EPS Review #205 - Royal Flash

Royal Flash (Flashman) , by George MacDonald Fraser, HarperCollins 1999(1970), 304pp.

A German relative recently sent me a 200-page family history, which Google Translate makes just tantalisingly intelligible. I was discussing The Schleswig-Holstein Question (this being our Ancestral Home) with my cousins and remarked that it would make a good historical novel. Cousin Stephen replied that this had already been done with Royal Flash, so I ordered the book immediately.

I had heard of the Flashman series before, with its hero being the bully taken out of the great old story Tom Brown's Schooldays. While I think the British are the funniest people in the world, there is a set of their humor where the irony rises to 100% and it becomes just depressing: Wilt and a lot of Evelyn Waugh spring to mind. But the Flashman book avoids being tediously facetious through copious amounts of convincing sex and violence. Had I known that Fraser's credits include my favorite Musketeers movies, then I would not have worried.

The plot is a polite copy of The Prisoner of Zenda and a quick read, with some historical accuracy and interesting footnotes, but not a lot about Schleswig-Holstein, really. The most vivid figures are Otto von Bismarck and Lola Montez. Just reading Lola's Wiki entry is like a novel in itself. I am not hugely tempted to continue the Flashman series, though.

"Let me begin by asking you a question," says he [Bismarck]. "What do you know of Schleswig and Holstein?"

"Never even met 'em", says I.

Ed wrote: Fascinating stuff! Agree with you about Wilt.

Andy wrote:

A little disappointed you are not tempted to continue the Flashman series. An entertaining means of learning something about nineteenth century British Empire history. Some good American history thrown in too. My only regret is that Fraser died before chronicling Flashman's participation in the American Civil War. We learn from other books that he apparently fought on both sides, and I think might have won the Medal of Honor and risen to the rank of general in the Confederate army. Some of Fraser's other books are quite good as well: The Steel Bonnets , a history of Anglo-Scottish border wars, his autobiography Quartered Safe Out Here , and some army humor, The General Danced at Dawn. The elderly retired Flashman makes a large cameo appearance in the entertaining and maybe more serious, Mr. American. I am a big fan of historical novels though. Rafael Sabatini, author of Captain Blood and Scaramouche, is a fav of mine as well I think of Fraser's.

As for the irony, I am not sure it's the degree that makes so much of a difference as it is the purpose. As a 100 percenter you might include Conrad in The Secret Agent , but, unlike Waugh who takes aim at contemporary social foibles, Conrad's blanket irony goes after eternal human foibles, both depressing as you point out. Another 100 percenter is Wodehouse, who, like Conrad, is more concerned with the human but never with any serious consequences. People are just funny. Nothing to get depressed about though.

I replied:

Maybe I should read another volume. I wasn't completely drawn in to Patrick O'Brian until I had read two. It feels like O'Brian and the Sharpe novels have a higher history quotient than the Flashman I just read. What do you think of Cornwell and O'Brian? I am currently on the second volume of Dunnett's Lymond chronicles, which is covering yet more Scottish and French history. Sabatini sounds really familiar, and P says she has bought Captain Blood for us to read.

You are right about Wodehouse. I read him for his witty language. Have you seen the video version with Fry and Laurie? Very funny, i think, though maybe shading toward misogyny in the later series.

Andy replied:

Probably not as high a history quotient but a greater range and less technical than the other two. The Errol Flynn Captain Blood is a very good film adaptation and worth some family time. The misogyny is not un-Wodehouse at least where Bertie and Jeeves are concerned. But, marriage would mean the end of the characters, so the women can't be too suitable for Bertie anyway. One of Wodehouse's more amusing characters, Psmith doesn't make it out of the early nineteen twenties because once married he can no longer be a hero.