I only met George MacDonald Fraser once, touring a new Flashman in hardback. I’m ninety-five percent certain that it was Flashman and the Mountain of Light, the Ninth Packet, though there’s a possibility I’m wrong and it was the next volume.
I’d done several Author Events by then, and expected the usual reading from the book, followed by a Q&A, but Fraser simply hauled himself onto a stool and began to tell stories and anecdotes, nothing to do directly with his new novel.
One of the things he talked about, whether off his own bat or in response to a question later on, was how he wrote a Flashman novel. Basically, it was that he would choose an historical event or period that interested him, spend about nine months researching, cramming in everything he possible could, and then write the book in a three month period.
It’s easy to tell from the title what the focal point was for the Ninth Packet, for the ‘Mountain of Light’ is the literal translation of the Koh-i-Noor diamond (though I learned that bit of historical detail from reading this book, rather than any pre-existing knowledge).
After the somewhat overt contrivance of Flashman and the Dragon I found the Ninth Packet to be dissatisfying, for other reasons. It’s something of a reversion: to Flashman the tyro, to India, even to a significant element of the plot that ‘repeats’ a previous set-up that, chronologically, comes a dozen years after this incident, which somehow never came to Flashy’s recollections when the ploy was duplicated ‘later’.
Flashman and the Mountain of Light doubles back on Flashman’s career, taking up immediately after the events of Flashman’s Lady, concerning itself with the much-mentioned First Sikh War. Harry and Elspeth have been transported from Madagascar to Mauritius, but whilst Elspeth is returning home on a French ship (much to Flashy’s consternation), he’s shipped off to India, and the North Western frontier.
Flashman’s arrival is greeted enthusiastically by his old connection, George Broadfoot, who has great plans for him as a Political. Until the recent Afghan War disaster, Britain’s north west frontier was fairly secure but now the Punjab, home to the Sikhs, lies between it and the Khyber area. The Sikhs are the biggest, most formidable and best-trained and disciplined army in India and, under its Khalsa, its ruling order, it has screaming for the chance to attack British India since the death of the Punjab’s Rajah, Runjeet Singh.
The current Rajah is seven year old Dalip Singh, the only ruler Britain is prepared to recognise, but power is held by his mother, the Maharani Jeendan, a seriously elevated dancing girl, notorious drunkard, debaucher and a strong-mindedly determined to control her country in the face of near-rebellion by the Khalsa.
The problem is right there in that Broadfoot wants Flashy to go in there and work his charms on the Rani, to ensure that the Khalsa does not start a war against the British. In strict chronological terms, it’s twelve years before Flashy does exactly the same with Lakshmibai, but we have already had that story, and the changes Fraser rings upon it are not enough to disguise the fact that he’s mining old territory.
Flashy is to go in as ostensibly a lawyer, to hear arguments over the ultimate disposal of the late Rajah’s fortune, currently at British disposal and consisting of more gold coins than you could shake a really big stick at. And given that Mai Jeendan and her brother and co-regent Jawaheer Singh are into spending money like waterfalls, they have an interest.
Whilst Broadfoot would deny it, even to himself, Flashy’s job is basically to screw Mai Jeendan into complaisance. Unlike Lakshmibai, she is a former dancer, a slut and a drunkard, so the screwing part passes off well and quickly and frequently. But, like Lakshmibai, she is an intelligent, powerful, wilful woman. Flashman is hardly settled in when her brother is publicly slaughtered by the Khalsa in front of her, and his, eyes and she both shames the army and swears to bring about its destruction.
And here we see the other major problem with the overall story. The Khalsa, in its arrogance, wants war with Britain. It vastly outnumbers the British Army, it is one of the most efficient and best-drilled armies in existence and one of the best fighting armies that the Nineteenth Century British Army ever has to face.
And once it has been defeated, or rather the Khalsa leaders are defeated, thanks to the machinations of Mai Jeendan and, in his own small, but vital way, Flashman, it will become a British Army, utterly loyal and utterly effective for the remainder of the Victoria Century.
But, with one notable exception, Flashman has very little, indeed almost nothing to do with it. The course of history flows without Flashy’s input, and for the most part he is a passive observer, overshadowed by two unlikely, mostly forgotten, but real historical figures, Americans Alick Gardner, who is devoted to Mai Jeendan’s service, and Josiah Harlan, who is Flashy’s secret bodyguard and a bit of a self-serving rogue and huckster.
Flashman has a cushy number, confined to the Palace and to a life of feasting and fornicating (when Mai Jeendan isn’t available, her chief slave and confidante, Mangla, has a similar amount of hots for Harry), but he has nothing to do but watch, and wait, as events roll along without him.
Fraser enlivens the middle portion of the story, as this waiting goes on for months, by a long and elaborate luring of Flashy into a trap at the hands of the Khalsa, trying to provoke war earlier than suits Mai Jeendan, from which he is rescued by the intervention of Goolab Singh, former pretender to the throne and now looking to establish his bona fides with the British, but in terms of influencing the narrative, it is nothing more than an interlude, a fill-in.
Which is the problem. Harry Flashman has nothing to do with the story, except in one crucial moment. Mai Jeendan has installed her lover and her underling, Lal Singh and Tej Singh, in charge of the Army. Both are arrant cowards whose job is to mislead, misdirect, hinder and delay the Army for the benefit of its British opponents, under the Generalship of Sir Hugh (‘Paddy’) Gough.
