By the time the Eighth Packet of The Flashman Papers was released to an adoring public, George MacDonald Fraser had been writing about Harry Flashman for over fifteen years. In addition to eight volumes of the Papers, Fraser had also written two lengthy non-series novels, two collections of short stories, a non-fiction history of the Anglo-Scottish Border Wars, six filmed screenplays and an indeterminate number of unfilmed screenplays, not to mention a number of BBC radio plays. Flashman and The Dragon was published the year he turned sixty.
How long the Flashman books might continue was clearly a question of how long might Fraser last. Even before the Eighth Packet, enough additional adventures had been referred to keep him busy for decades. Only in the latter half of the Seventh Packet had Flashman’s memoirs extended beyond 1858, and Flashy had been notably in action up to and including the start of the Twentieth Century.
But series’ are difficult things to sustain. On the one hand, they must grow and develop, as humans do, constantly presenting new challenges, new aspects, new challenges and solutions, but on the other hand they must operate within (sometimes narrowly) prescribed lines: the audience constantly demands ‘more of the same only different’ but it is the ‘more of the same’ element that concerns them most.
From the appearance of Flashman and The Dragon until the final Packet, in 2005, the penultimate book of Fraser’s life (not counting Captain in Calico) only four further Flashman books were published, one of which being a ‘fix-up’ consisting of three short stories of differing lengths. The longed-for American Civil War novel was not among them. And it has to be admitted that there was something of a decline after Flashman and the Redskins: not a major decline, like the latterday Peter Tinniswoods, or the last two Robert Neills, to refer to previous posts here, but enough to be perceptible. And it starts here.
Flashman and The Dragon sees Sir Harry Flashman (notwithstanding that he still hasn’t been officially knighted by little Vicky) in China, being unwillingly attached to Lord Elgin’s expedition to Pekin as part of his intelligence staff.
It’s March 1860 and Flashy is in Hong Kong, waiting for his boat home to Elspeth, who he hasn’t seen in over three years (and Jo Flashman was born in 1858? Hmmm.) Immediately, there’s a change of atmosphere to the series, as Fraser, in an extensive first note, makes a not very good job of explaining things.
Up till now, Flashy has usually been very good at context, and setting up where, what and how when he starts his account but in this instance, short of that reference to three years, there’s nothing. Fraser devotes his footnote to the fact that this mystery is a mystery: Flashman was last seen leaving India for home about eighteen months previously, but here he is, and what’s more, despite never having been to China previously in his memoirs, he’s familiar with the country and speaks fluent Mandarin.
But, having suggested prior time in China, Fraser undercuts himself by suggesting that, based on a mention of being acquainted with the American Abolitionist John Brown (having not seen anything such thus farm, I can only assume this came in the newspaper story, Flashman and the Tiger), our boy may have been in America in 1859.
The Tenth Packet will confirm this was the case, but at this moment, what the footnote makes all but explicit (for the first time) is that Fraser doesn’t know and hasn’t decided on Flashman’s career in this period, and admits us all to the almost certainty that Flashman’s life and career is, largely, being made up as he goes along.
There’s another change in tone in the opening sequences. Flashy specifically identifies himself as being in his prime at 37, a Colonel with six years seniority, in short an individual of experience. He no longer automatically runs away from trouble, though that’s still his first instinct. Now he stops to think, and we’re not far into the book when our antihero actually runs towards a fight, recognising that the only safe outcome is to attack and win. And it’s not the only time. Flashman is caught behaving like a practiced, skilled and properly military British Army officer.
Though he’s unusually cagey about how he comes to be there, Flashman pens this latest memoir with a fairly full, for Flashy, political analysis of the China Problem. On the one hand, General Hope Grant is arriving in under a fortnight to escort Lord Elgin to Pekin, where the decadent and horrifically brutal regime, under its rarefied Emperor, will be forced to recognise foreigners as equals, as opposed to subhuman barbarians. On the other, the Taiping Rebellion, the bloodiest rebellion in world history, is still going on after ten years, is supported for its pseudo-Christian aspects and may well be the next Chinese government.
