In the very beginning, George MacDonald Fraser claimed that the Flashman Papers, discovered concealed in a chest of drawers accidentally broken at a Leicestershire auction, consisted of a dozen or so Packets. Nearly forty years after he first conceived of Harry Flashman and his splendid dual-character, public and private, Fraser wrote his final Flashman book and, in keeping with that distant pledge, the Twelfth Packet turned out to be the last.
Though I can’t recall where I read it, I remember an interview about this book in which Fraser confirmed that he had had three possible subjects, one of which being Flashman’s Mexico adventure of 1867. Instead, influenced by contemporary events, and his deep disgust at the military escapades launched by the Blair Government, Fraser chose to relate Flashman’s part in an obscure, long-forgotten British action, in Abyssinia, in 1868, which he held up, in his Explanatory Note, as an example of a time when British Governments acted with some honour, and did not carelessly send British troops to their death.
The Abyssinia Campaign, and Flashman’s almost complete detachment from it, were an unusual, and in many ways downbeat and minor-key ending to the Flashman saga, especially given the stories left untold: the Australian Gold Rush, Mexico, the Sudan, the Boxer Rebellion and, of course, the American Civil War. It is not a grand climax. Much is left unrelated. But it was what Fraser wanted to write about, so, considering the volume of work and research that underpinned each volume, and given that Fraser was now over eighty, it deserves to be respected.
Nevertheless, it’s an odd choice of subject, and an odd approach to the subject, in essence an admission that the military action did not provide any material for the traditional kind of Flashy escapade. It doesn’t help that Fraser starts his story by seguing out of the Mexican adventure, with enough details of what has been going on for us to take a fair stab and constructing the unwritten chronicle, especially as that detail only serves to emphasise how much more interesting the Mexican adventure would have been.
The Abyssinia expedition, under General Sir Robert Napier, was to rescue a small number of British citizens taken prisoner by the mad Emperor Theodore. The hostages are held at his seemingly impregnable citadel at Magdala, and Napier’s expedition faced a long approach, with stretched supply lines, through difficult and mountainous country.
But between Napier’s skill and experience as an Engineer, and his careful husbanding of his Army, a badly outnumbered force in hostile country and inhospitable conditions got to Magdala and defeated the Abyssinian Army without a single fatality in battle and only two deaths in the entire campaign. It’s an incredible record, but it’s also not very interesting in Flashman terms.
So what Fraser does is to send Harry off on an undercover, intelligence mission, bypassing the entire Army approach, using Flashy’s ability to impersonate native characters. What Napier wants is a secret agent who can pass undetected through a land filled with spies, to make contact with the Galla tribe and induce them to surround Magdala and cut off Theodore’s retreat. For guide, he will have the beautiful Uliba-Wark, younger sister (and threat to the throne) of the Galla Queen, Masteeat, who appears to have been created by Fraser out of a mystery Princess whose name is not known.
So Flashy’s adventure is a journey in three uneven parts. The first is undercover with Uliba-Wark, across the wilds of Abyssinia, experiencing the horrific slaughters perpetrated by Theodore, dodging gangs of thieves, screwing every night (naturally) and gradually getting closer to Galla territory, where Uliba confidently expects to overthrow her sister.
Unfortunately, Theodore’s got a very efficient spy organisation and the secret travellers are caught at the outflow of Lake Tana and have to take to the waters. The waters immediately before the Tisisat Falls, which are only about eight feet shorter than the Victoria Falls. Down which Flashy and Uliba are likely to go.
It’s his last betrayal, but it’s a doozy: Flashman’s on the boat, Uliba’s trying to join him, so he kicks her in the face to keep her off. It makes no difference: she struggles to shore and he goes over the falls, but survives, for no real reason other than Fraser needs him to. No-one believes him anyway.
Unfortunately, the experience rather puts Uliba off her lover/charge, not that this makes a difference to her elder sister Masteeat, who’s a damn sight smarter than her little pet. The Galla are happy to help out Napier’s army, and Masteeat is happy to sample Flashy’s charms, but Uliba’s a bit less keen and has him kidnapped out of the Palace for torture etc.