The big problem is that not only are the Khalsa extremely suspicious of this incompetent pair, and liable to throw them out at any moment they decide that this faffing around is down to actual sabotage, but that Tej and Lal are shit-scared of that happening at any moment.
So Flashy, an inexperienced young Lieutenant, with only one disastrous campaign under his military belt, finds himself with the awesome responsibility of directing the forces of the most powerful Army in India against his own side, in such a way as to ensure that despite massive, indeed overwhelming advantages, they lose.
And, with his funk at its highest, but in the grandest of all military traditions, Flashy does the job. Which leads to one of the best reverses in the book as, once he has regained his own lines and explained what he has done, Sir John Littler, the local General, reprimands him severely, reminds him that if it blows up, he faces one mother of a Court Martial, and promises his most ardent support for Flashman’s actions being in the highest traditions of the service!
But that’s it. That aside, Flashman is nothing but a spectator, especially of battles with twists that everyone but serious students of history have forgotten. Even battles for which he is present, he is nothing but a watcher, without serious risk of being dragged into panicky situations.
His only other contribution to the course of the history is again a ‘repeat’ of the superior Lakshmibai story. Flashman is sent back in, in native disguise, to help Mai Jeendan smuggle out her son, Dalip. There’s no Count Ignatieff on hand to make it personally perilous, and whilst Flashy ultimately fails to bring the Prince back to British lines, he at least sees him in the safety of Goolab Singh, who is out to show his value to the British.
There is at least a twist to the story that ensures it doesn’t too closely echo the Lakshmibai ‘original’, which is that Mai Jeendan is prepared to entrust her son to Flashman because she believes him to be true to her: true to the extent of marriage! That’s not on, even if Flashy does devote a few moments fantasising to the prospect. But he’s had enough of India, he wants home, he wants to get back to Elspeth.
Which leads to an intriguing ending. The war is won, the Khalsa destroyed, the Sikh Army conjoined to the British. There is a peace treaty negotiated by Hardinge, who has by now demonstrated a complete loathing of our hero and everything he’s done, especially because it’s worked. On the other hand, his chief Political, Henry Lawrence, wants Flashman to stay, as a Political, and is willing to fight Hardinge over it. Thank heaven then for the embarrassment of a certain lady’s honourable intentions towards our man…
So Flashman is to go. Out of spite, Hardinge has orders for his removal from service publicly delivered, intent on humiliation. But never try to humiliate Flashy. Not when your precious peace treaty requires the Sikhs to hand over the Koh-i-Noor. Not when you don’t know who’s pocket it’s hidden in…
Overall, a disappointing volume. But it does contain my favourite Flashman put down of all time, that I have longed to find a context to use for over twenty years: ‘Why, thank ye, Sir Henry, and I hope your rabbit dies and you can’t sell the hutch.’
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.
P11. There is a major continuity issue at the very beginning. According to Fraser, Flashman began writing his memoirs in or about 1901, ‘breaking the habit of a lifetime’ by being absolutely honest about his dissolution etc. But here, Flashman clearly states that he was reminded to write this adventure by an enquiry from Queen Victoria about the proprieties of wearing the Koh-i-Noor Diamond as part of her dress for her Golden Anniversary, which Flashman specifically records as being in 1887. This is thirteen years at least before the other memoirs are written, when Flashman is still protective of his reputation, and before the end of his physical adventures: and in a completely consistent style to the Papers supposedly written so much later. Fraser is too good for this kind of slip, which makes this setting irreconcilable with the other Papers.
P16. “Where the deuce had I been in ’52?” – where indeed? The Queen reads from a letter dated 9 February that year from Colonel Mackeson, referring to Flashman. Mackeson fought in the First Sikh War and remained in service in the Punjab until his assassination in 1853. His letter is about the Koh-i-Noor and these Papers about Flashman’s connections with it, so we can’t read into it any inferences about Flashman’s service that year. Note that Mackeson refers to Flashman as a Lieutenant, whilst by the beginning of the Fourth Packet, in early 1854, he’s a Captain.
P57. Another reference to Flashman’s undetailed participation in the Zulu War, recalling Cetewayo’s legions overrunning Little Hand.
P86. Flashman’s first encounter with Mai Jeendan leads to another recollection of other beauties of his experience, this time including the Empress of Austria as a ‘classic creature.. appeal(ing) to the baser aesthetic senses’. This encounter will be referenced in the Eleventh Packet.
P101. Another reference to the sadly unrecorded Welshman in a top hat leading a Zulu impi. It’s terribly frustrating.
P234. Flashman’s medals include ‘Khedive Sudan 96’ – another unrecorded campaign, and an impressive one, given that he would then be seventy-three: a little old for active service.
P318. Flashman refers to his granddaughter Selina and how she almost led him to commit murder, an incident at this stage confined to the Sunday Times 1972 short story that will not become canon until the Eleventh Packet.
P326. One of the most intriguing references in the entire Flashman Papers, Flashman approvingly cites a hot air balloon as the ideal vantage point for watching a battle and mentions doing this is Paraguay once. This has had Flashman scholars puzzling for years, and dubiously suggesting the War of the Triple Alliance, though Flashman’s participation in this affair (1864 – 1870) is difficult to reconcile with his known movements in this period.