Flashman, the vicious school bully from Tom Brown’s Schooldays, and a nasty a piece of work lacking all moral compass, has found himself involved in some of the most striking and dramatic historic events of the 19th century, and, despite his appalling behaviour, has generally, through comic misunderstandings, been mistaken for a gallant hero. In his old age, he wrote disarmingly honest and gloriously colourful accounts of his various adventures; and George Macdonald Fraser has scrupulously edited these accounts, adding scholarly and well-researched footnotes and appendices, thus presenting them to the public as important historic documents; and, in the process of doing so, he has presented to the public also some of the very finest of adventure stories ever written, easily equalling and possibly at times even surpassing such masters of the genre as Dumas, Stevenson, Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle.
Flashman’s Lady is the sixth in a series of twelve. (I am reading through these marvellous novels in the order in which they were written: a quick survey of the first five may be found here.) In this novel, in the first hundred or so pages set still in Blighty, we are given some marvellous set pieces – most notably, cricket at Lords, and a wonderfully vivid and picturesque scene depicting a public hanging at Newgate. But then, we’re off: Macdonald Fraser whisks us off first into Malaysia and Borneo (where Flashman, most unwillingly, becomes involved in warfare against local pirates); and, in the latter part of the novel, into Madagascar, where, as a slave, he is appointed to train the army, and to be lover of the insatiable Queen Ranavalona, who, if Macdonald Fraser’s account is to be believed (and he certainly provides copious references, including several eye-witness accounts), was amongst the most vile and wicked mass-murderers in history.
In dealing with such historic events, there is always the danger that the historic background will overwhelm the story. This possibly happened in the fifth of the series – Flashman and the Great Game – which depicted various events of the Indian Mutiny. The historic events and the personalities involved were depicted with such tremendous vitality and vividness, that it was easy to overlook the fact that Flashman himself, for much of the novel, was little more than an onlooker. But Macdonald Fraser is determined not to let that happen here. To this end, he introduces as a major player Flashman’s wife, Elspeth. In previous novels, she had remained safely ensconced in Britain while Flashman whored and cheated his way through various scrapes, but here, she is in the midst of things, accompanying Flashman first to Malaysia, and later into Madagascar. We are even presented with extracts from her diary. Of course, she is as ignorant and as splendidly airheaded as ever, but, for all that, Flashman has developed an attachment of sorts to her. This doesn’t prevent him cheating on her whenever he can without the slightest pang of conscience; but it does mean that he can’t quite leave her to her fate. It means that he can at times risk even his own safety for her sake. Some readers may complain that this is a dilution, or even a betrayal, of the utterly amoral Flashman we had known from earlier novels: perhaps it is. But there isn’t really enough to his character as presented in the earlier narratives to sustain our interest across an entire series of full-length novels. Flashman from those earlier novels wasn’t capable of development, and to sustain our interest across so many novels, he does, I think, need to develop. I personally did not find this particular development unbelievable.
The presence of Elspeth in the main action also introduces the motif of the “damsel in distress”, thus giving this novel more a feel of the traditional Boys’ Own adventure story than in the previous five. This sense of the Boys’ Own adventure story is heightened by the extraordinary presence of James Brooke, one of the most colourful and remarkable of all historic figures, and who could so very easily have stepped out from one of those traditional Boys’ Own adventure stories. But he was real enough: an appendix tells of his astonishing campaigns to rid the islands of the Malay Archipelago of piracy. The depiction of his character would have appeared utterly fantastic had not Macdonald Fraser, with his usual care for historic authenticity, supplied so many scholarly references in the footnotes: James Brooke really was, it seems, as extraordinarily daring and quixotic a character as is presented here. Macdonald Fraser has a wonderful ability to depict charismatic figures from history, and reading this, one can but shake one’s head in disbelief that such a person could ever have existed.
As ever, Macdonald Fraser admires heroism. Brooke’s associates – some historical, others products of the author’s imagination – are brought superbly to life, none more so than the marvellous figure of Paitangi, half Scots and half Arab, an unlikely Muslim-Calvinist, who ends up sacrificing himself for the good of the expedition. He does so without any self-conscious heroics: it is simply a job he has been engaged to do, and he does it. The narrator Flashman may not value this, but it is precisely this sort of heroism that Macdonald Fraser celebrates throughout this series of novels.
Of course, despite all the elements of the Boys’ Own adventure stories, these are serious novels for grown-up readers. The covers may give the impression of light entertainment, but the covers are misleading. Amongst other things, these are blood-drenched novels. Given the events they relate, they could hardly be otherwise. In children’s adventure stories, characters can be wounded, or can die, without the author having to give any detailed account of their suffering: that is not possible here. Not that Macdonald Fraser wallows in detailed description: far from it. When a pirates’ ship is taken, for instance, he mentions some of the corpses recovered of women who had been tortured to death; but mercifully, he leaves out the details of the torture: it is not the purpose of these novels to nauseate the reader. But the horrors cannot be overlooked either. These are not, after all, children’s books. And horrors don’t really come much more horrific than the reign of Queen Ranavalona in Madagascar.
As with the depiction of James Brooke, but for different reasons, the depiction of Ranavalona can stretch credulity. But once again, copious references, often to eye-witness accounts, are cited. It appears that Ranavalona was a sadistic psychopath, delighting in inflicting upon her subjects the most hideous tortures and executions on a massive scale. Perhaps, with our knowledge of Nazi Germany and of Soviet Russia, or of Khmer Rouge or of Assad or of any of the other brutal despotic regimes with which this world continues to be plagued, we should not be surprised: but it is hard not to recoil in horror in reading these chapters. Once again, it is not Macdonald Fraser’s purpose to nauseate us: he is writing, first and foremost, an adventure story. And he uses all his considerable skills as a narrator to ensure that this novel remains, first and foremost, an adventure story, without descending into torture-porn. Nonetheless, I doubt I have read anything more horrific in fiction.
Ranavalona may be seen as mad, but Flashman has his own views on this:
Her wants are simple: just give her an ample supply of victims to mutilate and gloat over and she was happy – not that you’d have guessed it to look at her, and indeed I’ve heard some say that she was just plain mad and didn’t know what she was doing. That’s an old excuse which ordinary folk take refuge in because they don’t care to believe there are people who enjoy inflicting pain. “He’s mad,” they’ll say – but they only say because they see a little of themselves in the tyrant, too, and want to shudder away from it quickly, like well-bred little Christians. Mad? Aye, Ranavalona was mad as a hatter in many ways – but not where cruelty was concerned. She knew quite what she was doing, and studied to so it better, and was deeply gratified by it, and that’s the professional opinion of kindly old Dr Flashy, who’s a time-served bully himself.
I grew up with Boys’ Own adventure stories, and I suppose I am predisposed towards the genre. But I have never believed in applying different standards to genre literature and to non-genre literature: by any standard, this novel is a triumph, and, like its predecessors in the series, it really makes me wonder whether there has been a more skilled novelist in the last fifty or so years than George Macdonald Fraser. What the likes of Dumas or Stevenson had been to their generations, Macdonald Fraser is, I think, to mine. And the best of it is that I am only half way through this series: there are six more novels to go, and, if reports are to be believed, the standard does not flag.