For a third successive Packet, I have always been somewhat dubious about this volume of Flashman’s memoirs. Flashman and the Angel of the Lord fits in between the Fifth and Eighth Packets, taking our man Harry from the end of the Indian Mutiny to a precarious position less than six months before his presence in Hong Kong, waiting to return home. It leaves an awkward gap that George MacDonald Fraser was not at all keen on filling, indeed practically dismissed, it’s about an historical figure that, in view of Fraser’s noted antipathy to the American Civil War, seems an out-of-character interest, and it diverts Flashman a long way out of his way. So much so, that even Fraser, through Flashman, comments on how odd and improbable it is.
I mean, we’re covering a period of about eighteen months in which Flashman has to get from India to China. Who would expect him to do this via the East Coast of America?
For the Angel of the Lord, as all should know, is John Brown, and Flashman is about to get himself involved in the raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, the last great staging post on the road to the Civil War Fraser was so assiduous in avoiding.
How the hell does Flashman get to America when he’s on his way home from India to England, and to Lady Flashman, who has been languishing for him for no little time already? The first answer is from Cape Town, South Africa, where Flashy’s boat calls in, and Flashy enters polite society for a short while. And where there is a tremendous shock, when he comes face to face with John Charity Spring.
This is Fraser’s mechanism. Spring was last seen, in the first half of the Seventh Packet, face down in the blancmange, being shanghaied towards South Africa. It comes as no surprise that a man of his forceful personality should have risen in society in the past near-decade, nor that he still harbours a modicum of resentment towards Flashy.
So, using his teenage daughter as bait (she screws, though that isn’t part of Spring’s plan), he lures Sir Harry to his own shanghai-ing which, with appropriate dramatic irony, sees him abandoned in America, once more as Beauchamp Comber.
And that’s where Flashy’s problems really start.
He’s abandoned in Baltimore, drugged, penniless, friendless, and with the Police having had forty-eight hours notice of Comber’s return. But Flashman has one inestimable advantage he didn’t have, ten years earlier, and that is that he is (Sir) Harry Flashman, VC and hero: all he has to do is to get to the British Consulate and reveal his identity.
However, the Police seem to be the only ones not interested in laying hands on Beauchamp Comber. Three highly secretive organisations do want the erstwhile Naval Lieutenant but, improbably, these three disparate organisations, with widely different aims and goals, all want the exact same thing from our hero: that he join the little band of the notorious Abolitionist, John Brown, as his military expert, on his supposedly secret mission to invade the State of Virginia and capture Harper’s Ferry.
First out of the blocks is the Underground Railroad, and its frail, ageing but no less fanatical leader, Mr Crixus. To Crixus, the reappearance of Comber, who he believes to be just as committed to the great Anti-Slavery cause as he is, is a literal God-send. Brown’s second-in-command and only militarily-trained support has just buggered off, and here is the faithful Beauchamp. Comber will organise the raid that will topple slavery at a blow: Brown will seize the weapons from the Armoury, and set up camp in the hills, whereupon every slave in the South will see that they have a champion, and will immediately flock to him to raise an ex-slave army.
Barmy stuff indeed, full of fanatical belief without an ounce of reason – and that’s not just Flashy’s cowardice speaking. By now, the Colonel is thirty-seven, and he’s an experienced military man who can weigh odds, and knows that they’re not in favour. Not that Crixus is capable of listening. Nor is he going to let Flashman go to report to his chief in the Consulate. After all, no matter how important Comber makes out his current mission as being, it can’t matter as much as this.
But Comber is also important to the second secret organisation. This is the Kuklos, and you might well see it as a forerunner of the Ku Klux Klan, complete to the white pointed hoods its leaders where. The Kuklos clam to be smarter than the Underground Railroad, and they might well be: they’ve had Joe Simmons, a black slave belonging to their high leader Atropos, implanted in the Railroad as a mole for years.
And Joe gets Flashman out, secretly, but not to go to his Consulate. Rather he’s picked up and distracted by a lady of the evening, whose carriage takes him to another secret destination to meet the next group of madmen who want to use him.
And it turns out that this is the second of the three great coincidences that power this story, as adverted to by Flashy when pondering how ill this adventures fits in with the rest of his career. For the aforementioned elfin-proportioned lady turns out to be not merely Atropos’ wife, but the former Mrs Annette Mandeville, one of Flashy’s more energetic bed-partners in Flash for Freedom. (Flashman did say that he would meet her again in unexpected circumstances, but that reference was to something during the Civil War, not in it’s run-up).
