Like George MacDonald Fraser, I don’t have a favourite Flashman book, but if I were to apply the desert island test, this would be the volume I would take into solitary retirement. Flashman and the Redskins, the Seventh Packet, is the longest novel in the sequence, and it carries other distinctions that set it apart from those around it.
Again, Fraser chooses to disrupt the chronological flow, going back to a gap in Flashman’s history, this time in very vivid manner. But he also chooses to leap ahead in Flashy’s career, nearly twenty years beyond the end of the Indian Mutiny. For Flashman and the Redskins is not one novel but two, tied together in a single book, linked as much as Fraser makes them out to be. But he could have published ‘The Forty-Niner’ and ‘The Seventy-Sixer’ as separate books without a single Flashman fan turning a hair.
Let us see how the trick was done.
The first surprise about this Packet is that it overturns our reading of the earlier Third Packet, Flash for Freedom. That ends on a New Orleans street, with Flashy’s outrageous proposal to Captain John Charity Spring that the latter should carry him home to England. Everybody who read that assumed that a deal was struck, and Flashy’s return was secured. Now Fraser reveals that it wasn’t.
‘The Forty-Niner’ picks things up from that point, and affairs go rapidly wrong. Spring wants the papers off Flashy upfront, which has the effect of exposing our hero to discovery by the slaver, Peter Omohundro, who knows him as the slave-stealer, ‘Tom Arnold’. After having harped on about his honour, Spring is stupid enough to play Flashman false, which leads to a fight during which Spring runs Omohundro through. Nobody’s sailing out of New Orleans now.
But Flashman – or, rather, ‘Beauchamp Comber’ – has one friend left in New Orleans, in Susie Willinck, the bawdy-house madam who put him up (in both senses) before. And she’s glad to take him in again (stop it), even if it means accommodating Spring, who is hot on Flashy’s trail. There’s just one complication.
Actually, there’s more than one, but the first of these is that Susie’s shutting down. Gold has been discovered in California, and everybody is heading west. So’s Susie, intent on running the best-equipped and most sophisticated House in Sacramento. It’s a novel thought, but Flashman recognises it as a way out, heading in a direction no-one can foresee, and under some fairly blinding cover too. It’s just that Susie would like to be made an honest woman of, by her Naval Lieutenant.
For a moment, that looks to be a step too far for John Charity Spring’s sensibilities. Until Susie slips a very effective Mickey Finn into his blancmange, shortly followed by Spring landing beard first in his food, prior to being shipped off to Cape Town. It will be a long time before we see him again.
Thus begins the great journey westward, into an America of great emptiness, apart, that is, from Indians. In his buckskin shirt and fine whiskers, Flashman looks the part of a wagon-captain, although he’s sensible enough to know that a real good trail guide is needed, and his train has one in Richens ‘Uncle Dick’ Wootton – a name long forgotten but in the class of Kit Carson.
Wootton leads the train – which includes a band of young men looking for fame and fortune and a party of invalids going on a health tour of prairie air! – through the wilds, recognising and steering around parties of Indians, though he can’t avoid an encounter with one Spotted Tail, who will have much to do with the story later, as will Spotted Tail’s nephew, a six year old whom the world will come to know as Geronimo.
Though Fraser keeps the pot boiling with little incidents, including Flashy dipping his wick with a couple of the whores, one of which, Cleonie, becomes his regular lover, and one of his favourite ever woman, a large part of this section of the story is a travelogue. Neither Fraser nor Flashy usually do this sort of thing, but for once the traveling is part of the story, as opposed to an interlude between events.
Besides, one of Fraser’s great skills is his gift for evocation. There are passages in each book where Flashman effectively does no more than lie back and absorb a scene, a vast, often confusing scene, and brings it to life in an impressionistic whirl. Much of the story is, for once, given over to envisaging the West in the year of 1849: the times, the people, the talk, the places, the emptiness and the beauty we can no longer understand except in stories like this. That Fraser openly expressed a complete lack of interest in the American Civil War when he writes so well about America, and will indeed bend Flashy’s history to squeeze in one last American tale after this book, is a mystery.
The tone of the story changes when the train meets a party of Indians who are sick and seek help. The disease is cholera, and four of the wagon train are affected: one is Wootton. Flashman has to take command, and the situation worsens when there is a dispute over choice of trails. Harry adheres to Wootton’s advice to make for Bent’s Fort, but over half the train rebel and take the seemingly shorter route.
