Tag Archives: George MacDonald Fraser

“Flashman at the Charge,” by George MacDonald Fraser

23 May

“Flashman at the Charge,” by George MacDonald Fraser (321p)

1854-1855: Crimean War and the Charge of the Light Brigade, and the Conquest of Central Asia

Flashman at the Charge is the fourth in the late George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series of a false-memoir detailing the life and times of the heroic but cowardly Harry Flashman. Written in 1973, Flashman at the Charge takes Flashman to the front of the Crimean War and details his involvement in not only the suicidal Charge of the Light Brigade but also his exploits on the wild steppe frontier of Central Asia.

Britain and her continental allies were hurtling toward war with Russia, with disputes over sovereign authority of the Holy Land at the heart of it (for more, go here). Flashman, meanwhile, is kicking about on half-pay while scheming to prepare his way out of the inevitable conflict by taking up a position with the Ordnance Board. All seems to be going well until Flashman’s reputation as a gallant and valiant officer comes to the attention of Prince Albert, where Flashman is tasked by the prince consort to be the guardian and mentor of one of Victoria’s cousins, Prince William of Celle. Despite his every attempt to avoid it Flashman and Prince William are soon packed off to the war front so the young prince can experience what war is all about. Prince William is soon killed at the Alma and Flashman himself falls desperately ill with cholera, recovering only in time to rejoin his aide-de-camp duties on the 25th of October; the day of Balaclava and the day of the most infamous cavalry charge in history.

Flashy’s day starts off in the usual fashion as disaster quickly befalls him. While carrying messages across the battlefields he finds himself trapped with Colin Campbell’s 93rd Highlanders as the Russian cavalry attacked, and then with Scarlett’s heavy brigade as they chased the Russian cavalry uphill in a daring charge. All the while Flashman just wants to go and have a lie down with his stomach still ailing him terribly. He almost manages to get away from further duty after Raglan sends an order to Cardigan in the care of Louis Nolan until needing to add further instruction to his order, so he sends Flashman after Nolan to catch him. Unknowingly, Flashman was about to see himself thrown into the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade. He survives, somehow, but is taken prisoner by the Russians. Flashman is at first bundled off to a makeshift prisoner of war camp away from the battlefield, but as an officer he is then transferred to be a hostage (more like a guest) at the home of a trusted landowner in the Ukrainian countryside.

At the home of Count Pencherjevsky Flashman is reunited with Harry “Scud” East (from Tom Brown’s Schooldays), also taken prisoner, and spends many weeks in the company of the Cossack Count Pencherjevsky and his family, including his daughter Valentina, who Flashman is unable to resist spending a few late night’s with in the bedroom. One such late night sees Flashman and the curious Scud East, curious of the constant arrivals of other guests to the Pencherjevsky house, chance upon a meeting of several Russian military and government officials planning an invasion of British-held India. When the opportunity arises Flashman and East escape, taking Valentina with them, and head off for the Crimea and the safety of the British army. They almost make it but Flashman is re-captured by Count Pavel Ignatiev and quickly locked up again, before taken across southern Russia and deep into Central Asia, blackmailed into acting as a double agent in Ignatiev’s scheme to end British rule in India.

While imprisoned at a fort on the Aral Sea coast Flashman meets Yakub Beg and Izzet Kutebar, two Tajik warlords and befriends them. They are soon rescued by Beg’s men and whisked off to the wild steppe (modern Uzbekistan) by Beg’s lover, a Chinese castout woman. There, Beg and his followers hatch a plan to halt the Russian advance over their own lands by performing a near-suicidal attack on the arriving magazine ships, thus destroying any hope of an immediate attack on the Central Asian khanates and eventually British India. Flashman, drugged with hashish, leads the attack and they are successful, allowing him to steal away from Ignatiev and flee into British India. The story is continued in Flashman and the Great Game.

I have always said this is my favourite Flashman novel and, having just re-read it for the third time, my opinion on that front has definitely not changed. I loved it again just as I did the first time. It is, as the endorsement on the front cover suggests, vintage Flashman. That means it is wildly entertaining, superbly written, historically accurate, engaging and engrossing, amusing and with perfect characterisation. Flashman himself is on the top of his game as Fraser presents the anti-hero in his usual swagger – cowardly, perpetually horny, deceptive, lecherous and resourceful. The way he paints the picture of Flashman trying to get his way out of doing anything remotely dangerous while maintaining his public face of a gallant hero, with Flashman’s own running commentary, makes for tremendously amusing reading and a number of laughs. The history is very strong as well and Fraser provides a first class account of the ineptitude of the Crimean War and the events that led to a cavalry charge headlong into artillery, this is bound to make for interesting reading for any history buff as it actually reads, as it always does, that Flashman was actually there and you can essentially take his word as gospel (why not? These books are so meticulously researched you wouldn’t be wrong to quote him).

