Michael Dirda

(Jacket Art By Ruth Marten From "Flashman On The March")
By Michael Dirda
Sunday, November 13, 2005


From "The Flashman Papers," 1867-8

Edited and arranged by

George MacDonald Fraser

Knopf. 335 pp. $24

It is now 40 years since the Flashman papers were fortuitously discovered during a sale of household furniture at Ashby, Leicestershire. As edited and arranged by the distinguished independent scholar George MacDonald Fraser, their gradual publication -- this being the 12th volume -- has provided welcome, if unexpected, insight into the military campaigns and private life of Victorian Britain's most decorated soldier, Sir Harry Paget Flashman (1822-1915).

No student of 19th-century history would dispute that this archive has proved anything less than a treasure trove, prompting revisionist interpretations of the "Great Game" in Central Asia as well as renewed understanding of the Crimean War (and of the Charge of the Light Brigade, in particular), deepened insight into the American western expansion, and hitherto unsuspected background to John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. (Alas, we still await a full account of Sir Harry's presence in North America from 1861-65, though it is well known that he served with both Union and Confederate forces.) No doubt their author's vigorous style and forthrightness, like that of Boswell in his "racy" journals (discovered under comparably romantic circumstances at Malahide Castle), contribute to the papers' popularity outside the academy: Many readers testify that they have in fact made the Pax Britannica "come alive." True, on occasion some pages have been deemed a little shocking by unduly sensitive natures -- one hardly forgets how Flashman, being pursued by angry Russians on horseback, felt compelled to lighten a heavy sled by throwing his virtually unclad mistress out of it. But as the French so wisely observe, autre temps, autre moeurs . Far more worrisome is the scholarly deliberateness of the Flashman publication schedule. Fraser's editing has been impeccable -- and it is impossible to imagine anyone else capable of it -- but he is himself past 80 and only halfway through his subject's long life. Be that as it may, Flashman on the March is at last available.

The story begins. . . . Story ? I should obviously say "memoir," but the Flashman papers have proved so exciting that many readers, and even some critics, have adopted the convention of likening them to swashbuckling fiction. This is an understandable error, and easily forgiven. Still, the presence of historical endnotes -- 19 pages of them here -- goes far to undercut any unwarranted suspicions about their strict factual accuracy. At all events, this packet's "story" begins with Flashman escaping from Mexico after the execution of the French Emperor Maximilian, whom he had tried, unsuccessfully, to save from the firing squad. As one somehow expects, the ship bearing our hero back to Europe also bears an alluring young female, in this instance the Austrian captain's great-niece: "Puppy-fat and golden sausage curls ain't my style as a rule, but combined with a creamy complexion, parted rosebud lips, and great forget-me-not eyes alight with idiotic worship, they have their attraction." It is a long voyage to Trieste, and only a prude could blame Sir Harry for beguiling the tedious hours by instructing the little chit in "a few exercises they don't usually teach in young ladies' seminaries."

As so often happens, the value of this pedagogy is rashly undervalued, not to say misunderstood, by Frulein Gertrude's elderly guardian, and Flashman soon needs to elude the attentions of inquiring agents of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Where better to vanish than into Africa? It seems that Sir Robert Napier, an old friend from the Indian campaigns, is about to march into Abyssinia to rescue a group of Britons being held captive by the insane Emperor Theodore. Flashman need only oversee the transport of 100,000 of silver, and then he can be on his way back to merrie England and the abundant charms of his even merrier wife, Elspeth. An easy job, really. Indeed, he writes, "I was in a tranquil optimistic mood as I set off on my Abyssinian adventure," adding "ass that I was."

"I couldn't foresee the screaming charge of long-haired warriors swinging their hideous sickle-blades against the Sikh bayonets, or the huge mound of rotting corpses under the precipice at Islamgee, or the ghastly forest of crucifixes at Gondar, or feel the agonising bite of steel bars against my body as I swung caged in the freezing gale above a yawning void, or imagine the ghastly transformation of an urbane, cultivated monarch into a murderous tyrant shrieking with hysterical glee as he slashed and hacked at his bound victims."