We later learn that they were more or less slaughtered, and that fate damned near overtakes Flashy’s train. They are chased, literally, into Bent’s Fort, an incongruously magnificent castle on the plain, a kind of trading post megastore, by Indians, and surrounded.
Unfortunately, they’ve come at a bad time, for literally days earlier, Bent had abandoned his Fort. What’s worse, he’d meant to blow it up with liberal amounts of gunpowder, but the fuse had failed. The gunpowder was still there, making the entire Fort into a powder keg. All it needed was one flaming arrow…
It’s a tight situation, and whilst this is still early in Flashy’s career, we’re over half a dozen books strong, and Fraser can’t have him running around in panic any more. Increasingly, our man is finding himself having to turn and fight, and reasonably competently too. It doesn’t stop him planning to give himself the best options, and of course, he winds up with the greatest danger and the unnecessary injuries as a troop of Mountain Men, trappers, hunters etc., arrive in timely fashion.
It’s an opportunity, well taken, for Fraser to demonstrate his facility with dialect, as the Mountain Men, with their odd, linguistically fascinating ‘plug-a-plew’ style reminisce about the Fort and the peculiarities of their lives in a manner that belies any suggestion that they are simpletons, ignorant rustics.
So the caravan gets through to Santa Fe, where the recovered Wootton is met and paid off, and the slightly sleazy, ex-Army, half Irish rider Captain Grattan Nugent-Hare absconds with a few thousand of Susie’s funds. And how does this come about? Because Susie has sniffed the wind, liked what she found and put a massive crimp in Flashman’s plans by deciding to set up here for a good long while, take the industry.
It’s here that Fraser has Flashman do the absolute most contemptible, damnable and plain evil action of his entire life, and it’s slipped by the reader in such a way as to barely bring it to anyone’s attention. Flashy plans to head westwards alone, but in order to finance his journey, he pretends to be taking the besotted Cleonie with him. Except that he has agreed for her to be sold to an Indian chief who wants her as his wife, for which he receives $2,000.00.
It’s a breath-takingly horrible move, yet Flashman treats it as just one of those things. It will, and does, come back to bite him, in the second part of the novel, and we’ll come back to that in its own time, but it has to be said that, excluding his purely temporary terror at the consequences, he pays no long-term penalty that anyone would recognise as retribution (but then, if Flashy were to get his just desserts, this would be an entirely different series of books).
This really is a difficult moment, one that it is impossible to justify as appropriate to broadly comic fiction, and I wouldn’t even think of offering the context of the era as any kind of excuse for it. It is one really shitty thing.
For the rest of ‘The Forty-Niner’, we have to forget this moment, for Flashy still has far to go in his American odyssey. Nor is the next hurdle long in coming: Flashy falls in with a travelling party of gentlemen headed by one John Gallantin, whose name he does not recognise, and including the aforementioned Grattan Nugent-Hare who, in due course, he ends up duelling and, fortunately, killing.
The problem is that Gallantin is a scalp-hunter, and his men are all scalp-hunters and there is no such thing as a polite withdrawal to pass by down the other side of the street. Which is manageable so far as massacring an Indian Village, capturing its squaws and planning to mass-rape them is concerned, but a man of Flashy’s tastes finds seduction – in private – to be far more entertaining, and by such refinement, he ends up a prisoner of the Apaches, instead of their horrifically slaughtered victim (one can’t feel too much sympathy for the fate of Gallantin’s men, not really).
The thing is, Flashy’s gentility has been practiced upon Takes-Away-Clouds Woman, the sixteen year old daughter of Mangas Colorado, the Apache chief, who has decided to marry Flashy (it’s his year after all, this is his third marriage of the past twelve months, counting Duchess Irma).
So Flashman becomes an Apache and winters with them, into 1850, and becomes best friends with the Grabber or, as the world would later know him, Geronimo.
The Apaches make the assumption that Flashman is settled with them. he’s happily making Takes-Away-Clouds Woman’s bells ring and who could imagine a lifestyle better than this. It takes until the following spring before the chance arises for Harry to make a break for it, seemingly unseen but, inevitable, not untrailed. For him there is the torturous journey along El Jornado del Morte – literally the Valley of Death – which he manages to survive. But at the last, he faces tomahawks from his pursuers until the intervention of the legendary scout, Kit Carson.
Carson is yet another of the utterly straight-shooters who nevertheless see through Flashy, yet he never denounces him man: after all, he got the wagon train through and that counts in Kit Carson’s world. And it’s enough for Carson to see Flashman safely west, and eventually to San Francisco and the chance of a boat home.
Thus ends ‘The Forty-Niner’.