But Flashman, with his usual flair for vicious amusement, is concerned about filling the ten days before his sailing (two days before Hope Grant gets there and grabs him for his staff) is potting the seduction of the beautiful bounteous blonde Mrs Phoebe Carpenter. The circumstances are a bit out of the ordinary, however.
Firstly, the lovely Phoebe is not merely married, but married to a Christian Missionary with ambitions to build a church in China, and secondly, in order to raise funds to build this church, the Reverend and Mrs Carpenter require someone who is a fluent Chinese speaker to escort a boat upriver, and successfully deliver £16,000 of prime cut, prepared opium.
Given that there’s 10 per cent in him for him, not to mention a cast iron case for the buxom Phoebe sharing her favours on his return, and anyway, everybody in Hong Kong is in opium, the place exists because of it, Flashman is happy to keep his hand in, and he does a bloody good job at it, far better than the ship’s young American Captain, Fred T Ward, can do, at least at this stage of his impressive career.
There’s just one problem. Actually, as usual there’s more than one but the main one is that the carpenter’s boats aren’t carrying opium, but instead rifles, intended for the Taiping rebels. Flashy gets alerted to this when his Chinese jolly-girl wakes him up pleading for a pipe (she is not what she seems). This is where flashy thinks quickly and, given that the small convoy has attracted the attention of the Royal Navy, our hero pulls a quick Beauchamp Comber, claiming to have been on the side of the angels all along, undercover.
That it works is, astonishingly, because Flashy decides at the last minute to attune his lie as closely as he can to the truth, because he’s been conned twice by a woman – the jolly girl is actually a British agent!
Basically, what we’ve had is a bubble adventure, just to set things off and demonstrate again how Flashman’s eagerness to pursue womanflesh still trips him up. The whole adventure brings him to the attention of the authorities, after which there is no going home. Prime Minister Palmerston himself has issued orders attaching Colonel Flashman, believed to be travelling in China (how did they know that?), to Hope Grant’s intelligence staff.
The stage is set, but there is a wait until Lord Elgin is due, and Fraser diverts Flashman onto a different path to fill in the intervening time. And of course it’s the Taiping Rebellion.
By 1860, the Taiping Rebellion had been going on for a decade, causing more and bloodier slaughter than any other in history. The Rebellion had taken Nanking round about the time the memoir starts and are threatening a move on Shanghai, Britain’s principal Treaty Port. Elgin’s Pekin Expedition intends to force the feeble, debauched yet ultimately god-like Emperor to sign the Treaty he has agreed, China being the most insular country on other, seeing everywhere outside China as barbarian vassal states. Britain cannot come to terms with the Taipings, cannot even be seen to be talking to them.
So Flashy the undercover intelligence star is sent to meet with the Taiping leaders to persuade them not to attempt Shanghai. It’s a fraught journey, only completed with the assistance of a group of bandits led by the formidable Szu-Zhan, a six foot six tall woman of immense strength who damn near carries Flashy off.
But arrival is even more fraught as our hero finds himself a ‘guest’ of a strange, cruel but horribly efficient army, led by the fanatical Loyal Prince Lee, who makes it plain that the Taipings are coming to Shanghai and Britain should get off its ass and join forces because they are going to overthrow the Manchoos. Flashman will be sent back to deliver that message as a courtesy – two days ahead of the army.
The same message is delivered by Prime Minister Hung Jen-Kan, a much cannier individual, with clearer eyes, who arranges for Flashy to go two weeks ahead of schedule. Because Jen-Kan knows what Flashman will report back of his meeting with the Taiping leader, Hung Hsiu-chuan, once an inspirational leader but now an irretrievable madman that Britain cannot and never will accept. Jen-Kan doesn’t doubt the Taiping’s eventual victory, but doesn’t mind delaying it by allowing Flashman to warn the British and enable them to repel his political rival, Loyal Prince Lee.
In due course that happens. Flashy’s route back crosses the path of Fred T. Ward for a last time, risen to command the force that will eventually defeat the Taipings, the Ever Victorious Army that Ward moulded and, after his death, was led to ultimate victory by General Gordon, he of Khartoum infamy (who turns up in a minor role late on).
