The Eleventh Packet differs from all the other Flashman Papers in not being an actual Packet (though I’ll continue to refer to it as such for consistency’s sake). Flashman and the Tiger was published almost twenty years after the short story of that name had appeared in the Sunday Times, and after many years of clamour from Flashman fans who wanted the chance to read it.
Fraser’s conceit was to now reveal, in the traditional Explanatory Note, that from time to time Flashman had set down his thoughts on various simpler incidents of his past, and tucked these shorter narratives into various Packets. Since the first of these had come to light, he said, two further narratives had also been discovered, hence this volume was a convenient way of publishing the same.
All three narratives post-date any other part of Flashman’s career, in which the furthest we’ve got thus far is 1876. The narratives cover a variety of dates, from 1878 to 1894, hop-scotching about, as is appropriate for the elder Flashman, who is not as mobile as he once was and who, by the latest of these dates, appears to have given up chasing young women, if you can believe that.
Before we turn to the narratives, Fraser also chooses this volume to provide us with a vastly expanded Who’s Who entry for General Sir Harry Flashman. Like genuine entries, it is broken down into different categories, dealing with official campaigns and honours, private travels and Flashman’s more commercial ventures. I’ll be looking more closely at this under History and Memories
The first narrative, ‘The Road to Charing Cross’, is by far the longest in the book, almost two hundred pages, which would represent a bit over half a standard Packet.
Like both the other narratives, the story takes place in two different time periods. The set-up for the story, which is all but a separate account. It is 1878, and Flashman is inveigled into attending the Congress of Berlin by the famous journalist, Stefan Blowitz. Flashy knows the energetic little man from the Franco-Prussian business in 1870, and the busy journalist has already more or less procured for him the Order d’Honneur, conferred by the French President, MacMahon, in a ceremony attended by former President Grant, who has begged Flashy to attend as his personal translator.
As well as this indication towards Flashy’s presence during the Siege of Paris, the Order is given for his otherwise unidentified service with the French Foreign Legion, possibly in Algeria.
The Congress in Berlin is to rewrite the terms of a treaty between Russia and Turkey, following the conclusion of a recent war that threatens to roll back the Turkish presence in the Balkans far further than the rest of Europe feels comfortable with, and give the Russian Empire a much stronger hold. Blowitz intends to be first with the Treaty.
Flashman’s part is simple and engaging. Blowitz’s contact is Caprice, a delightfully gamine seductress, who will seduce details out of a loose-lipped Russian diplomat in bed, and then pass these on to Flashman – also in bed – for exchange with Blowitz.
A splendid time is had by all, and Blowitz gets the Treaty, as well as the mutual enjoyment for himself and Flashman of knowing that it’s bugging the hell out of Bismarck as to how it was done. Which leads us to the second and larger part of the story.
It is now 1883. Flashman has been out in Egypt, at war under Sir Garnett Wolseley, in what seems to have been the most insignificant and completely incident-free campaign of his life. Now he’s back in England, but trouble is brewing in the Sudan, under the Mad Mahdi, and General Gordon is being sent out there. Flashy knows that if he can be found, he’s going to be impressed, so he’s looking for something to get himself clear, when a letter arrives, summoning him to Paris, where a titled woman of whom he has never heard desires his company.
Hang on a minute. Haven’t we seen this before? Isn’t this a re-run of Royal Flash? To which the answer is, it bloody well is, and in too many details for this to be at all comfortable.
Now Blowitz is involved, and delighted to be repaying Flashman for his assistance at the Congress of Berlin, because Blowitz is also setting up Flashy with a berth on the Orient Express, on the occasion of its inaugural run (not that Harry’s impressed in the least). But the Austrian Princess Kralta is waiting for him on board, and splendid carnal company she proves but there’s a hitch, and when that hitch becomes a snag, you can almost check off the correspondences. Threat of blackmail over the supposed rape of that Bavarian Countess, yes, plot by Bismarck, yes, Rudi von Starnberg, well almost yes, this time it’s his son Willem Rupert (‘Call me Bill’) who combines all the characteristics of old Rudi with a high leavening of Public School banter, having been educated in England.
Unfortunately, Fraser is once again repeating himself, albeit to a different end, but just as the first time round, with treachery in the mix and Flashman as the intended scapegoat once more.