A quick question, interrupting the narrative flow: does Flashman leave America this time? Once again, he implies it, and when he resumes the story, a page or two later in ‘The Seventy-Sixer’, at no point does he suggest that he spent any more time on the American continent in 1850, but here we are at the beginning of the greatest in-continuity gap in the Flashman Papers with only his offhand references to the Australian Gold Fields (their Goldrush coming in 1851) to point at until the start of Flashman at the Charge and his inexorable slide towards Balaclava.
So the scene is reset for the then furthest point of the Flashman career, 1875 – 76, with Flashy at his oldest to date, his early fifties, but still a fine figure of a fornicator.
We’ve had a reference to this period before, an offhand comment from Flashman about squiring a half-breed Hunkpa squaw to a society ball, but that reference obviously slips Fraser’s memory. What we have is a very carefully built-up scenario, beginning with not a single intimation of danger, and a considerable amount of high-class American society.
In her own fifties – and still a fine figure of a fornicator’s lust – Lady Flashman has developed a taste for travel, which is what brings the Flashmans to the East Coast of America. Flashy is enjoying himself mingling with old acquaintances from the Civil War, including President Ulysses S. Grant, and Elspeth is basking in his reflected glory. A good time is being had by all.
Of course, you know that Flashy’s career has too many skeletons rattling around in it for that to last any length of time, and two blows to Harry’s general peace and quiet fall almost simultaneously.
The first of these is an astonishing encounter with a tuxedoed Indian chief in a Washington Theatre Gents. This is none other than Spotted Tail, a leader of the Sioux Nation (and incidentally the godfather of Crazy Horse) with whom Flashy was acquainted in 1849. Spotted Tail is in Washington for negotiations over the Black Hills of Dakota, where gold has been discovered and treaties with Indians as to their sacred nature are about to be burned up.
Spotted Tail may be dressed to the nines, but the two braves and squaws with him, including one Frank Standing Bear, are in native costume, which attracts Elspeth. A small party is made up and Spotted Tail makes his interest in Elspeth quite clear!
The second blow is that Grant learns of Flashman’s prior relationship with Spotted Tail. There’s a big Indian Conference coming up, peace talks, and Grant talks Flashman into attending, despite his lack of any official standing. If nothing else, the fact he can speak Spotted Tail’s language means he can ensure the translation is accurate.
The conference is a failure, on many grounds, and Flashy’s considered opinion, which isn’t all that controversial, is that it was never meant to be successful, that it’s failure was required as a necessary step on the road to all-out War, which both sides wanted and expected.
That behind him, Flashy can concentrate upon a civilian life in which the need for a bit of vicious living is once again rising. Elspeth has got herself co-opted onto various social committees and is effectively out of the picture, leaving Harry with two people to be concerned.
The first, and most pleasurable of these, is Mrs Arthur B. Candy, a well set-up, indeed buxom woman in her forties, wearing very tight clothing and an eye-patch of a matching shade. Mrs Candy turns out to be a business woman, with a business proposition to present to our man. Her company is developing holdings in Bismarck, Dakota, and will pay Sir Harry good money for a letter of interest in any form from the great Otto, currently Chancellor of the newly-created Germany and, of course, an old acquaintance of Flashman.
You and I and Harry know that there isn’t a hope in hell of anything coming from an appeal to the Chancellor from Flashy’s direction, but it suits his own proposition to play along, since he’s after stripping Mrs Candy down and putting her through her paces and if he’s any judge of female character, the feeling’s mutual.
His pursuit is certainly more fun to him than the pursuit being made of him by George Armstrong Custer. Wars against the Sioux are coming, and the over-romantic, unstable, histrionic Custer is anxious to get his one and only chance at fighting, whilst his very volatility and instability presents a very strong argument for his being stripped of his command and prevented from getting anywhere near an Indian.
Flashy doesn’t care, it’s just fun to watch Custer squirm, but ironically it’s his air of detachment, his open lack of partisanship that speaks most with Grant and which may, after all, tip the balance and let Custer command the Seventh Cavalry.
Either way, Flashy’s going to be on the spot, on his field trip with Mrs Candy to inspect Bismarck, her plans and what lies underneath that tight dress and corsets. A splendid time is had by all, as Mrs Candy strips down very well (though she keeps the eyepatch on) and performs enthusiastically. Oddly, after it’s over and she’s returned to her cabin, Flashman believes he hears her crying, but that can’t be the case. Not after a dose of old Flashy, eh?