As seems to be the case with the Flashman novels, Flashman at the Charge doubles as a social commentary of the nineteenth century as well. Flashman’s travels across southern Russia should give a unique insight into the life of a common Russian peasant and their pitiful existence of subversion and submission. In addition, there is a nice social commentary on the state of the officer corps within the British army at the time (which was soon to change following the disastrous Crimean War) and the spirit of the steppe people, which is a welcome change to the present bad press people from that part of the world receive in the modern age.

A first class and immensely enjoyable read. This is the very best of a brilliant series by an exceptionally talented author and one not to be missed.



“Flash for Freedom!,” by George MacDonald Fraser

10 Jan

“Flash for Freedom!” by George MacDonald Fraser (332p)
1848-1849: The Atlantic Slave Trade and the Underground Railroad

The third instalment in the late George MacDonald Fraser’s popular Flashman series is Flash for Freedom!. Written in 1971, this third book, continuing the false-memoir of a Victorian hero who is a really a down right bastard, sees Flashman tell of his first visit to the United States in 1848. There, he deals with the slave trade and the difficulties in beating it with the Underground Railroad, meeting a number of interesting people along the way, like a young Abraham Lincoln.

Beginning almost immediately where Royal Flash finished, Flashman is back in England after his nightmare in Germany with Otto von Bismarck. All he wants to do is do what Flashman does best – drink, gamble, whore and enjoy himself and his wife’s pregnancy. But his malevolent father-in-law has other plans and wishes to have Flashman elected as a member of parliament to push his own agenda. So he arranges for Flashman to be taken to a party of political types, including Benjamin Disraeli, to meet and greet and make an impression. He does this as he always does and bluffs his way through, putting on a show for members of the Tory party that he could be a possible MP. But as is often the case for Flashman things go wrong, and so one night during a game of cards an old nemesis returns to get some revenge on him. Outraged, Flashman strikes out and almost kills the man, thus creating a scandal that would need him to be out of England for awhile again. So Morrison, his father-in-law, sees him placed on a supposed merchant ship as a worker and is whisked out of England within a matter of days of the scandal.

However, Flashman is in for a rude surprise when he settles into life aboard the merchant ship, captained by the eccentric Latin-sprouting John Charity Spring. The ship, the Balliol College, is no ordinary ship – it is a slave-runner. Flashman is thrown into the world of the still thriving Atlantic slave trade and becomes complicit in all those crimes. He is forced to accompany them to the Dahomey coast (modern Benin) where Captain Spring has arranged with the local tribal king, Gezo, a purchase of a few hundred slaves in exchange for a number of European goods, namely weapons. But during the meeting Spring tests the patience of the king’s famed Amazon warriors too much and they react violently when he tries to buy six of them, and a bloody chase sees Flashman and the rest of the crew of the Balliol College run for their lives to the ship. They escape, just, and head for the Mosquito Coast (modern Nicaragua) to unload the slaves and receive payment. Along the way Flashman details the horrors of life aboard for those slaves and creates an image of the dirty, cramped and stinking hell those people endured before more of the same on land. Flashman finds himself hating it more than he has ever hated anything else and is beyond relieved when the slaves are unloaded. The journey is almost over and only requires the transport of less than ten slaves-turned-prostitutes to the United States, which is illegal, when they are spotted and captured by the United States Navy.

As ever, Flashman thinks on his feet and immediately assumes the identity of a secret Royal Navy agent on board who had been spying on Captain Spring. He bluffs his way out of capture and is taken aboard the American vessel, immediately being taken to Washington. In the American capital he bluffs his way through a number of glaring eyes, save for one, belonging to Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln can sense Flashman isn’t who he says he is, but lets him go anyway, and allows Flashman to be taken to New Orleans for the adjudication of the Balliol College as a witness. But that would almost certainly reveal Flashman’s true identity and so he does what Flashman does best in that situation – he runs! Holding up in New Orleans for a few days, he is soon taken in by members of the infamous Underground Railroad, for his assumed identity is plenty well known. Flashman is roped into smuggling a former slave on the run, a slave who is also highly educated and whose intelligence is valued highly. He tries, but it, as usual, goes wrong and he flees to a secluded plantation in northern Mississippi where he takes work as a slave-driver for a few months, but that also goes wrong when the owner of the plantation catches Flashman in the middle of something (or, rather, someone) and he is forced to run again. This time he has another running slave with him, a woman named Cassy, and the two flee across the southern states, creating even more trouble, to the Mason-Dixon Line and Ohio.