What Harry is doing is, ostensibly, preventing the First World War happening thirty years ahead of history. A group of Hungarian patriots plan to assassinate Emperor Franz Joseph of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in order to win Hungary’s freedom, despite the inconvenient fact that this will precipitate nationalist fervour throughout the Balkans, leading to the overthrow of the Turkish Empire (the ‘Sick Man of Europe’ as it was referred to in my A-level history books): the very thing that Berlin Congress at the start of the story was designed to avert.
Relying on how Flashy is known to Emperor Franz-Joseph over his unavailing service to his brother Maximilian in Mexico, Bill and Flashy will inveigle themselves into the Emperor’s Summer Lodge to act as silent bodyguards. It’s all in a good cause, even if it is being orchestrated at the behest of Chancellor Bismarck (which worries Flashman enormously: he has read this story before, as well).
And just like before, it’s a fraud intended to do the exact opposite of rescue, and leave Flashy to hold the bag, exactly as before. The variation on the first story is that Bismarck and his agents are completely genuine and it is only Bill von Starnberg who’s false: a Hungarian patriot using the opportunity to get to Franz-Joseph and assassinate him.
As usual, a combination of funk, paranoia and the familiar unlikely coincidence combines to alert Flashy to how he’s being had, well past the eleventh hour but not quite at midnight, and this is where we see the effects of years that have softened Flashman from his original creation as the complete poltroon. Whereas the Flashy of Royal Flash would have run screaming from the scene, by ‘The Road to Charing Cross’, the older Harry runs screaming towards it. True, Fraser convincingly wraps it up in time and experience and understanding that sometimes you have to take the slightly longer term view, but we’re still a long way from the unvarnished Flashman. Like all series, it’s inevitable: anti-heroes can only go so far before they need to ‘grow’.
So Flashy foils the plot but at the cost of his own safety. He’s dragged into some nearby caves, with an icy lake, a bottomless crevasse and a Bill intent on honouring his promise to the old man that he’ll run Flashman through. It’s not really a contest, given the difference in age and stamina, not to mention swordsmanship, between the duellist, and Flashy can’t even coward his way out of it because his fame as a hero has impressed itself upon Bill, via Rudi, who just writes it off as all gammon, meant to confuse.
And he runs Flashman through.
It’s not a fatal wound, though it’s good enough given enough time, and there’s that crevasse at hand. But before Flashman can get pitched down this natural oubliette (once again echoing Royal Flash and the Strakenzian dungeons), enter a Guardian Angel, another sword-wielding duellist who proves to be von Starnberg’s equal, who first disarms him, then runs him through with rather more finality than the hapless Bill did with Harry.
And who is this Angel? Why, none other than French Intelligence Service Agent (retired but on temporary re-enlistment), Caprice, the gamine girl. Did I overlook mentioning that, whilst he’s been kidnapped and blackmailed into the original scapegrace plot, Flashy discovered that it was known to and had the blessings of both the British and French Intelligence Services. So there was no backing out? Ok, I mention it now.
All is well, Flashman is saved, Bill’s dead and everybody’s looking the other way over the obvious evidence that sweet, innocent Caprice executed a helpless man, and there’s an unusually long coda to the tale, because Fraser needs to spin Flashman’s wheels for a considerable period so as to fit in his punchline. Some of this is taken up by the genuine fact that Flashman, now in his Sixties, needs an extended period to regain his strength after his quite serious wound.
And Fraser uses this section to try to re-blacken Flashy the cad: though she’s saved him, the now-married Caprice won’t shag him, so Harry plots to disturb her marital bliss. It’s disgusting and vile, but it backfires by making Flashy look petty in his old age.
But more time is needed yet, so once he’s functioning again, Flashman accepts Princess Kralta’s invitation to Vienna, to bull her all over the shop all over Xmas, with the complaisance of, and in the home of her husband, who’s bouncing his own mistresses around under the same roof. |the decadence of it all, besides the fact that it’s much less fun screwing another bloke’s missus if he’s waving you on, gallantly, eventually palls and Harry decides it’s time to offer his attentions to Elspeth again, and heads home.
Just in time, as Fraser needed, to disembark at Charing Cross Station (you wondered about the title?), have his trunk lost by a drunken porter, wander curiously in search of it and walk smack into a leaving party. General Gordon’s leaving party, for the Sudan. The very thing Flashman left the country to avoid, and here he is, being swept straight back on the train, to head Chinese Gordon’s Intelligence staff. At Khartoum.
That, sadly, was another story we never got to read.
‘The Subtleties of Baccarat’ is, by comparison, a very short and very slight thing. It treats with the infamous Tranby Croft affair, an allegation of gambling at a Yorkshire country house, which led to scandal at it involving the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII.