So Flashman ends up attending the Army meeting as General Terry, who is in overall command, tries to establish orders that will keep Custer under control whilst not impairing the vital ability to react to changing circumstances. By now, we have seen enough of Custer to know that no form of wording under the sun will keep him from doing whatever he decides to do. We not only know what disaster is coming, but can see for ourselves that it could never have been averted. Not with Custer involved.
Still, at least Harry won’t be directly involved. Until the chickens come home to roost. He hasn’t recognised her, not for a second, but Mrs Arthur B. Candy is Cleonie, the girl that, a quarter century before he sold to the Indians. Who loved him, deeply and truly, and who has hated him ever since.
How she’s come to know he was back in America is not immediately revealed, but know she does and the revenge she’s long planned is now to come to fruition: Flashy himself is kidnapped by the Indians and he will be taken to their village, to await the Grabber, who will torture Flashman as only an Indian can.
You might think that this fate is only to be deserved, for what Flashman did so long back, and the only thing lacking that it was not more proximate to the cause, but we know that revenge will not be visited in the manner that Cleonie intends, the only question being how Flashy will cheat fate. Especially as that Indian village is on the banks of the Little Bighorn River.
We’ve known all along that Flashman would find himself in the midst of that battle. Now we know how he gets there. But how will he escape? That I’ll leave for you to discover for yourselves, but I will mention this, as a token to the extent of Fraser’s research and historical fortuity. All the Indian accounts of the battle have been rigorously combed and the individual fates, and places of death of the whole Seventh Cavalry that galloped, after Custer, into that death trap, identified to a high degree of precision. Except for one man, on a horse, roaring around and trying to break free. The fit of history isn’t exact but it’s close enough for Fraser to insert our hero into the true picture.
How does he survive? With the aid of an Indian who, instead of killing him, partially scalps him, conceals him as a corpse and, after removing him from the battlefield, nurses him back to health. What Indian would do that, and why? Well, he’s actually the Grabber, and he’s Cleonie’s son.
It might well have been out of the frying pan, but Frank Standing Bear, alias the Indian Scout Frank Grouard (allegedly, Fraser plays fast and loose with Grouard’s actual, albeit mysterious history to fit in this parentage) isn’t just Cleonie’s son, but Harry Flashman’s.
Though Flashy has two official children in the Flashman Papers, one of whom a son who grows up to be, of all things, a Bishop (!), this is the only time we see our hero with an offspring, and a most unlikely, but still plausible one he is. Fraser concludes that Grouard is very much a Flashman, except for the little uncharacteristic matter of his being brave.
Incredibly, after Flashy parts from his splendid but, when you really start to think about it, incredibly inconvenient son, the time and the geography allow him to arrive in Deadwood for an overnight stay before catching the stagecoach back to civilisation. And who is there but one Marshall James Hickock, Wild Bill, to whom Flashman was Deputy Marshall in Abilene in an unrecorded episode. Flashman abandons his usual caution and tells Hickock the whole story, the unvarnished story, just as we’ve been reading for the past 420 pages.
And Fraser ends the story on the stage, the next morning, just as there’s a commotion in the saloon. Where Wild Bill Hickock has just been killed by a bullet to the back, though this information is only conveyed in Fraser’s footnote at the back of the book.
What to say? A splendid, sprawling epic, covering twenty-five years plus, a long dose of Americana that, in its affection for, and fascination with the West, the old West, not the Wild one of legend but its real-life forefather, its relaxed enjoyment of America, does make the Flashman fan wonder why Fraser was so dead set against writing the Civil War adventure. Yes, it’s been done to death, yes, it has no relevance to Flashman’s career, but wasn’t the point of Flashman’s career that the inveterate coward got dragged into everything physically possible? After all, we will see, in the Tenth Packet, just how far Fraser was willing to bend probability and believability to give Flashy another American adventure, not so far removed from the great absence.
I said above that Fraser could have published ‘The Forty-Niner’ and ‘The Seventy-Sixer’ as separate novels without any Flashman fan even thinking ‘foul’. After re-reading the whole book, is that reasonably feasible?
As to ‘The Forty-Niner’, undoubtedly so. That part of the book runs to 254 pages which, when supplemented by twenty pages of Fraser’s footnotes, gives us a substantial book in its own right. That leaves 185 pages for ‘The Seventy-Sixer’, including two Appendices relevant to that half of the story, and a further twelve pages of footnotes, taking us to just under 200, all told. A little slim, but nothing that couldn’t have been worked up.
I still think it would have worked, but then it wouldn’t have been so splendid a tale overall, and at least Fraser didn’t play the same trick on us twice, leaving us to believe a tale was done.