The problem for Uliba is that her merry little band are surprised by a merry little band of Theodore’s amazon warriors, who rescue Flashman but spear the historically doubtful Uliba somewhat comprehensively. And things only get worse when Flashman realises this little band are being led by none other than the mad king himself. This third phase is as Theodore’s prisoner.
We are used, by now, to Flashman spending time in the custody of both enemy and friend, and the volatile Theodore swings from one to another in his quite spectacular insanity, which Fraser portrays with no softening whatsoever. But it only lasts until Napier’s army arrives, ahead of schedule, and puts the Abyssinian defence to the sword. Theodore commits suicide, in accordance with history’s record, though Napier and his staff are convinced that Flashy has done his British duty (which he hasn’t) for which his only kudos are private ones since the record can’t show that a British officer put paid to a foreign ruler, eh, what?
And that, essentially, is that. Fraser’s commitment to a theme obviously personal to his interests cannot ultimately override the fact that the Abyssinian march of 1868, though unique, does not provide the material for a novel: another ‘Road to Charing Cross’, perhaps, but even there Fraser made more of a purely fictional adventure than he does here in one based in real life.
So now it was over. There were no more packets. A couple of years later, George MacDonald Fraser wrote his last book. It was not a Flashman novel, but rather a sequel to the splendidly outlandish The Pyrates, which once he told me was the favourite among his books (and it is a complete joy). That, too, was a disappointment, a dying fall, unfit to cap out his career.
Flashman on the March isn’t in that class. I’d rather have it than not, whereas The Reavers was utterly dispensable. But it was not the ending most of us would have wanted, not with so many other stories left unexplored. The Welshman in a top hat, leading a Zulu impi? Just how did Flashy persuade Jefferson Davies he was there to fix the lightning rod?
This is the last of the books but, like many before me, after one final History and Memories section, I’m going to make my own guesses as to the missing elements of Flashman’s career.
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.
Pp4-5. Flashman gives a neat little summary of the highlights of his 1867 adventure with Maximilian in Mexico, confirming that he had, amongst other things, been in service with the French Foreign Legion, pressed into service with Jesus Montero’s bandits, who believed him to know the whereabouts of Montezuma’s treasure, deserted from the Legion, been Maximilian’s aide-de-camp under false pretences, failed to persuade the emperor to escape, watched him being executed, been rescued by Princess Agnes Salm-Salm and eventually left the country as escort for Maximilian’s body, being returned to Trieste. Enough said.
P15. Flashman travels by sea from Trieste to Alexandria, in Egypt, accompanying General Napier’s warchest. From there, he travels by rail to Suez, via Cairo, but comments on having previously done the journey by camel back. When this took place, and in what circumstances, is not specified.
P33. Flashman confirms himself as retired from the Army, having seen no service for his country since China in 1860. Little does he know.
P35. Another reference to Flashman accompanying General Sherman on the drive through Georgia.
P131. Flashman refers, not for the first time, to conversations with the celebrated Traveller, Richard Burton, here described as the ‘Great Bore of the Nile’. I have not mentioned any of these references previously as none of them indicate that Flashman and Burton ever met outside of London, in places such as the Travellers Club, but Burton should be mentioned at least once in relation to the unchronicled aspects of Flashman’s life.
P134. A first mention outside the Who’s Who entry of Flashman’s time in the ‘Fly River country’ and it references only travelling in jungle.
P135. Fraser footnotes Flashman’s reference to having been parted from Elspeth for five years now, which places his departure from England and the start of his involvement in the American Civil War to 1863. Flashman references Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and Yellow Tavern, Civil War battles all, Ford’s Theatre (the scene of Lincoln’s assassination) and Queretaro (where Maximillian was first besieged, then captured and executed). Flashman refers to seeing Elspeth at brief, ‘ecstatic’ intervals, which Fraser notes implies at least two visits. Flashman may well have returned to England after the Civil War, once or even twice, but even Fraser has his doubts about any earlier return. Fraser dates this uncertain period as being from April 1865 to March 1867, but if Flashman joined Maximillian on the run from the French Foreign Legion, presumably this latter date has to be pushed forward.
P257. Flashman imagines his death-bed and the cry he plans to make excoriating the failure of his enemies to do for him. One such is Iron Eyes. Whoever he was. Appropriate for the last such reference to be so complete a mystery.