Assuming he’s been taken to keep him from joining John Brown, Flashman is astonished to learn that that’s exactly what the Kuklos want him to do! By all means, get Brown through to invade Virginia, and not only will the silly, stupid blacks not be so stupid as to join him, but instead Brown’s raid will be taken by the South as an indication of what the North want to do to them. It will unite the South on the road to the Dissolution of the Union, and preserve their God-ordained way of life.
Incidentally, just in case Flashy might be tempted to waver at any time, Joe’s going to join John Brown with him. Joe won’t move from Flashy’s side, and he’s a crack shot. And anyway, the Kuklos will have agents watching absolutely everywhere.
Not quite. Flashman did mention three coincidences, although he fails to call the third for what it is. But the third organisation out to speak to him is no other than American Intelligence, using the services of the already redoubtable Pinkerton Detective Agency, and their mole in the Kuklos – who only happens to be Annette Mandeville!
And guess what? They also want Flashy to serve with John Brown and plot the raid on Harper’s Ferry.
Their motives are the most twisted of all. Though Brown’s ‘secret’ plan is about as widely known as it’s possible to be without inventing the Internet and shipping it back to 1859, Intelligence, in the form of the long-nosed, lean and laconic Mr Messervy, can’t move against it for political reasons and they can’t let it happen. So what better than a military advisor who can gain Brown’s trust, work out the best plan and, in doing so, demonstrate to John Brown that it can’t be done, none of it?
Oh, and in case that doesn’t work, someone who can shoot Brown in the back before he ever gets near the Virginia State line.
This time though, Flashman has the upper hand. This is no secret organisation that could murder him out of hand, it’s the US Government and he’s Harry Flashman, not Beauchamp Comber and this time he’s revealing it. Which is where the third coincidence comes in, because the idea of Comber being Flashman is preposterous, even after Flashy tells (most of) the story of how he got here. But there’s one man here who can confirm that Harry is Harry and that’s Allan Pinkerton, who used to work for John Morrison in Glasgow, who minds Elspeth and her sisters and saw Flashman for himself during the riots.
It’s utterly unbelievable, but it’s true, and it means that the US Government doesn’t have a hold on their man, who can quite legitimately refuse to sully his commission by refusing to work for a foreign power, even a friendly one.
So why does he end up joining Brown’s band and gaining the great Abolitionist’s trust? It’s all down to the Next President of the United States.
No, this is not Abraham Lincoln, but rather the now-forgotten William Henry Seward, a master politician and, in 1859, the man expected to be the nascent Republican Party’s candidate for the Presidency. A genial, intelligent man who doesn’t try to override Flashman’s refusal, merely chatters on about his forthcoming trip to England, where he’s be presented to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and will be pleased to talk to them about the situation in America and officers he has met…
So, blackmail it is and, after a long, complex, fascinating preparation, with nearly two-thirds of the book written, Flashman finally meets John Brown, and we see the man whose fame lives on for the first time.
This is one of those times that we really understand that we are seeing these historical figures through the eyes of George MacDonald Fraser, and that Flashman is merely a filter. I have always argued that the Flashman novels are not merely superb history, delivered in an extremely palatable fashion, but that Flashman himself is a perfect metaphor for the Nineteenth Century, and British Imperial History. The same goes here for John Brown, the Angel of the Lord, one of the prime catalysts of the Civil War and by that token, American history to the present day. To put it at its simplest, the man is a fool. A complex fool, but a fool nevertheless. The long summer of preparation, on which Flashman does not stint for detail, convinces us that Harper’s Ferry cannot be anything but a disaster.
But Flashman’s account of what went on establishes that it could have been a complete and utter success, but for one thing: John Brown. Brown, like Crixus, like Atropos too, in a different manner, lives in a world of fantasy. He is inspiring, uncannily so, and not unintelligent, but the truth is that he just doesn’t know what to do. Flashman doesn’t belabour the point, but Brown has spent so much time earnestly believing that God will provide that when the moment comes that his efforts can succeed on their own, he is paralysed by indecision and fantasy.