The scandal is now an historical footnote: Lieutenant-Colonel Sir William Gordon-Cummings was accused of cheating, over two nights, at baccarat. Despite defending himself vigorously, Gordon-Cummings eventually signed a declaration that he would never play cards again. This seems to have been done to keep things secret and keep the Prince of Wales being affected by the scandal (Edward was the dealer/banker).
In this it failed: the story came out, Gordon-Cummings sued for libel, the Prince was questioned in Court to much public opprobrium, Gordon-Cummings lost and was ruined.
The short story involves both Flashmans. Harry knows Gordon-Cummings from the Army, and the pair cordially detest each other: Flashy suggests the ‘no cards’ letter out of devilment. After the trial, Elspeth confesses to him that Gordon-Cummings was innocent: it was she who created the appearance of cheating, out of spite at Gordon-Cummings having, years earlier, traduced her husband’s courage!
Which leaves Flashman once again doubting his spouse’s fidelity, given that such accusations are not made in ordinary conversation over afternoon tea. But he still can’t come to a decision.
‘Flashman and the Tiger’, though short, was the highlight of the book, the long overdue chance to read the 1972 story, and it is a bit of a gem, the best thing here. Once again, the tale is solid between two periods, this time widely-separated, but linked by the Tiger of the title. Tiger Jack, Colonel Jack Sebastian Moran.
Not being a Sherlock Holmes fan, the name, and its occasional passing references elsewhere in the packets, had no connotations for me, so I began the story as a complete novice. For once, Fraser began in situ and in media res: Flashman is in South Africa (inspecting a mine that Elspeth has inherited from a cousin, according to a line in ‘The Road to Charing Cross’) and has somehow become involved in the Zulu War.
In fact, we start with Flashy hightailing it out of Isan’lwana the moment the Zulus break through. His flight only takes him to Rorke’s Drift, where a badly outnumbered and under-provisioned British Force defeats the Zulus, And that’s all we get of the Zulu War, not even the oft-mentioned Welshman in a top hat leading a Zulu impi, because that’s not what ‘Flashman and the Tiger’ is about. That’s just the set-up, the MacGuffin, for Flashman’s meeting, en route from one famous battle to another, with a laconic but sharp-shooting English Major, who helps Flashy escape, hair-raisingly, and whose name Flashman doesn’t learn, nor Moran his, until its all over. And Flashman’s name means something to Moran, not that Harry can guess at it.
That’s all we get of the Zulu War, and it’s unusually thin gruel for Fraser and Flashman, but that’s because the point of the story lies not in South Africa but London, in 1894, the absolute furthest point we get of Flashman’s career (discounting his involvement as a supporting character in Fraser’s novel, Mr American). Flashy’s now in his seventies, settling into old age, his reputation secure and doting upon his grandchildren, in particular sweet Selina, who’s engaged to be married. All is serene, he’s off the active list, enjoying his old age, teasing Oscar Wilde at the theatre over the younger men clustered round him – except that one of them isn’t so young. In fact, he’s nearer Flashy’s age, and it’s Colonel Moran.
Sherlockians will have already picked up on where we are, as Flashman has mentioned a Society rumble over the death of someone called Ronny Adair, which places us in Arthur Conan-Doyle’s The Adventure of the Empty Room. But Flashy is more concerned with the fact that, a few days later, his beloved Selina turns up in tears.
It appears that her empty-headed fiancé has been led into deep gambling debts by Colonel Moran, to the extent that he’s gambled away Regimental Funds in trying to recover them. It’s a stupid move and if it comes out, it’s an invitation to take a pistol into a quiet room time, that is, unless Selina surrenders herself to Colonel Moran.
Sir Harry’s first thought is to buy Moran off: it’ll be damned expensive but for his little Selly, nothing’s too much. Except that Moran isn’t after money but revenge, against Flashman, in the most painful manner possible.
Why? Because Colonel Jack Sebastian Moran was once a cabin boy on a slave ship, back in the 1840s. A slave ship commanded by John Charity Spring. Which left a cabin boy behind with King Dahomey of Gozo. And Tiger Jack is looking for revenge against the men who abandoned him.
Which leaves Flashman with only one option, dangerous though it will be: he will have to kill Tiger Jack Moran. At his age.
So Flashy sets out a murderer to be, but Fraser, having tickled the Sherlockians’ expectations, plays Flashman into the Holmes and Watson story: Flashman trails Moran to a seemingly empty house in which, concentrating upon his own murderous plans, he is right in Flashy’s sights. But at the last second, Flashy senses other people around and withholds his shot, just in time for Holmes, Watson, Lestrade et al to leap out and arrest Professor Moriarty’s chief assassin.
