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 that link.
4. FLASHMAN AND THE DRAGON (1985)
Time Period: Anglo-French Military Expedition to Peking – 1860
This volume from Flashman’s memoirs is set in China immediately after his adventures in the Second Opium War. Unfortunately those adventures are among the Flashman Papers that we’ll never get to peruse, since George MacDonald Fraser didn’t get a chance to cover them before his death in 2008.
Even if his estate allows other authors to complete the various Flashman stories that were alluded to but never completed in Fraser’s lifetime it just won’t be the same.
Note: The “dragon” of the title refers to the general Victorian Age label for China in its exotic, mysterious entirety.
Synopsis: With the Second Opium War over, Harry Flashman is killing time as he awaits the ship that will take him home to England. A curvy, sultry blonde Missionary named Phoebe Carpenter uses her feminine charms to manipulate the ever-lustful Harry into running a shipload of opium to Hong Kong.
Or at least that’s what she TELLS him is being smuggled. It turns out instead to be an arms shipment for the Taipingi rebels who have split China into a blood-soaked Civil War for the past decade. Flashman doesn’t realize the true nature of the contraband he’s transporting until he’s forced to fight off a band of Macao pirates.
Thanks to some help from a sexy Chinese woman acting as a British agent our protagonist triumphs in the pirate attack. Unfortunately, when the British authorities subsequently board the vessel Harry is facing big trouble. For transporting weapons to belligerents in a war HMG has stayed out of he could be liable for years in prison or turned over to the Chinese for punishment if the Qing Dynasty insists.
Luckily the Chinese agent has fallen for Flashman thanks to their on-board affair and she vouches for his far-fetched tale about how he came to be aboard the smuggler craft. Unfortunately, Harry’s extra-curricular activities have once again landed him in the soup.
Instead of finding himself on a ship bound for Great Britain, he winds up drawn into the danger-plagued Anglo-French Peking Expedition of 1860. It turns out the Chinese royals are still refusing to sign the treaty whose terms they agreed to in order to end the Second Opium War.
Our dashing Colonel Flashman is drafted into the combined military campaign/ diplomatic mission, as the British and French armies set out for Peking to force the treaty signatures. Between them and their destination lie miles of hostile territory filled with brigands, Triads, Taipingi Rebels and Imperial Warlords who are still fighting since the treaty hasn’t been signed yet.
Along the way Flashman’s sword, pistols and manly charms are exercised to the utmost as he first makes war, then love with the real-life female River Pirate Szu-Zhan, ruthlessly engineers the death of a blackmailer and despite himself proves crucial to a few allied victories.
Harry’s finest moments in this Far East epic come when he clashes with some of the more colorful Chinese leaders on both sides of the Taiping Rebellion. On the Taipingi side he confronts Hong Xiuquan, a figure I was already familiar with from my fascination with mythology/ religion.
Hong Xiuquan was, like so many religious giants, a bit nuts, believing himself to be the son of God and the younger brother of Jesus Christ in keeping with the Taipingi faith’s combination of Confucian, Buddhist and Christian elements. Given my own feelings toward religion, I hugely enjoyed Flashman’s cavalier irreverence toward the villainous Hong.
And on the Qing Dynasty side our antihero faces the thoroughly debauched and drugged-out party animal Emperor Hsien Feng, Lord of the Middle Kingdom. Hsien Feng’s lifestyle would soon kill the 29 year old, and he was by this point often manipulated by his concubines and his Warlords.
The Emperor, typical of Chinese Royalty, was utterly convinced of Chinese military superiority to the Europeans. The author George MacDonald Fraser wryly incorporates this into the storyline. Feng’s Warlords have been outrightly lying to the Emperor about the ongoing conflict, claiming that they have been crushing the Anglo-French forces.
To keep their stupefied monarch contentedly cocooned in his drug-induced, Hitler in the bunker-level delusions, the Warlords want a European POW – the newly-captive Flashman – to corroborate their lies. Harry is, as always, completely unencumbered by anything like loyalty or honor and is happy to play along to save his own skin.
Our main character’s fluency in the Chinese language and skill at lying make him the ideal man for the job. He hilariously outdoes himself, building on the Emperor’s delusions with Tall Tales that rival anything mouthed by Tom Sawyer to Aunt Polly. Needless to say, Hsien Feng is convinced that his armed forces are kicking European butt even though the British and the French are just days away from Peking.
This little side visit winds up letting the Emperor’s favorite concubine, the real-life Yehonala, spot Flashman. She has Harry bound and his face covered since she finds white men ugly, then indulges her curiousity about having sex with a foreigner.
Our protagonist’s technique and oft-cited size leaves Yehonala satisfied to the point where she takes the captive Flashman as her own version of a concubine, to pleasure herself with when she’s not being used by the Emperor. She never gets any fonder of Harry’s face, however.
Neither Yehonola nor her lady friends nor her eunuchoid attendant realize that Flashman understands Chinese and he shrewdly conceals his ability since the concubine and other court figures are openly talking about palace intrigues and embryonic assassination plans with him in the room.
The inevitable slip-up on Flashy’s part occurs just as one of the violent plans is coming to fruition and the exposed Harry is forced to use his swordsmanship to defend Yehonola and the 4 year old son she bore the Emperor from court rivals trying to kill off her and the child.
As you’ve probably guessed, Yehonola goes on to be the Empress Dowager Cixi aka Tsu Hsi and her son the Tongzhi Emperor. When Emperor Hsien Feng died in August of 1861 she would – through her son – essentially rule China from behind the scenes for decades.
Getting back to our story, by now the European armies are at the palace gates so Flashman and a few loyal retainers get the Chinese beauty to her carriage. She rides off and Harry obediently agrees to catch up with Yehonola at the Emperor’s retreat in Jehol.
He’s lying of course, and slips back into the Summer Palace happily contemplating several minutes of uninterrupted looting before the joint armies swarm the place. Flashman is hugely disappointed as he finds the French soldiers already on-hand, making off with some of the best loot in their usual workmanlike fashion.
Chinese peasants who followed in the wake of the Anglo-French forces are also rampaging through the palace and join the Brits and the French in plundering whatever they can. We readers, of course, can’t be bothered to care about Harry’s comical outrage at being beaten to the punch at pinching valuables, but can, as usual, just smile at any discomfiture felt by the amoral rogue.
(If by some chance you DO care, you can rest easy because Harry does manage to snag a Chinese Chess set sculpted out of black jadeite. It’s very valuable, but far from the exclusive, primo haul that the blackguard anticipated making off with.)
At any rate the Anglo-French commanders get the treaty signatures they came for and burn the Summer Palace as a punitive measure.
Soon, Flashman is once again awaiting passage home to England. He has a chance encounter with Mrs Carpenter, the sultry blonde Missionary from the start of our tale, and she seems willing to make it up to our antihero for all the trouble she caused him.
The very end of this novel seems to be setting up Harry’s involvement in the Taranaki War in New Zealand. Again, however, George MacDonald Fraser’s death in 2008 means we’ll never get to read what he had in mind for Flashman’s adventures in that conflict. +++
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