As for Flashman and The Redskins, though these days the selling of Cleonie is a great, wholly unjustifiable bar across the whole thing, it is what I would choose as my favourite Flashman, should anyone press the point upon me in a sufficiently vulgar manner. In many ways, it could be said to be the peak of the series, as I will endeavour to suggest in the remaining instalments of this series.
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.
P22. Flashman lists his various occupations in the West, each of which can be accounted for in this Packet, except for ‘reluctant deputy marshal to J.B. Hickock Esq.’ Hickock was Marshall of Hays in Kansas from 1869-70, and Abilene, Kansas in 1871. Elsewhere in his memoirs, Flashman refers to the gunman John Wesley Hardin, who went up against Hickock during this Marshalship. How and why Flashman turns up in Kansas after being besieged in Paris in 1870 is a complete mystery.
P75. Another reference to Dawns and Departures of a Soldier’s Life where the description of the journey across the Plains that Flashman omits from the Packet is to be found, though he recommends the third volume as containing all the scandal about Disraeli and Lady Cardigan.
P75. Flashman refers to a later, presumably pleasure trip to America, in 1908, travelling New York to San Francisco by train, crossing land that he crossed by wagon, and taking tea in Colorado, in a town built on the site of a burnt-out wagon and a scalped family.
P92. In comparing inconvenient places in which to have illicit sex, Flashman names several intriguing possibilities, but confesses defeat only once, in a lifeboat after a shipwreck. Where and when Flashman suffered this experience can only be guessed at.
P93. Flashman adds the name of Alice Keppel to those of his most memorable lovers. Mrs Keppel was a prominent Society hostess of the 1890s, and mistress to the future King Edward VII from 1898. Flashman was, by then, in his early Seventies.
P133. Flashman’s pleasure tour of America included the ruins of Bent’s Fort.
P186. And the aged, spent Geronimo.
P223. Flashman compares odd companies of irregular cavalry he’s ridden with, and makes a Civil War reference, to Custer and ‘that maniac J.E.B Stuart’, who fought for opposite sides.
P239. Flashman rides north with Kit Carson, ‘whereby (he comes safe) to England eventually’. Very few Flashman readers believe he got straight back from San Francisco.
P252. Another Civil War reference: Flashman’s testimonials include a pardon from Abraham Lincoln (presumably from all his offences as Beauchamp Comber). No mention is made of exactly when this pardon was issued but presumably, given Flashman’s earlier reference to Lincoln blackmailing him, this came between Appomattox Courthouse and Ford’s Theatre.
P257. Flashman refers to Tiger Jack Moran, who he encountered at Rorke’s Drift, and who came back to almost get him indicted for murder in his old age. Though this incident is formally published as part of the Eleventh Packet, it had appeared in 1972 as an exclusive short story from the Sunday Times. Nevertheless, this is the first canon reference.
P258. Flashman’s pleasure trips with Elspeth take in the Black Forest, the Pyrenees, the Italian Lakes, the Holy Land, the Pyramids and Greece. With the exception of Disraeli and the Suez Canal, of which Flashman has claimed knowledge, none of these sites, nor Flashman, imply any adventures. It is no more than guesswork to suggests that these take place at times between, say, 1871 – 1874, giving Flashman some easy times at least.
P260. Flashman makes extended, if cryptic reference to his Civil War service: being blackmailed by Lincoln, meeting General Phil Sheridan both in the Union Army and in the ‘recent’ Franco-Prussian War of 1870, serving both for and against the Union, Jeb Stuart, Libby Prison, Annette Mandeville and winning the US Medal of Honour. Flashman adverts to writing this memoir one day, which we know he didn’t, and states that Lincoln was the only other man who knew the whole truth. For all Fraser’s opposition, it would clearly have made a splendid tale.
P301. Flashman compares ‘cool customers’, mentioning General Gordon and the Italian patriot Garibaldi, though when he can have fitted in that meeting is indeed a mystery.
P308. Flashman renews a previously slim acquaintance with George Custer, with whom he exchanged sword cuts at Audie.
P312. Custer has read Dawns and Departures of a Soldier’s Life, volume 1.
P317. Custer quotes Lincoln: ‘When all other trusts fail, turn to Flashman.’
P320. Flashman holds the rank of Major, retired, in the United States Army.
P419. Flashman’s daughter, Jo, is stated to be 18, putting her year of birth in 1858. According to later Packets of the Flashman Papers, Flashy doesn’t get home to Elspeth in London between 1856 and at least 1860. Hmm.