There’s still one big snag to overcome, namely getting out of a police-filled empty house without being identified and this is the bit for which it’s obvious Fraser has written the story. Flashy, who has dressed down for the occasion, slumps in a corner, pours brandy down his jacket and plays drunk. Watson, the doctor, shows concern and almost recognises the General, but it is Holmes who applies his methods of observance to make detailed deductions about Flashy’s class, character, nationality, employment and criminality that is in every respect completely wrong.
You could say it’s funny, which it is, and you could say it’s entirely disrespectful, and you wouldn’t be wrong there either.
Anyway, the sting in the tale is that, on his way home, Flashy passes the little set of rooms he keeps for assignations and which he lends out to the Prince of Wales. Who is in residence, awaiting his latest popsy. Who is just arriving. And who is Selina.
Once a Flashman, always a Flashman, eh?
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.
P6. Flashman’s vastly expanded Who’s Who entry intrigues. Most of his military career is familiar to us, if some of the more unofficial posts are somewhat gilded, and no campaigns of which we do not know are disclosed. It’s made clear that Flashman joined the Union Army in the American Civil War as a Major in 1862, but that he was a Colonel in the Confederate Army the following year: his return to the Union ranks in 1864 is not specifically referenced. Equally, his role in Mexico with Maximilian is dated to 1867, indicating a short involvement. The Zulu War, Egypt and the Sudan, all of which appear in this packet to one extent or another are also included.
Of more interest are the gaps. The final Packet places Flashman on military duties in Abyssinia in 1868, omitted from this account so we can’t safely take unreferenced periods as evidence of Flashman enjoying some long overdue rest and recuperation.
There is also reference to Flashman’s variegated roles at one time and another, suitably varnished. Again, we recognise most of them, whether they are detailed or not, but one or two are suitably mysterious, such as lottery supervisor in Manila, and ‘trader and missionary’ attributed to Solomon Islands, Fly River etc. This puts Flashman in the South Pacific, in and about Papua New Guinea, and not a million miles away from either the Philippines or Australia. I will be giving a theory about these entries in a near future post.
P14. Flashman first met Blowitz at the time of ‘the Franco-Prussian farce in ’70’. It’s long been rumoured that Flashman was trapped in Paris during at least part of the siege, but this is too unspecific to justify that.
P19. Flashman confirms that at some time he had served in/with the French Foreign Legion, as had Macmahon. The latter describes himself as an ‘old Algeria hand himself’, which could be taken to mean that Flashy’s service had also been in North Africa, though Fraser speculates in a foot-note – and he should know – that this may have been part of his Mexico service with Maximilian in 1867.
P28. Flashman has not been in Germany since 1848: wherever his missing periods were spent, it was not there.
P47. Flashman confirms that he was once more in the public eye over supposed heroics in South Africa – the Zulu War – in 1879, though he was only in the country due to Elspeth’s cousin’s supposed mine. He also confirms that he soldiered with Sir Garnet Wolseley in Egypt in 1882 against the Khedive, though this appears to have been his only painless campaign.
P84. Flashman met Emperor Franz-Joseph on his yacht off Corfu in 1868, after returning from Mexico having failed to rescue Maximilian from the firing squad, for which he received the Order of Maria Theresa. Apparently Maximilian refused to be rescued, and Flashman escaped thanks to the combined (?) efforts of Princess Aggie Salm-Salm and Jesus Montero’s bandits, who thought Flashy knew the whereabouts of Montezuma’s Treasure. Clearly, Fraser had seriously considered the Mexico adventure as a subject, though only its ever tail-end would be utilised to set up the final Packet.
P89. Amongst those who have press-ganged Flashman into desperate schemes he would have preferred to avoid are several familiar names, including Lincoln, but now extended to Ulysses Grant and Wild Bill Hickok.
P195. Flashman bumps into General Gordon at Charing Cross station and is whisked off to the Sudan, and Khartoum.
P223. Flashman reminds us of his affair with Lily Langtry which, having begun before she became the Prince of Wales’ mistress, continued after that time, unbeknownst to the future King.
P224. Flashman addresses his suspicions that Gordon-Cumming had had an affair with Elspeth in the 1860s. He also soldiered with Gordon-Cumming in Zululand.
P262. Elspeth cut Gordon-Cumming because he had accused Flashman of cowardice, of running away at Isan’lwana (which he did).