They almost make it to Ohio via paddle steamer until they are spotted by slave-catchers and forced to run again, fleeing across half-frozen lakes and rivers and into friendly territory. In Portsmouth, Ohio they find refuge with Lincoln, in town for a debate on abolitionism. Lincoln sees Cassy a safe passage north and out of the United States to Canada, but does Flashman a real turn and orders him to return to New Orleans and be a witness against Captain Spring, which would almost certainly reveal Flashman’s complicity in all those crimes as well. With no way out he returns to New Orleans and sits the trial, only Flashman doesn’t exactly play ball with the United States government this time and ruins their case against Captain Spring. The story is later continued in Flashman and the Redskins.

This is a truly great novel and one of the best in the Flashman series. It is full of twists and turns that leave the reader flying through the pages at a very quick rate. The supporting cast in Flash for Freedom! is excellent, though. Fraser went to great lengths to create a supporting cast with so many interesting distinct personalities that are fleshed out. Each person Flashman meets has their own voice which gives the novel a fulfilling touch. In many ways Flash for Freedom! is a social commentary on pre-Civil War America and heavily covers the slave issue and abolitionism. I don’t doubt Fraser spent an immense amount of time researching to properly construct the pro/anti-slave sentiments throughout the novel and he certainly had a very good understanding of the system and how it worked. So in that respect is an enlightening look into pre-Civil War America told within the scope of a simple yet very enjoyable plot with a wonderful cavalcade of supporting characters helping Flashman along his way. I very much loved it.

Lastly, with the novel’s subject being the Atlantic slave trade and, in effective, a social commentary of a country hurtling toward a civil war over the slave trade, it is little surprise that during Flashman’s time aboard the slave-ship and in the American south there is a hell of a lot of racist dialogue. “N****r” appears throughout, as it should. As good as Flash for Freedom! is I would not recommend any person who becomes uncomfortable with that word and the sort of racism to be expected read this, for it will most definitely put you off it. It doesn’t bother me because “n****r” doesn’t have that impact on me due to where I was born and raised, but I completely understand why some people will not like hearing it. All the same, Flashman explains the hell that those people would have endured aboard the ship and then hears it himself from the runaway slaves he meets in his travels, and it is an eye opening experience for him and the reader. When he meets slave owners, slave runners and slave catchers it gives readers an idea of what life must have been life in that part of the world then and the sort of people who happily committed such violence against fellow humans, despite them not being considered human. He sees the racism they receive and it changes his character a little, but all the same it is very much there and will probably upset people sensitive to it.


“Royal Flash,” by George MacDonald Fraser

21 Sep

“Royal Flash,” by George MacDonald Fraser (294p)
1843, 1847-1848: Lola Montez, Otto von Bismarck and the Revolutions of 1848

Royal Flash is the sequel in George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series, written in 1970. The second packet of Harry Paget Flashman’s memoirs, edited by Fraser, is set in two parts – the first deals with Flashman’s downtime in 1843, and the second depicts the Revolutions of 1848 and the Schleswig-Holstein Question in the fictional German state of the Duchy of Strackenz, making it the only fictional setting in the Flashman series.

The first part of the novel is set in 1843 with Flashman on leave on half-pay from the army. He is toasted across London as the hero of Afghanistan and in typical Flashman form uses his new fame to the full. After a brief relationship with the woman (Rosanna James) that would become the infamous Lola Montez, Flashman runs afoul of the dour and serious Otto von Bismarck. Flashman and Bismarck engage in a series of one-ups-manship, quickly becoming enemies. Montez soon returns to Flashman’s life as he gives a first-hand account of Lola’s debut as a Spanish dancer and the scandal that followed when she is spotted for her real identity, Flashman took the full credit for exposing her much to his own amusement.

The story then shifts to 1847. It is peacetime and there is little to do for a man in the army, especially one that has no desire to go abroad again if he had to, which angers his in-laws immensely. But a chance opportunity arises, and Flashman is spirited away to Germany and to the court of Ludwig I of Bavaria. There, he meets an old acquaintance, but Flashy’s mission to Bavaria is not as pleasant as it seems when he meets another old acquaintance. Otto von Bismarck had a plan for Harry Flashman.

Bismarck conspires to put Flashman in an impossibly dangerous scheme as a substitute for Prince Carl Gustaf in his marriage to the Duchess of Strackenz, Irma. The story meanders along at this point as Flashman’s arrival in Strackenz and false-wedding to Irma take place, which seemed like it went forever. But it all goes wrong again when Flashy learns the truth of Bismarck’s scheme and his life is placed into immediate danger, least of all when his true identity is uncovered by anti-German Danish sympathisers from Holstein that force him into a desperate attempt to free the real Prince Carl Gustaf from his holding cell.

If the plot sounds familiar to Anthony Hope’s Prisoner of Zenda, then it is. In Flashman’s own words Hope stole the story off him and his life experiences. But of all the Flashman novels I have read this is by far the weakest of them all. The story seemed disjointed at times and Fraser put words for the sake of it in places. I had a hard time of keeping interested in some sections, particularly during the wedding as I just wanted it to move forward and for something to happen. Is it a case of second book-itis? Probably, as I already know the quality of later novels is much improved.