But what is disturbing is that all this story is delivered in footnotes and appendices. No sooner is Flashy in Shanghai and alerting the Commissioner, Parkes, than he’s shuffled off to join Elgin and General Hope Grant on the road to Pekin, and that’s it as far as the Taiping Rebellion issue goes. Yes, it just vanishes, as if it had never happened. Fraser even comments on this in a footnote, about how uncharacteristic it is of Flashman to not even mention that Shanghai repelled the Taiping Army.
We’re used to a Flashman Packet containing in effect two widely disparate tales: Flashman at the Charge strings together the Crimea and the Russian invasion of Central Asia, Flashman’s Lady adventures in both Borneo and Madagascar, and Flashy isn’t one for looking back once the danger has been outrun, but even on a first reading, this felt wrong. Plonking Flashman into two theatres may have been common practice but, whilst previous examples had at least an organic element to it, this was too obvious a contrivance to be passed by without the effect jarring.
Having grown bored with travel by sea, Flashman disembarks within sight of the army and treats himself to a leisurely ride. This enables Fraser to place him at the scene of a famous, but now forgotten event, the killing of Trooper Moyes. This came about when a party of horsemen under the Mongol War Leader, Sang-Kol-Insen (immediately dubbed ‘Sam Collinson’ throughout the army) captured two British soldiers and demanded they kow-tow. Famously, Moyes refused to do so, facing the Mongol with utter contempt, and being executed.
Fraser not only drops Flashy into the scene, as an unknown, out of uniform officer who is knocking head like a good ‘un, but stores up the scene for future difficulties, as the other survivor, Private Nolan, recognises him subsequently and is slimily determined on a spot of blackmail. Until Flashy uses a fraught situation, when he and a number of troops are captured, to deliver Nolan to an horrendous comeuppance that’s not entirely undeserved.
Militarily, there’s not much to say about the March on Pekin (sometimes referred to as the Second Opium War), given that it was led by one of Britain’s most competent fighting Generals, and Flashman has a safe and secure time of it, Nolan excepted, until the Chinese unexpectedly renege on their promises of safe progress, etc., and fight back. We see the experienced and skilled military side of Sir Harry, and doesn’t it seem strange, but he too is captured, a capture that means torture of the most vile and inhumane.
First though, the Taiping element must have its parallel, as Flashy, converted into a filthy, unshaven, ragged barbarian to suit expectations, is dragged before the Emperor to confess. The Emperor is, in a different way, equally as unimpressive and abhorrent as Hung Hsia-chuan, but a bit more intelligent, so the whole thing is a complete bust. Until the Imperial Concubine, Yehonala, blitzed to the max on poppy smoke, takes a fancy to see a barbarian for herself.
And, having seen said hairy, smelly and more than half-naked barbarian, she insists on seeing the one bit that’s covered up. And once seen, she needs must sample it. Flashy gets ’em, everywhere.
The thing is, Yehonala, having enjoyed Flashy as much as she has, decides to keep him. Not merely for filthy disgusting pleasure, but because the Yi Concubine, who is already doing everything she can to see the Emperor off, happens to be the mother of his only son. And equally happens to be a determinedly intelligent autocratic woman with designs upon complete domination of China. Which, incidentally, she will achieve for over thirty years. Yehonala has plans to advance this, which involve saving Flashy to get her in good with the British.
So Flashy undergoes two months imprisonment in palatial luxury, not to mention unending abuse of his person, his major fear being in case he lets slip that he speaks Mandarin, and has understood every word of Yi’s plans, especially those parts that she wouldn’t want the Brits to know.
In the end, Flashy gets free when the British Army attacks Pekin, though he regrets the ending of this interlude. Yehonala ranks for him alongside Lakshmibai, Lola Montez and Elspeth as the most beautiful women he has ever seen, and she is among that few for whom he has felt anything other than lust. But it’s a timely and necessary departure, and he damned well knows it. And it leads to an exposure of feeling Flashman has never allowed himself before. Welcomed back by Elgin and everyone around him, seeing their genuine concern, Flashman gives in to the stress he has experienced and, in his own words, “I blubbed.”
There is not much left now but what is left is clearly Fraser’s entire purpose in writing this book. After careful though, Lord Elgin has to decide upon a punishment for the Emperor and the Manchus, that will not merely fall upon them alone, and not the peasants, but will be seen to do so, and be known. It is a controversial decision, one that is still debated today, and one which would change the course of history in ways that we are experiencing today, and that we cannot see the end of in 2016.
