo the infamous, and weirdly creepy tanguin test, involving poison, throwing up and chicken skin.
Flashy survives, but it’s now on the knife edge, and, knowing an English ship to be out there, off the coast, he grabs Elspeth and runs. And this is, to me, quite the finest part of the whole novel. It’s called Flashman’s Lady because she is the springboard for everything that happens, and her naïve observations decorate the story.
But this is Elspeth as wife to, and companion to, a soldier. Not a very good soldier, not in the least. But he is her soldier and whilst her eyes are tinted even more rosy than her absurd ‘diary’, Harry does what any good soldier, any good husband does: he protects her, he rescues her. He is worthy of her, and what makes this last section quietly brilliant is that, in the face of everything we have heard Flashman say about Elspeth, she is worthy of him. When it matters, when it becomes serious, Elspeth proves her fitness, and even the cynical Harry sees that, and values that, and comes closer than ever before, or ever since, to shame in the face of it.
That’s what makes this book into Flashman’s Lady: Elspeth’s courage, her calmness, her grace that shows her as much more than a Glasgow grocer’s daughter, her determination not to let down her true knight, touches the ending of this rather clunky and awkward story with a peculiarly private glory.
Of course it can’t end like that. It’s barely 1845, and Elspeth’s final extract shows a most unwilling Harry being hauled off to the First Sikh War, where we already know he attains more military glory, though we will have to wait until the opening of the Ninth Packet before we can find out just how he does it this time…
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.
P23. Flashman compares his feelings for Elspeth to those for several of his (then-) future lovers. The list includes two women we have yet to meet. Takes-Away-Clouds-Woman will be explained in the next packet, but though Flashman will mention her name again in future, we regrettably never become acquainted with his liaison with the famous Lily Langtry.
P114. Flashman experiences a rare nightmare in Singapore on the eve of Elspeth’s kidnapping, leading him to reminisce about how his worst nightmares usually occur in prison. After referring to those from Fort Raim (Flashman at the Charge) and Gwalior (Flashman in the Great Game), he names the worst one as occurring in Mexico during ‘the Juarez business’. Flashman does have a prominent role in at least the latter stages of the French invasion of Mexico, which took place whilst the United States was distracted from the Monroe Doctrine by its Civil War. This adventure is also hinted at in later packets, but the closest we will come to it is the opening pages of the Twelfth and final Packet, as Flashman leaves the country, escorting the body of the deceased Emperor Maximilian
P161. James Brooke, planning the river expedition to recover Elspeth, reminds Flashman of other charismatic mad-men who could sweep a crowd along with them. We have seen Yakub Beg in action, and will see something but not the charisma of ‘Chinese Gordon’ in the Eighth Packet, but J.E.B. Stuart and George Custer belong to the American Civil War adventure that everyone but Fraser himself wanted to see.
P191. Flashman refers to passing through the river village of Patusan ‘a few years ago’. Flashman experts relate this to Flashman’s known presence in Pekin during the Boxer Rebellion (another unwritten adventure) as part of a deservedly leisurely – and peaceful – return voyage.
P265. Flashman compares Ranavalona’s improbable personal secretary, Mr Fankanonikaka, to other eccentrics he has met in his lifetime. The Oxford Don commanding a slave ship is John Charity Spring, but the Professor of Greek skinning mules on the Sacramento trail actually fails to appear in the Seventh Packet and the Welshman in a top hat leading a Zulu Impi does not come into the limited account of that War given in the papers comprising the Eleventh Packet.
P273. Flashman lists several unusual roles he has played in his lifetime., only one of which gives any difficulty in identifying, that of gambling-hell proprietor. There is a reference elsewhere to Flashy running a Gambling Establishment in the Philippines, another lacuna in the Chronology, but the first half of the Seventh Packet lays another claim to this recollection.