For Balladeer’s Blog’s Number One Harry Flashman Novel click HERE
For background info on George MacDonald Fraser’s infamous anti-hero Harry Paget Flashman you can also click the above link.
3. FLASHMAN’S LADY (1977)
Time Period: 1842-1845
The Flashman Papers jump around to various periods in Ol’ Flash Harry’s life. This particular novel covers our scurvy protagonist’s bed and battle adventures following his triumphant return from the First Afghan War all the way up to his pivotal role in a neglected Anglo-French action.
Along the way he clashes with London gangsters, battles Borneo Pirates and becomes a sex-slave/ military aide to an infamous African Queen.
Favorite Book Blurb: “Harry Flashman, that swashbuckling gremlin in the works of 19th Century history, is back in an around-the- world adventure that would turn Queen Victoria pale with shock and James Bond green with envy!”
NOTE: This novel is called Flashman’s Lady not just because of his beautiful blonde wife Elspeth’s larger than usual role but because excerpts from her diary complement Flashman’s memoirs in this tale. As all Flashman fans know, Elspeth cheats on Harry just as much as he cheats on her but his ego inevitably prompts him to half-believe the outrageous excuses she uses to cover her affairs. She outdoes herself in this story.
Synopsis: As the story begins Harry Flashman is still enjoying War Hero status and converting that fame into easier access to the bedrooms of various ladies. Presently the scoundrel finds himself pressed into playing on a Cricket team with some of his former classmates from Rugby School in Warwickshire.
Everyone tactfully avoids mentioning Flashman’s expulsion for drunken misconduct years earlier and he agrees. Always as physically strong as he is morally weak, Harry shines as his team’s Bowler (Pitcher for us Yanks) and leads them to victory.
That kicks off a successful run for Flashman playing Bowler in a series of those quasi-official, no-American-who-has-ever-lived-can-understand Cricket matches like you find in Raffles stories. Harry being Harry he also begins making side money shaving points and throwing games in league with some London gangsters.
As could be expected, our main character overextends himself and inevitably winds up letting the gangsters down during a high-stakes affair. In dire need of dodging his violent ex-partners Flashman flees England for a few years with his wife Elspeth and her rich father.
The trio will be guests of a wealthy socialite who calls himself Solomon Haslam as he tours and inspects his plantations and other businesses in Singapore and elsewhere. Harry suspects that Haslam has been having an affair with Elspeth but keeps it to himself since the man is his best bet for distancing himself from his revenge-minded pursuers.
In Singapore and vicinity the Flashmans and John Morrison (Elspeth’s father) are shown a wonderful time by Haslam. He even introduces them to real-life Singapore figures like Catchick Moses and Whampoa the Chinaman.
After lulling his guests into a false sense of security Haslam reveals that his real name is Suleiman Usman, the (real-life) Borneo pirate. His criminal exploits have been so successful that he also runs various legitimate businesses on the side and poses as a wealthy Easterner when he visits Europe.
Suleiman sends a squad of cut-throats to kill Harry in the night-darkened streets, abandons Morrison and makes off with Elspeth on his pirate flag-ship The Sulu Queen. But don’t bother worrying about Mrs Flashman. George MacDonald Fraser’s wry sense of humor is on display again as excerpts from Elspeth’s diary make it clear – well, between the lines of her faux-victim pose – that she and Suleiman are thoroughly enjoying their time together.
Don’t worry about Flashman, either. He survives the attack from Usman’s goons thanks to help from the real-life Victorian adventurer Sir James Brooke. This man is known to history as The White Rajah because of his conquest and rule of Sarawak and his series of land and sea military campaigns against piracy.
And just as Elspeth has Suleiman to keep her warm at night Whampoa gives our protagonist a pair of Chinese beauties to while away the time while he recovers from his wounds and Brooke organizes a flotilla to pursue The Sulu Queen.
With no graceful way out of accompanying Sir James and the other men trying to “rescue” his wife, Flashman tags along on this genuine historical campaign. Needless to say he also winds up with a lot more action than he had counted on and must rely on his swordsmanship and gunplay to survive.
After several battles with pirate ships and pirate fortresses all around the Java Sea, Harry winds up being taken prisoner on board The Sulu Queen and is reunited with Elspeth. The couple are unwillingly along for the ride as Usman and his crew flee the pursuing Brooke.
When Suleiman at last puts in at Madagascar to resupply Flashman seizes the opportunity to get himself and his lady out of the hands of the pirates and an escape to shore is made. Unfortunately it turns out to be the old “out of the frying pan and into the fire” situation.
Harry and Elspeth wind up as reluctant guests of Madagascar’s current ruler – Queen Ranavalona, a figure I was already familiar with from her role in Malagasy mythology due to her semi-divine status. Ranavalona has been called a female Caligula for her depravity, taciturn nature and her genocidal acts of violence against her own people. (She killed off huge percentages of the population in her sadistically cruel public “games.”)
As she often did in real life with foreign men who fell into her lap as castaways or outright prisoners, Queen Ranavalona takes Flashman as a sex-slave. Another European man languishing in the Queen’s custody is the real-life Frenchman Jean Laborde.
Laborde was in his thirteenth year of captivity in Madagascar when Flashman met him. Jean had also been used as a sex-slave by the Queen but had charmed her enough that when she tired of him she granted him a minor position in her court instead of killing him in the gruesome ways she usually did with discarded lovers.
Harry and Laborde quickly find solidarity and while Flashman continues serving in Ranavalona’s bed, Jean also arranges a military position for him. Elspeth and Harry are sometimes allowed meals together and Mrs Flashman has Ranavalona’s son for company at other times.
As the months go by, Laborde at last trusts Harry enough to bring him into a coup plot that Jean and some of the indigenous members of the Queen’s court have hatched. Ultimately the plot misfires but Harry & Elspeth manage to flee the palace.
There’s suddenly a quasi-John Carter and Dejah Thoris feel to the story as the Flashmans make their way toward the coast, fleeing and sometimes battling their pursuers while confronting some of the genuinely odd and unique wildlife native to Madagascar.
With his usual exquisite timing, Harry gets himself and Elspeth to the coast just as a real-life battle breaks out between a Malagasy fortress and combined French and British ships. Our hero and his bride make their way through shot and shell to reach the Marines who have landed.
Amid all the chaos, squadrons of the Marines return to the beach after having taken the flag of Madagascar’s fortress. The Brits and the French are – as historically DID happen at this action – fighting over who gets the captured flag as a prize.
Flashman has had enough and uses his trusty sword to slash the flag in two, letting the British and French Marines all leave happy that they have a battle trophy. Fraser’s way of slipping Harry Flashman into these historical footnotes is always a joy to read. In this case the name of the real-life figure who actually slashed the flag in two was never established, so Fraser figured “Why not have Flashman do it?”
One of the ships will take Elspeth back to England but Harry isn’t so lucky. As it turns out the first of the Sikh Wars has broken out in India and as a Cavalry Captain on half-pay Flashman learns he will be restored to active status and sent off in another ship to fulfill his duty in this new war.
Given Flashman’s usual tally of crime and sin that he ran up in this adventure, readers can simply smile at Harry’s blustering outrage over being dragged off to danger yet again. Meanwhile, Elspeth happily contemplates whiling away the voyage back to London with a shipload of French officers all to herself.
The closing excerpt from Elspeth’s Diary reflects G.M. Fraser’s wry sense of humor at its best as Mrs Flashman misinterprets (or chooses to misinterpret) Harry’s reluctance to make it fit her own Bronte drama queen narrative:
“So of course my darling must be dispatched to Bombay, but not without vigorous protest on his part, and he even went so far as to threaten to quit the service altogether, but this they would not permit at all.
While the husband of my bosom returns to his duty my only consolation is the knowledge that my dearest would far rather have accompanied me home himself and it was this concern and affection for me that caused him to resist so fiercely.
Indeed, he grew quite violent on the subject and called his superiors many unpleasant things which I shan’t set down, they were so shocking! At length a handful of Royal Marines were forced to intervene and bodily carry my beloved over to the ship bound for India. His language by that point made me positively blush!
However, there is no reason for my darling to forsake the path of honor for my sake. I am extremely comfortable and well taken care of aboard the good ship Zelee. Captain Feiseck has been most agreeable and attentive, as have all his officers, especially Lieutenants Homard and Saint Just and Delincourt and Ambree and dear little Boudancourt and even the Midshipmen …”
And so Fraser tells us that on that note of dubious wifely devotion the sixth packet of The Flashman Papers comes to a close.
*** Harry’s adventures in the Sikh War that he was dragged off to were featured in the novel Flashman and the Mountain of Light (1990). The Mountain of Light of the title is the Koh-I-Noor (“Mountain of Light”) Diamond, which was then in the possession of the Indian rulers of the Punjab and which features prominently in the story.
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FOR FLASHMAN AND THE MOUNTAIN OF LIGHT CLICK HERE
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