I’m speaking of the destruction, the burning, the looting, the devastation of the Summer Palace. Fraser, and Flashman, give it full measure, airing all the arguments for and against, bringing all the personalities and the motives into play. Flashman even has the temerity to twit Elgin over history’s response to him. But his own emotions, though ever directed towards himself, nevertheless betray that even Flash Harry has been moved by the beauty of the Summer Palace, and has a pang for its memory, which he will never relinquish.
The sequence is a fitting end to the story, and it is by far the best thing in it, but it’s not a Flashman ending. So there’s a short coda, in Singapore, waiting for his boat home, just as when the memoir begins and, in perfect parallel, Flashy once more encounters Mrs Phoebe Carpenter.
Circumstances are a little different: for one thing, she’s playing waitress in a bar on the shady side of town, where Harry was lured to the ninjas in Flashman’s Lady, she’s wearing a most low-cut dress and claims that the Reverend Carpenter has abandoned her. Flashy has no compunctions about blackmailing her into bed in order to keep him from peaching to the authorities, but once again Phoebe takes him in. She brings him back to her residence, which is actually a very successful brothel, run by the Reverend Josiah. And as Flashy is trying his hand at billiards, with a bottle of house brandy, a naval type enters the room, exactly as Flashman starts to feel woozy and wobbly…
So we end as we begin: from having no idea where Sir Harry has come from to be here to the same lack of knowledge as to where he’s going to be going after this. Except that it’s not back to Elspeth…
When first I read Flashman and the Dragon, I assumed Flashy was being shanghaied to America, to turn up in time for the start of the American Civil War. However, a reference elsewhere to Flashman accompanying the Prince of Wales during ten weeks of military training at the Curragh, in Ireland, that has been dated to July 1861 means that that couldn’t have happened, and wherever he does go, Flashy is not long delayed in being restored to Elspeth’s arms, and sundry other parts of her body.
Howsoever this came about, we are never told. It may seem befitting to have both ends of the memoir match, but to me it weakens the story to have it so firmly detached from Flashman’s Chronology, without connective tissue before or aft. It escalates the impression of a contrivance to a level not previously experienced.
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.
P10. ’emerged after four campaigns’: the fourth of these pre-1860 campaigns is the First Sikh War, yet to be told.
P43. Flashman relates his nastier experiences of the past three years, but all of these relate to the Indian Mutiny. There is literally nothing of the intervening eighteen months.
P78. Flashman recites another litany of experiences, coming out of sleep into waking. These include the mealie bags at Rorke’s Drift, in the Zulu War and, a first reference, the morning Flashman was due to go before the San Serafino firing squad. This is usually attributed to the Maximillian business in Mexico, the only known case of Flashman going before a firing squad, and no doubt is connected to Flashman’s famous medal, the San Serafino Order of Truth and Purity (4th class).
P83. Scenes of ruin: Flashman mentions Gettysburg, a famous American Civil War battlefield.
P123. A fuller description of life in Nanking under the Taiping is given in Dawns and Departures of a Soldier’s Life, in one of the Volumes not impounded and destroyed by Disraeli’s bailiffs.
P186. Flashman compares notes on places where he has surrendered, including Appomattox, which indicates that he arrived as part of General Lee’s party.
P193. And a recollection of moments of brilliant inspiration includes the first mention of Flashman convincing Jefferson Davis he’d come to fix the lightning rod…
p196. Flashman gave technical advice to GeorgeBernard Shaw on the writing of his only Western play, The Shewing up of Blanco Posnet (1909).
p225. Flashman on his first exposure to the Summer Palace recollects other, natural scenes of great beauty, including dawn over the South China Sea and cold moonlight on the Sahara. The South China Sea has been mentioned before, but Flashman’s journey into the Sahara is another unplaced mystery, though it must surely relate to his service in the French Foreign Legion, whenever this was.
P287. Flashman reminisces of moments of peace at the end of great adventures: three we recognise but the fourth is of “sitting alone with the President of the United States at the end of a great war, listening to him softly whistling ‘Dixie’.”