Brown’s ability to inspire is at its most demonstrative in the person of Joe Simmons who, rattled to his core by the simple fact that Brown automatically treats him as an equal, as no white man has before, as Atropos never has though they were brought up together as children, reverses his whole belief and becomes a convert to Brown and Abolition.
Nevertheless, Harper’s Ferry turns into a disaster. Flashman attempts to duck out whilst handling one of the most absurd aspects of the entire affair, a breakfast order for forty-eight at the local hotel, and spends several; hours in the, ahem, company of the voluptuous and lascivious Mrs Popplewell, a coloured lady, but it is no more than an interval (and overall a somewhat awkward one to justify in terms of the course of events at Harper’s Ferry) before he’s back under siege.
Famous names from Flashy’s future are unexpectedly present: Colonel Robert E. Lee for one, and Jeb Stuart, who I never previously knew had been there at Harper’s Ferry (you always learn with Fraser), and the latter is closely involved with the abrupt end to things. The Armoury is invaded, Flashman saves Brown’s life when Joe, his vision betrayed by Brown’s indecision, draws on the old man and Flashy, whom Messervy has tactfully suggested should ensure Brown doesn’t survive to have his day in Court and speak his words, shoots Joe in the back.
After that, it’s nothing but clean-up, rapidly and efficiently done. The records will be completed without mention of either Beauchamp Comber or Joe Simmons (a neat job by Fraser), Joe will be secretly buried and Flashman sped out of the country instanter: train to Baltimore, ship to Liverpool.
And there’s even Mrs Popplewell, popping up on the train to enjoy Harry’s marital arts one more time. It’s a good job he’s as good he thinks he is because the sybaritic Hannah finds herself unable to do her duty. You see, she’s an agent too, of the Kuklos. And Atropos is going to be pretty darned unhappy with Comber when Joe’s body is unburied… But Flashy’s given her the kind of orgasm she’s never had before (not that Fraser ever puts it so blatantly) and for that she’ll save him. Quick, off the train here, now, the last stop before Baltimore…
Which gives us Fraser’s traditional abrupt ending, whilst also avoiding the next and most difficult piece of the puzzle, namely, how on earth does Flashman, alone and friendless one railroad stop short of Baltimore, hunted by a ruthless and powerful secret organisation, get from the East Coast of North America to Hong Kong, six months later?
In this book, Fraser suggests that an answer will lie in a future packet but, later on, he will casually dismiss this interruption on Flashman’s history is minor and trivial, washing his hands of explaining away a most awkward gap.
Make no mistake, Flashman and the Angel of the Lord is a very good book, much better than its two predecessors combined. It is intense and detailed, and Fraser’s attention to his subject and its obvious appeal to him makes it very strange that, within a relatively short space of time, he was dismissing the idea of ever writing Flashman’s Civil War memoirs. The Tenth Packet doesn’t read like the work of someone who couldn’t be interested in bringing all his little hints, nods and winks together into a coherent story.
But when this book was published, George MacDonald Fraser was 69. The periods between Flashman books were growing longer and longer. The Eleventh Packet, as we will shortly see, would not contain a complete novel. Slowly, I am coming round to the belief that Fraser recognised that he was too old, that he no longer had the energy for the research and thought that would have been necessary to pack into ‘Flashman and The War Between The States’, even if, as most Flashman scholars believe, our Harry doesn’t wind up joining the colours until 1862, and that his dismissive response was an attitude to cover this up.
That’s my theory anyway, drawn solely from reading the books. Whether it holds any water, I shall doubtless never know.
However, Fraser was sufficiently fascinated by John Brown, and the match that lit the fuse, to drag his character halfway round the world, and leave him having to go nearly halfway back to get back on track. That, at the end of the day, is what leaves me doubtful about the Tenth Packet, that it has to be built upon open contrivance to come about, in the same way that the two halves of Flashman and the Dragon don’t fit naturally together. It makes me feel that a younger Fraser would have managed things much better.
The Eleventh Packet further amplifies that disquiet.
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. Flashman’s memoir of John Brown is apparently inspired by an afternoon with his great-grandchildren at Gandamack Lodge, in the summer of 1913, two years before his death. I mention this only to draw a contrast with the preceding Packet, seemingly written a whole twenty-six years previously.
P16. John Brown’s expedition didn’t conquer Dixie but Flashman did, with General Sherman.