Ahem. Those hitherto unfamiliar with the Flashman Papers should note that here, as on other occasions, Sir Harry, though a reliable witness to such gruesome matters, occasionally betrays a taste for the stylistic excesses of the penny dreadful and shilling shocker, just as he also sometimes gives way to the rough humor of the officer's mess (e.g., "The place shook like a New Orleans brothel in Holy Week"). In consequence, many readers will find themselves simply turning the pages of Flashman on the March as if they were lost in the exciting adventures of a Victorian James Bond -- and by so doing fail to appreciate fully how much they are learning about the Abyssinian War. Moreover, the doubly attentive will sometimes detect a surprisingly prescient critique of contemporary world affairs: Great powers, this old campaigner suggests, were once able to go into hostile lands, do what they came to do and, in this instance at least, get out with minimal casualties.

It obviously goes without saying that Flashman's memoirs don't only deal with public events and battlefields. They show us the reverse of the medal, too, those private moments that so enliven human existence. As Flashman confesses, he didn't foresee the horrors, but neither did he foresee his opportunity to grow acquainted with the indigenous people, among them "the loveliest women in all Africa . . . a smiling golden nymph in her little leather tunic, teasing me as she sat by a woodland stream plaiting her braids . . . a gaudy barbarian queen lounging on cushions surrounded by her tame lions . . . a tawny young beauty remarking to my captors: 'If we feed him into the fire, little by little, he will speak. . . .' Aye, it's an interesting country, Abyssinia."

Uliba-Wark, Malee, Queen Masteeat -- each actually plays an important role in the bloody politics of Abyssinia, and each recognizes the need to win over Her Majesty's envoy. Flashman consequently relates the back and forth of some extremely heated conferences, usually in camera . Thankfully, he is able to draw on worldly insights gleaned from his own considerable and varied experience. If, as he counsels at one point, "you're lucky enough to be bedded unexpected with a beauty like Sarafa's wench, you must just follow the wisdom imparted to me by an Oriental lady of my acquaintance, after she'd filled me with hasheesh and ridden me ruined: 'Lick up the honey, stranger, and ask no questions.' "

Much happens in this 12th packet of the papers, though the second half of the narrative slows considerably as Flashman lingers over the madness of King Theodore and the tactics behind the siege of Magdala. But even in the first half, which is made up of a trek across a forbidding landscape, in the company of a voluptuous woman, pursued by ruthless enemies, with dangers and captures and escapes rapidly succeeding one another, Flashman periodically grows wistful, nostalgic. Where once he took life as it came, perhaps thinking just a little about his own personal survival, he now constantly compares the present to the past. When he meets the mad Theodore, he recalls monsters of his own previous exploits: "Mangas Colorado, Ranavalona, General Sang-kol-in-sen, Crazy Horse, Dr. Arnold." At various times he remembers his remarkable encounters with Kit Carson, John Brown, Lola Montez, the Empress of China, and many others, including Abraham Lincoln and Count Bismarck.

To those of a critical cast, a man of 45 shouldn't be old enough for quite so much sentimental reminiscence, even if he has enjoyed a rich, full life of almost non-stop derring-do. Which is certainly Flashman's case. After all, you don't win the Victoria Cross, the Legion of Honor, the Order of Maria Theresa and our own Medal of Honor, among other recognitions, by endeavoring to stay out of harm's way like a cowardly shirker and a poltroon -- or do you?

Though Flashman on the March can and should be appreciated by almost anyone, its bouts of retrospection usefully serve as either reminders or tantalizing advertisements for all that has come before. Happily, today's reader can readily acquire Flashman (covering the years 1839-42) and then go on to Royal Flash (1842-43), Flashman's Lady (1842-45), Flashman and the Mountain of Light (1845-46) and all the other adventures in Afghanistan, India, Madagascar and Borneo, Europe, Africa, China, America. Sometimes it really does seem utterly astonishing, almost unbelievable, that one man could have been present at the Charge of the Light Brigade, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Little Big Horn and the Siege of Peking, or that he should enjoy le repos du guerrier -- the warrior's rest -- with so many warm-hearted, albeit quite morally lax females. But then Sir Harry Paget Flashman isn't just another eminent Victorian; he is also the stuff of legend and truly an inspiration to us all.

Michael Dirda is a critic for Book World. His e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com, and his online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.

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