“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.