P21. Flashman identifies himself as appearing in the Countess of Cardigan’s Recollections under the pseudonym of Baldwin, and thanks heaven that the memoirs don’t include him cowering under Fanny Paget’s sofa, next to a private detective, whilst Cardigan himself performs the capital act, and Paget returns to give his faithless wife a black eye. According to the excellent Flashman Chronology (insert link) the Baldwin incident took place in early 1843. Lord Paget, husband of Fanny, brought an unsuccessful suit against Cardigan for adultery in December 1843, which presumably makes the two escapades contemporaneous.
P22. Flashman records the various incidents of his career to demonstrate how out of place his adventure with John Brown was. He skips straight from the Punjab (Flashman and the Mountain of Light) to Germany (Royal Flash) without giving any whereabouts for the missing period between, and goes directly from China (Flashman and the Dragon) to the American war, and thence to Mexico… Flashman’s role in Emperor Maximilian’s doomed expedition to Mexico has been fleetingly mentioned previously, but will receive its most detailed treatment as background to the Twelfth and final Packet.
P30. Flashman takes time out to explain the political situation in South Africa at the brief time he was in Cape Town, and speculates that if the Government in London hadn’t thought it knew better than its Governor, George Grey, “two damned dirty and costly wars” might have been avoidable. Flashman comments that he never served much in Africa, nor took to it, but the two wars in question are almost certainly the Zulu War (1879), in which Flashman was involved as an observer, and the Boer War (1899 – 1902), which Flashman seemingly observed though, for once, did not get involved in.
p64. Flashy’s shanghai-ing from Cape Town is the first of three such experiences in his career, all the responsibility of women. The next, chronologically, was the conclusion of Flashman and the Dragon but there is no other mention in the Papers of the third, by Fanny Duberly. Presumably it was later than 1860, and Flashman was not drugged at the time, plus Mrs Duberly had no ill intentions towards him, or so he says. Flashman has already met Fanny twice, once as Fanny Locke, and they both saw service in the Crimea and the Indian Mutiny, although without meeting on that occasion. Unless Flashman is blaming her for his flight from England in Flash for Freedom, it is anyone’s guess where, when and why.
P104. Flashman gives a lengthy statement on his beliefs about the American Constitution (he’s not in favour) in stressing the inevitability of their Civil War, which he condemns as ‘the vile slaughter of the Anglo-Saxon-Norman-Celtic race’. His opinions are influenced by standing on Cemetery Ridge after Pickett’s Charge, one more detail of his service. Flashman goes on to recount his last conversation with Lincoln, hours before the latter’s death. Perhaps by then Fraser had already decided that he would never write that Packet.
P186. Another reference to Flashman’s service with General Gordon, who apparently sent him into undercover work, like so many others.
P234. Flashman and Brown’s most competent other follower, Kagi, go for a walk in the country, halting at a crossroads. As they make to leave, Flashman spots the name on the signpost, which he remembers for no apparent reason. It is Gettysburg.
P241. Flashman suspects that, in his long absence, his loving Elspeth got up to mischief with the future Edward VII in a Windsor potting-shed.
P264. Flashman keeps his ‘commission’ from John Brown in the same drawer as other outlandish military appointments in his career. These include his commissions in both the Union and Confederate Armies and – a lot of detail here – the illuminated scroll designating his appointment as a Knight of the San Serafino Order of Purity and Truth (Third Class).
P309. Flashman catalogues various of his wounds, the last of which being a self-inflicted graze that enabled him to collapse ‘artistically’ in the Boxer Rebellion, the last acknowledged action of his career. There is also mention of an abdominal wound inflicted by a Turkish knitting needle, which is otherwise referenced, and was probably inflicted by a bedmate rather than in any more formal action. Intriguingly, given the supposed twenty-six years since the Ninth Packet, Flashman cannot remember how he got the scar on his left palm, inflicted on him in the First Sikh War.
P320. ‘my old chief Robert Lee.’
P326. Jeb Stuart conducts the final parley, knowing Flashman to be working for Messervy. Flashman later forms a high opinion of Stuart, but never held him in higher esteem than now.
P330. Flashman lets slip that he liked Ketshwayo, that being King Ketshwayo of the Zulus. The two obviously met, but under what circumstances we never learn as there is no full account of Flashy’s role in the Zulu War.