I did enjoy some parts, though. The opening chapters when Flashman meets Montez and Bismarck were good, as was Bismarck’s time spent in the company of Flashman’s friends. But it was the part that really let this novel down. It was, well, boring. I could not keep myself interested and I had a hard time of taking the words in simply because I was not concentrating properly due to a lack of real interest. I love Flashman and I love this series, but there is a reason Royal Flash is considered to be the weakest in the Flashman series.


“Flashman,” by Georgia MacDonald Fraser

15 Sep

“Flashman,” by George MacDonald Fraser (294p)
1839-1842: Lord Cardigan and the First Anglo-Afghan War

What happened to the bully Flashman from Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays after he was expelled from Rugby School? That is the premise of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novel, the first in the series. As an introductory Fraser explains that the novels were discovered in a tea-chest in Leicestershire in 1965, and that he is the editor of the papers. Thus, the Flashman series take on the guise of a false-memoir. The first packet in the series is set in 1839 to 1842 with Flashman as a young man, with most of the action taking place in Afghanistan at the start of the First Anglo-Afghan War.

If you had read Tom Brown’s Schooldays then you will be pleased to know that Harry Paget Flashman (Fraser has given him a full-name while Hughes solely called him Flashman) is every much the bullying, womanising, cowardly sycophant in adult life as he was as a lad at Rugby School. The first chapter of Flashman recounts his expulsion from Rugby, an affair with his fathers mistress, and his first job – after finally convincing his father for a loan, Flashy lands himself a lieutenancy in the most fashionable regiment in all of the British Army, the 11th Hussars (Prince Albert’s Own). From there, he toadies with the best of them by sucking up to Lord Cardigan (of the Light Brigade fame), a man determined to make his regiment as stylish and flamboyant as he by casting out all the proper soldiers. Flashman fits in perfectly.

After a scandal and a piece of typical Flashman luck in a duel, which earns him praise from the Duke of Wellington, he is forced out of London and into a barracks in Scotland. In Scotland Flashman meets his wife, Elspeth Morrison, a beautiful yet spectacularly stupid woman but this again brings him scandal as he is forced to quit the 11th Hussars for marrying below his rank. The Morrison family were not befitting a lieutenant, even if Flashman actually comes from a lesser family than them.

In order to get his reputation and some respectability back Flashman reluctantly departs for India. I say reluctantly because Flashy’s idea of soldiering is getting drunk and playing cards in the mess while sleeping with all sorts of women, so India is far from his liking. It is in India and neighbouring Afghanistan where most of the action in Flashman takes place. After showing off his riding skills and aptitude for learning foreign languages, Flashman is sent to Afghanistan, the most dangerous and unstable frontier colony in the British Empire at the time.

It takes Flashy no time at all to make an enemy in Afghanistan after he rapes – yes, Fraser makes no attempt to write anything but a rape so it is very much that – an Afghan dancer, married to the warlord Gul Shah. Shah wants his revenge on Flashman and takes it out on him as co-existence between Britain and the Afghans crumbles. Following the Massacre of Elphinstone’s Army Flashman is captured and tortured for weeks by Gul Shah in a remote mountain hideout. After escaping Flashman follows the British out of Afghanistan in the retreat from Kabul and the disastrous Battle of Gandamak. Eventually he winds up hiding in the fort under siege at Jellalabad (near modern Jalalabad) to escape Gul Shah, severely injured where he collapses in terror. Incredibly, despite all the death and destruction around him and his refusal to stand and fight, the fort is saved by British forces and Flashman is congratulated for surviving the attack and comes out a hero. Nobody else survived to know the truth.

One of the true successes of the format of these novels is Fraser’s meticulous historical accuracy. Even if you go and look for error there is none. Indeed, wherever Flashman writes an anachronism in the narrative Fraser has inserted an endnote at the end of the book correcting Old Harry where he goes wrong. As far as historical accuracy goes these are probably among the most accurate ever written, especially considering the majority of the people involved them are real people.

Above all else, the Flashman novels are Fraser’s attempt at taking a broad swipe at Victorian morality and clocking it with a haymaker. Flashman is unlike most images of the respectability and properness of the Victorian age. He is a liar, a cad, a womaniser, a coward, unreligious, an opportunist and a down right scoundrel. He is everything that the Victorian age does not represent, and I love it.

They are a great fun because they are so over the top and ridiculous, so they usually make for a very entertaining read. The style is easy to read, told in a very relaxed prose, and not the slightest bit difficult to get into. I will say one thing, however – if the prospect of the types of things Flashy gets up to, which has involved the odd rape as well as unapologetic description of his sexual exploits and the odd racial slur (to go with the timeline, that is), then these probably won’t be to your taste. Otherwise give them a go.