Book: Flashman on the March by George MacDonald Fraser

Loads of fun

George MacDonald Fraser
Flashman on the March
HarperCollins, 2005
ISBN13: 978 0 00 719740 8
ISBN10: 10 0 00 719740 3
287 pages (main text)
UKP 7.99

To someone who is familiar with George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman novels, it is likely that the only question that a review of a new one needs to answer is: Is it as much fun as all the others? The answer to that in this case is a delighted yes.

To others, a little more information is in order.

There's a rather tedious novel called Tom Brown's School Days that was written by Thomas Hughes and originally published in 1857 in the UK. The title character is an everyman sort of boy who goes to Rugby School, a famous British public school (that is, private school, to Americans). He studies hard, is bedeviled by bullies, plays sports manfully, and then leaves to go to university, and then, presumably, to build the British Empire. I don't know if it was an explicit model for J. K. Rowling, but you can think of Tom Brown's School Days as any of the Harry Potter books minus the magic and with an over-the-top dose of Victorian morality.

The main bully in Tom Brown's School Days is Harry Flashman. He's a bully, a liar, a coward, a cheat, and (I think, by implication) a lecher. George MacDonald Fraser has written the further adventures of Harry Flashman. That is, what happened after he got kicked out of Rugby for drunkenness. And, while Tom Brown is tedious and sanctimonious, Harry Flashman is a hoot.

As Mr Fraser sets up the novels, it seems that late in his long and inglorious life, Harry Flashman wrote his memoirs, though they were never published. He wrote them in a rather episodic fashion and various packets of papers have come into Mr Fraser's possession. He edits and publishes them as he opens them, not necessarily in chronological order. In his editor persona, Mr Fraser adds historical footnotes comparing Flashman's recollections with other sources. He may point out that Flashman ms-remembers a newspaper headline or that his recollections give more detail but are essentially in agreement with contemporary sources. Most of Flashman's adventures involve him being, to one degree or another, connected with the British army. Mr Fraser inserts Flashman into carefully-researched history in remarkably clever ways.

In the course of the books (Flashman on the March is the twelfth), Flashman's cowardice, good luck, and delight in taking credit for other people's accomplishments stand him in good stead: he is promoted to brigadier-general, is knighted, and receives the Victoria Cross, the French Legion of Honor, the American Medal of Honor, and a bucketful of other medals as well.

He gets all that because fate, or Mr Fraser, puts him in the middle of most of the interesting military actions of the nineteenth century. In Flashman at the Charge, he takes part in the charge of the Light Brigade. In Flashman in the Great Game, he's a spy during the Sepoy Mutiny (or First War of Indian Independence if you prefer, but Flashman would probably damn your eyes for calling it that). And in Flashman and the Redskins, he takes part in Custer's last stand. I've been a fan of the novels since 1986 when I picked up Flashman and the Dragon from a stack of copies near the cash register in a New Jersey bookstore. It was probably the scantily-clad woman on the dust-jacket that caught my eye.

As you will have gathered, Flashman is not politically correct. If you can't stand to see the n-word used by a reprehensible character who certainly would have used it, don't read the novels. And Flashman is thoroughly reprehensible. But he's also entirely honest about that with himself and with the reader. Few characters refer to themselves as "poltroons". There's something a bit charming about that and about history written by someone who has no reverence for any of the people in it.

At the beginning of Flashman on the March, Flashman has escaped from Mexico where he had been advising the recently-late Emperor Maximilian (whom he describes as an "almighty idiot" (p. 4)) and fetched up in Trieste. He has a reason for wanting to leave Trieste in a hurry and when an old school chum (and fellow bully) who's in the diplomatic service asks him to supervise the transportation of a shipment of money to Alexandria, he's pretty glad to take the job. The money has to be delivered to General Robert Napier who needs it for a military expedition into Abyssinia (approximately modern-day Ethiopia) to free some European hostages who are being held by a local king named Theodore. Of course, things don't go quite that smoothly and Flashman has to catch up to Napier some miles inland from the port of Zoola on the Red Sea. Once he has delivered his cargo, he's eager to be on his way home, but Napier has a plan that needs just the skills that he thinks Flashman has.

The adventure is splendid, Flashman's (er, Mr Fraser's) descriptions are remarkable as usual, and the characters are vivid. For a taste, here's a description of Masteeat, the Queen of Galla:

    Her majesty was at luncheon, which she ate
    surrounded by lions, four huge maned brutes
    grouped around the great couch where she
    lounged on cushions, an arm over the neck
    of one of the beasts while with her free hand
    she helped herself to dainties from trays
    presented by two more fair attendants.
    Another lion was nuzzling her shoulder from
    behind, and the remaining two crouched at
    her feet, one with its head against he knee --
    for all the world like four great tabbies
    toadying for scraps, which she fed them from
    time to time, dainty fingers popping tidbits
    into jaws I'd not have approached for a
    pension. (p. 149)

The title of Mr Fraser's previous book suggests that he thought then that his career was near its end. I'm glad it wasn't and I hope it still isn't.

Posted: Mon - May 22, 2006 at 09:06   Main   Category: