Flashman and the Victorian social conscience.
The novels are an enjoyable read. Not the least of their virtues is that they are written at a cracking pace. There is action on every page, not all of it discreditable. The battle scenes are most brilliantly described, for example the three actions in which Flashman, suffering from a prolonged and painful attack of trapped wind brought on by drinking inferior Russian champagne, finds himself engaged in a single day during the Crimean War in the Charge of the Heavy Cavalry Brigade, then standing with the 93rd Highlanders in the 'Thin Red Line', and finally riding into the Russian guns with Lord Cardigan in the immortal Charge of The Light Brigade. As well as being able to describe the broad sweep and cut and thrust of the fighting, the author has an eye for the telling detail e.g. the black hairs growing on the back of the hand of a swarthy highlander waiting the charge of Russian cavalry. Anyone who has been in action will confirm that it is small and apparently irrelevant details such as this that remain in the mind. All the rest is obliterated by the noise and confusion (and stench) of battle. The period flavour is convincing. George MacDonald Fraser is also blessed with an exceptionally good ear. The regional intonations, like the period slang and cant and contemporary allusions of the time, are brilliantly captured. The dialogue is full of subtle nuances arising from prevailing class distinctions. Today many of the references would be regarded as politically highly incorrect which is a pity since there is no obvious prejudice on the author's part as opposed to a wish to capture the Prejudices--or lack of them--that existed then. The portraits of individuals are good. Many of them are of real people, almost all of whom were uninhibited by the social constraints and conventions which grew tighter as the Victorian era progressed, so there is little need for embellishment. Most were working in circumstances where social mores were subordinated to much more compelling things like the need to survive. But even aga inst this highly coloured background the men and women portrayed are recognisably individuals, not cardboard copies. This veracity is largely due to the author's careful research and wide background reading, carried out, I believe, at Trinity College, Dublin. But it loses nothing from the idiosyncrasies of Flashman's own observations and strong likes and dislikes. The purely imaginary characters are also well drawn: one thinks of John Charity Spring, the master of a slaving vessel among whose shareholders is Flashman's father-in-law, a Paisley manufacturer, another well drawn portrait. Spring, who was forced because of some criminal misdemeanour to give up his fellowship at Oriel College, Oxford--where by my reckoning he must have included John Henry Newman among his contemporaries--is a highly educated savage whose conversation is well larded with Latin quotations. (The author provides footnotes for those whose Latin is weak.)
By the end of the series there is virtually nowhere Flashman has not visited in the course of his adventures. He has seen action in almost all the major wars of the Victorian era: the First Afghan War, the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny, the First Sikh War, the Taiping Rebellion, the Indian Wars in the USA, the American Civil War where he fights on both sides. Flashman did nothing if not get around. So anyone who likes his history in easily digestible form has only to turn to the Flashman books for a brilliantly drawn picture of the Victorian noontide. The author has taken great trouble to provide extensive end notes to each novel amplifying the historical background. (The Royal Flashman Society of Upper Canada provides a useful chronology of his supposed adventures (www.pangloss.ca/flashman/Chronology.htm))
From all these engagements Flashman emerges with great credit, replete with honours, rich with loot and well regarded if not rewarded by a grateful nation. He was born into the Establishment, one of the British governing class of an epoch of unparalleled power. Except for one or two unusually perceptive individuals who catch him at a bad moment and are killed before they can 'peach' and thereby unmask our hero, only we and the author and Flashman himself know that it is all, as he would say, 'gammon'; that in fact he is a coward, a bully and a cheat whose first instinct is to save his own skin.
Tall, handsome, unscrupulous, with splendid curling black cavalry whiskers, Flashman is also a compulsive womaniser. If we are to believe his own candid account of his many liaisons, women find him irresistible. We have to take his word for it, as an officer and.... well, as an officer since no gentleman would be so indiscreet. This arrogant self-confidence is more than enough to condemn him today when woman's perception of herself and her rights and privileges has changed perhaps more dramatically than any other feature of our society since Victorian times. Among the many hundreds of women whose favours Sir Harry has enjoyed only a handful evoke tender memories in the old age in which he is writing the memoirs later discovered by the author. There is little chivalry about him. He betrays those he has seduced shamelessly when it is a question of his safety or theirs. He sells the convent-educated prostitute Cleonie into slavery as the chattel of a Mexican Indian chief and tosses the daughter of Count Pencherj evsky (who is pregnant with Flashman's child) overboard, naked but for a sable rug, in order to lighten the sleigh in which he and Scud East (who is nursing a chaste passion for her, much to Flashman's mocking amusement) are fleeing pursued by wolves across the snowy wastes of a Russian winter. (Have no fear, gentle reader; she is rescued, cold but, apart from a hangover, unharmed, by the wicked Count Ignatieff and the Cossack patrol bent on capturing Flashman). Only the fact that he needs her as much as she him prevents him from abandoning the runaway slave Cassie to her fate at the hands of slave catchers. There is not a shred of gallantry in him and he nurtures grudges and settles accounts, including with women, with unbecoming vindictiveness. If there is a drop of the milk of human kindness in his veins it is extraordinarily well diluted.
Is there then no redeeming feature beyond an extraordinary gift for languages and horsemanship, a knack of getting on with children (young Crazy Horse and the boy Maharajah Duleep Singh), the manly appearance and the winning manner, a kind of sly affability, the easy habit of making himself agreeable to people that his headmaster, Dr Arnold, claimed to detect in him?
Not much, one thinks after reading the books. And yet there is something and it is all important. Flashman is the archetypical anti-hero, a more sympathetic one in most respects than others who adom the pages of English fiction. The novels are picaresque and there is something of the tradition of Peregrine Pickle and Tom Jones about him, though Tom Jones especially is an immensely attractive portrait, whereas not even Flashman's creator pretends to like him. But there must be some latent good in a man who can persuade, not absolutely fully but sufficiently, someone like Kit Carson, the famous scout and Indian fighter, a 'white man' if ever there was one, that he is alright. Flashman's itch to survive and to save his skin at all costs makes him a resolute and desperate character. Ignatieff, Bismark, von Stamberg and others credit him with guile, resourcefulness and cunning. If there is a way out of a hole he will find it, having first burrowed into it. In other words he is a dangerous enemy and consequently a good man to have on one's side provided one can keep an eye on him.
Flashman does after all risk his life whether he wishes to or not and this gives him a certain moral status with others of the same kidney and rather more than that with the vast majority of stay at homes who were content to let others do the dirty work of Empire. He is convivial. He is in his own way honest with himself and with us: he never pretends to be other than he is. Though he is happy to play the role of hero he would much rather not have to; it is society which demands it of him, society and all the pleasures and prerogatives it offers those who play by the rules as Flashman must despite himself. Flashman is not a whinger. A cad himself, he is quick to detect caddishness in others. He dislikes hypocrisy. Though he lives mostly off his wife's fortune he expects no-one to owe him a living. Far from feeling guilty about it, he enjoys it with good grace. It is not a question of 'sponging', an attribute he much dislikes-unlike 'toadying' at which he is an adept. In his view his lustre as a public hero is worth at least as much as his wife's father's wealth in gaining her parvenu family entre to society to which he has access by right of birth, as a Paget on his mother's side. Even so their marriage is more than a mutually acceptable business proposition: he genuinely loves her in his way and she him in hers, so he claims when his conscience pricks him. But we believe him because he is truly distraught when she is abducted by the smooth Old Etonian trader and fellow cricketer, Don Solomon Haslam, and the scene in which Flashman and his wife make love while hiding in the tropical forest from their Malagasey pursuers is convincingly touching.
The books are fiction, but the exposure of Victorian society onto which the whole Flashman saga is grafted is not. What they offer is as clear-eyed and unsentimental a portrait of the age as one is likely to find anywhere. Unlike more socially self-conscious authors, Fraser appears to have no axe to grind. Yet one can see in Flashman some of the qualities of the angry young men of the 1950s and subsequent decades though he would not thank us for saying so. He is a cut above them, of course. He has no hang-up about his antecedents and wouldn't be seen dead near a kitchen sink or in a bedsit. Sentimentality has no part in his character though he occasionally grows maudlin in captivity about beer and cricket at Lord's. (No modem anti-hero of my recollection is a cricketer.) The author, unlike other authors of the sixties whose aim was to debunk the Establishment, has chosen to depict it as it was and has selected as his medium not someone who perceives himself as disadvantaged, with a score to settle or a class traitor, but someone who though in the Establishment was not quite of it and his gaze is the more clear-sighted for it. Flashman's Paget mother is the only genuine card in his hand. Flashman's father is an upwardly mobile sometime MP and man-about-town, one of those who hang on to the skirts of fashionable society which, in the Regency days of his prime, was not over fastidious. He ends his life as a bankrupt and a dependant of Flashman's aristocratic father-in-law.
Victorian England was full of men who, threatened with marginalisation by any one or a combination of the sort of misfortunes which could befall even the best regulated families in Victorian times, found redemption and purpose in the Empire which needed them as builders and administrators, men like Nicholson and Lumsden and the Lawrence brothers, usually the offspring of respectable parents of limited means and severe Evangelical faith. Very few of them received an Arnoldian education though they would have imbibed the same moral precepts. What sets Flashman apart is his lack of idealism and his sceptical attitude towards religion. He is content to leave it to others like 'Gravedigger' Havelock to pray on his behalf without, it must be assumed, offering a passing prayer in return when General Havelock dies of wounds at Lucknow during the Indian Mutiny.
Flashman presents this gallery of heroic individuals as permanently in thrall to the torments of religion and sex, i.e. typical products of the High Victorian educational system as experienced by growing numbers of young middle-class males. They were, to use two adjectives common at the time as denoting the highest attributes of Christian manhood, expected to conform to their prototypes and always to exhibit the qualities of 'manliness' and 'pluck'. Flashman is their antithesis. They died, often quite brutally and in the direst circumstances. He survives to enjoy the fruits of fame. He is content to leave the moral unstated. But Flashman's sceptical eye describes for us those whose eccentricities and weakness accounted for many of the unremembered dead among the rank and file of the British Army of the time: Elphinstone at Kabul; the pedantic Hardinge; the aged, gallant but weak-minded ditherer Raglan for whom military science ended with Waterloo; the arrogant and brainless disciplinarian Cardigan. These hav e become so familiar as to be almost stereotypes, persisting into the second half of the twentieth century and the era of the nuclear deterrent. There are also the real soldiers for whom Flashman has a genuine respect: Gough, Gordon, General Rose, General Colin Campbell, Colonel Hope Grant. They are all, with the sole exception of the Irishman Gough, let it be noted, Scots.
Flashman's real admiration, quite untainted with what might be called Kiplingesque sentiment, is for the British rank and file. These were the days if not of Wellington's 'scum of the earth... enlisted for drink', of something pretty close to it, of actual hardship and want which drove men to enlist. The typical soldier of Victorian popular fiction and poetry, Tommy Atkins, had yet to be invented by Kipling. It is this admiration, reluctant perhaps but genuine, that sets Flashman most clearly apart from his contemporaries. He would not be of his time if he deplored the conditions of active service to which the men were exposed, revealed in all their brutal inadequacy by William Russell, the Times correspondent in the Crimea. Nevertheless Flashman acknowledges that the lower classes get a raw deal from society: his animadversions about the conditions in which his rich father-in-law's Paisley workforce live and work are not due solely to his dislike of Mr Morrison, later to buy his way into a peerage--another comment on the realities of life in those times, indeed of all times. Flashman's admiration is all the more heartfelt for being quite without illusion either about the society from which the army was recruited or the intrinsic qualities of the men themselves. He is moved to anger, for example, by the behaviour of British soldiers in the bazaar at Thansi on the eve of the Indian Mutiny. His feelings may be due to a latent sympathy for Indian complaints--indeed he has already remarked on the changes in British attitudes towards the Indian population in the ten years that have elapsed since his first experiences in India--but also, since he is writing retrospectively, to the fact that the Rani was one of the very few women he genuinely loved.
Instances of his admiration for the British soldier are too numerous to quote here but he must have been one of the very few officers to have insisted, to the surprise of his Russian captors, on visiting the soldiers when taken prisoner after Balaclava, an experience which left him wondering at their capacity for suffering and full of unqualified admiration for their courage, men who owed the society from which they sprang nothing, ready to return to the fight time and time again despite wounds, sickness and deprivation of every sort. He has no explanation for the phenomenon beyond saying that there is no soldier who believes so implicitly as the British in the courage of the men on either side of him. 'I have seen it too often to be able to explain it', he says somewhere, 'the British infantryman--illiterate peasants or town scruff mostly--hitching up his belt and looking death in the face and waiting'. If Flashman is ever shamed it is by men like these and those like Sergeant Butler and Sergeant Hudson, qu iet professionals who get on uncomplainingly with the job in hand and keep the bayonets pointing at the enemy.
The key to this complex character is to be found not in the Flashman books themselves but in MacDonald Fraser's account of his own wartime experiences as a Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) in the Border Regiment during the Burma campaign, entitled Quartered Safe Out Here. It is an intensely moving account of life very much at the sharp edge in one of the most arduous campaigns ever fought by the British and Indian Armies. It has deservedly become a classic and a standard textbook at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. As the Japanese enemy had acquired a formidable reputation, one of General Slim's most urgent tasks on taking over command of the XIVth Army was to show that Japan was not invincible. That objective was achieved at Kohima and Imphal. Reading MacDonald Fraser's account of the actions in which he and his companions were engaged it is not difficult to see how and why. Quite apart from the interplay of characters in his section and the richly individualistic personalities war had forced together, t here is a striking quality of endurance underlying everything, a refusal to speculate about wider issues beyond the horizon, the whys and wherefores of the war, and an ability to concentrate on the limited horizon of the day to day which explains much; in a nutshell an absence of fuss and a hefty dose of sceptical bloody mindedness which saw men through the worst. There is emotion in parts but it serves on the whole to deepen the qualities just described, as if men had succeeded in channelling it all not simply into the question of survival alone but into vindication of the whole of life's experience. The men MacDonald Fraser shared his war with were not articulate in the conventional sense. They expressed themselves in their own argot, through gestures and in silence as much as words and finally and most conclusively of all in their actions. They had no need of MacDonald Fraser to speak for them and would never have dreamed of asking if they thought they had, but he did so to our immeasurable benefit, both i n the memoir and in the Flashman books which preceded it.
If there is a part of MacDonald Fraser which is Flashman it is in his feel for the ordinary soldier. What gives his portrait of General Slim that extra and all-essential piece of credibility, the reassuring solidity, granite jaw, untidy clothes and undemonstrative manner apart, is the phrase '...he had the head of a general with the heart of a private soldier'. Someone who writes that cannot leave it aside when he talks of Flashman. As MacDonald Fraser says, the Burma Campaign was an old-fashioned war, fought at bayonet point like Flashman's wars, like Kandahar where MacDonald Fraser's grandfather was killed. There is a personal empathy about the whole series which is among its most attractive qualities.
A lighter side to the same coin is provided by his three volumes of short stories which go to make up the author's McAuslan books. McAuslan, the world's dirtiest soldier, is an accident prone private soldier, or Jock, in a Highland regiment. MacDonald Fraser was commissioned into the Gordon Highlanders and spent some years as a junior officer with the 2nd Battalion of that famous regiment in the decade immediately following the war. McAuslan does not have to be a Jock to carry conviction: there are or were McAuslans in every regiment in the British Army' though the Highland paraphernalia, kilts, bagpipes, whisky, dialect, idioms etc. all add to the enjoyment of the stories. But the chief attraction of the stories and the absurd predicaments the regiment finds itself involved in, due to a combination of the McAuslan factor and the decisions of distant politicians at a time when the Empire was folding up and we had to rely on a National Service army, lies once again in the evident sympathy MacDonald Fraser ent ertains for the men of his regiment. The National Service conscripts were not the same as the enlisted men of Flashman's day but there is nevertheless a clear thread running from them through Burma to Sobraon and the distant Crimea and beyond. Even without such antecedents they were clearly fortunate to have young George MacDonald Fraser as their officer. It must have been quite impossible for him to have divorced himself from his feelings for them when he wrote the Flashman books. Try as he might MacDonald Fraser could never have painted him so bad as he might have wished.
The author's ultimate accolade is reserved not for the ordinary soldier but in the dedication of the McAuslan books to the memory of his former Commanding Officer of the 2nd Battalion, Gordon Highlanders, Colonel R. G. (Reggie) Lees--how evocative of a whole era that nickname is!--the epitome of everything that Flashman was not and clearly a gallant and much loved gentleman, the latter in the fullest sense of the word, at one with Andre Maurois' Colonel Bramble (also of the Gordons) and his wind-up gramophone in the trenches of Flanders, men even less prone to self-articulation than the soldiers they led, but without whom the latter would never have done what they did, on the whole so conspicuously well, even though they grumbled all the time.
George MacDonald Fraser's recent memoirs The Light's on at Signpost has caused some fury in politically correct circles, such as The Guardian, for his unabashed views about the current state of Britain. He makes plain his detestation of the European Union, 'The Holy Brussels Empire', which represents 'a Continent which gave us the Holocaust, the Inquisition, the French Revolution and subsequent horrors of Napoleonic aggression, the police state, fascism, communism, and other benefits too numerous to mention'. He also roundly attacks the effects of mass immigration into Britain. The effects of censorship are not unknown to him as one of his novels was not accepted for publication in America because a character uses the racial slurs of the time in referring to a black boxer.
The Flashman stories can be read, if one is so inclined, as a valedictory to a world which ended just about the time MacDonald Fraser settled down to write them. There is no dewy-eyed romanticism, no sentimentality though plenty of sentiment. But there are two little teases. The first is that the Empire was built and administered largely by men with names like Ouchterlony, Baird, MacDonald and Fraser, part of the Scottish tide that flowed into the colonies after the Act of Union. It is part of MacDonald Fraser's genius that the man through whom he tells its story should have been one who, much as he might love his wife, does not particularly like the Scots. The second is that all of us, even the author, might be guilty of a gross misrepresentation in Flashman's case. It is after all quite possible that he really was the heroic person his contemporaries saw him as but that in writing his memoirs in the twilight of his days he pretends, with becoming and entirely consistent modesty, to be quite otherwise, nothi ng less than that most despised figure of all, a coward. Perhaps he has the last laugh after all. With the Victorians one never knows. The question of his virtue is of course quite another thing altogether. Squire Brown said, a propos his son Tom's education, that what really mattered was that the young man should turn out to be a 'brave, helpful, truth-telling' Englishman. By those criteria Flashman did not do too badly, by accident if not by design.
Sir Allan Ramsay was a career diplomat.
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|Date:||Jun 1, 2003|
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