WHEN the Chartist leader Ernest Jones first heard the boast that the British Empire was one on which the sun never set, he riposted, "And on which the blood never dries." Among the chief beauties of the Flashman narratives is their taste for imperial gore. Those who have followed the old braggart through his previous campaigns will remember the suicide charge of the 21st Lancers at Balaklava (in which he took part by accident), the butchery in the Khyber Pass, and the sanguinary revenge taken upon the Indian mutineers. Who can forget, also, the moment when the slave ship Balliol College tossed its human cargo over the side to escape arrest and detection?
Surrounded as he is by heaps of cadavers, Flashman is no Victorian Rambo. He is the perfect illustration of Dr. Arnold's precept that a bully is always a coward. Beneath his magnificent whiskers and medalled chest there is an abject, scheming poltroon, who whimpers with fear at the sound of the foe and falls over himself to betray friends and colleagues. Anything is thinkable if it preserves him with a whole skin. The very qualities which got him expelled from Tom Brown's Rugby School -- deceit, cruelty and funk -- fit him admirably as a man to take credit for the sacrifices of others.
With this episode, he is whirled up in the hellish carnage of the Taiping Revolt. In this, the bloodiest civil war in human history, China convulsed itself in an attempt to throw off the "foreign devils." Great Britain's prized opium trade -- the greatest narcotics scandal of all time -- was at stake. Human life was not so much cheap as barely reckoned at all. Flashman goes through the whole blood-bolted affair with his bowels like water, but he never loses his faculty for description. If you like this sort of thing, then Flashy's your man:
"When the guns haven't come up, and your cavalry's checked by close country or tutti-putti, and you're waiting in the hot, dusty hush for the faint rumble of impi or harka over the skyline and know they're twenty to your one -- well, that's when you realize that it all hangs on that double line of yokels and town scruff with their fifty rounds a man and an Enfield bayonet. Kitchener himself may have placed 'em just so, with D'Israeli's sanction, The Times' blessing, and the Queen waving 'em good-bye -- but now it's their grip on the stock, and their eye on the backsight, and if they break, you're done. Haven't I stood shivering behind 'em often enough, wishing I could steal a horse from somewhere?"
THIS PASSAGE gives the flavor of Fraser's historical sense (notice how he makes a point of the reactionary gentry's rendition of Disraeli) as well as his talent for bathos -- from Sir Henry Newbolt to Schweik in one move. Not only are the Flashman books extremely funny, but they give meticulous care to authenticity. You can, between guffaws, learn from them.
There is a chapter in this book which I would select from a strong field as being exemplary. It recounts Lord Elgin's decision in 1860 to raze the Summer Palace at Peking, and it depicts the manner in which the order was carried out. The Summer Palace was not just a building. It was a gorgeous landscaped park of over 200 temples and great houses. Contemporary accounts of it and its contents show it to have been the summit of Manchu taste and civilization, perhaps unequalled in history. Fraser, through Flashman, shows how Elgin came to his conclusion (revenge for the hideous treatment of British and French prisoners) and why he pressed on (to show the Chinese that the Son of Heaven, their emperor, was a fake). The pages which describe the actual desecration -- while Elgin read Darwin and Trollope in his tent -- are vivid, moving and awful. They promote Fraser well out of the thriller class and into the ranks of historical novelists.
There is lots more, of course. We meet the cultivated Sir Garnet Wolseley, the original for "The Very Model of a Modern Major-General." F. T. Ward, the Yankee adventurer, is excellently well-drawn. Flashman himself, who had been showing worrying signs of conscience in recent books, is back in mid-season form. His powers of description have not deserted him ("Her skipper was one Witherspoon, of Greenock, a lean pessimist with a cast in his eye and a voice like coals being delivered"), and neither has his Stakhanovite tumescence. Old addicts will mainline Flashman and the Dragon. New addicts are to be envied. The words Albion Perfide will never sound alien again.