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.
10. ROYAL FLASH (1970)
Time Period: The Revolutions of 1848 (1847-1848)
Favorite Book Blurbs: “Just when the Revolutions of 1848 are sweeping across Europe … Just when the masses are rising up against their ages-old masters … Just when no throne seems safe from the emerging wave of egalitarianism … Yes, just when being a monarch is synonymous with being a marked man, guess who should find himself forced into masquerading as a certain pompous, blue-blooded boor? “
“Horse riding, sword fighting, brawling, drinking and humping, Harry is always in the thick of 19th Century history! This time the lusty scoundrel is tangled up in political intrigues involving Otto Von Bismarck, Lola Montez, Karl Marx and the Schleswig-Holstein Question.”
NOTE: Please don’t judge this novel based on the god-awful movie adaptation from 1975. For the role of Harry Flashman you need a handsome, charming British version of James Garner. Alan Bates would have made a much better Flashman than Malcolm McDowell in my opinion, but he was instead cast as Rudi Von Starnberg (I could picture the 1975 Timothy Dalton as Rudi to Bates’ Flashman.)
And yes, I know George MacDonald Fraser worked on the screenplay but in my view Director Richard Lester overdid the goofiness level on the movie, just like he did with Superman III. Instead of shooting for Anthony Valentine’s Raffles series crossed with Tom Jones and Barry Lyndon, Lester treated this like a British Don Knotts movie. Or, God forbid, Jerry Lewis.
Synopsis: Harry Flashman, fleeing a police raid on a gambling establishment he was frequenting, winds up meeting the legendary real-life adventuress Lola Montez, one of the few women to tug at Flashman’s heart, not just his man-parts. During their romantic nine-day wonder of wild love-making and tempestuous quarreling, Harry also winds up clashing with future statesman Otto Von Bismarck in clubrooms, on the hunt and on the riding range.
Following a bitter breakup with the lovely Lola as well as outdoing Bismarck on the social circuit, Flashman little dreams that the vengeful duo will team up and use him as a sacrificial pawn in political intrigues. When Lola uses her overwhelming beauty and dazzling personality to wrap King Ludwig of Bavaria around her little finger (as historically DID happen) she summons Harry to Munich, supposedly to bury the hatchet and join her stud-line of lovers on the side.
Letting his libido override his better judgment as usual, Flashman travels to the literal Bavarian palace where now-Countess Lola lives as a titled Kept Woman on a grand scale. Harry is caught up in the whirlwind of Lola’s court, where she exerts influence on Bavaria’s social, intellectual and artistic scene.
Our protagonist parties hard with Lola plus courtiers like American C.G. Leland, composer Richard Wagner and pianist/ composer Franz Liszt, another of Lola’s many lovers. And speaking of Lola’s other bedmates, Harry has his first meeting with Rudi Von Starnberg of Hungary.
Despite the fair to poor quality of Royal Flash, Rudi is one of the most memorable members of Harry’s Rogue’s Gallery of foes and the two dashing rakes share a wary relationship which is part rivalry and part bromance. Starnberg remains a fan favorite and is easily the most Flashmanesque of the Brit’s adversaries.
At any rate, Rudi is not just one of Lola’s boy-toys, he’s also a confederate with her in Bismarck’s plan to use and then kill off our hero. The international conspiracy in which Otto has cast Harry as a sacrificial pawn centers around history’s notorious Schleswig-Holstein Question.
I don’t recommend trying to understand the Schleswig-Holstein Question unless you intend to make a career out of it and I don’t recommend that either. Nineteenth Century statesman Lord Palmerston supposedly said “Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business – the Prince Consort, who is dead – a German professor, who has gone mad from thinking about it – and I, who have forgotten all about it.”
To simplify the issue for brevity’s sake, the Schleswig-Holstein Question involved dueling Prussian and Danish influence on the states of Schleswig and Holstein. Otto Von Bismarck of Prussia long had his eye on the two states, planning to incorporate them into what would eventually become his consolidation of Germanic nations. (There was NOT YET one big country called Germany at the time.)
Royal Flash‘s fictional insertion of Harry Flashman into the proceedings featured a very disappointing (to me) Prisoner of Zenda-style impersonation by the British blackguard of a Danish Prince. In keeping with Fraser’s fun pretense that Harry really existed the narrative ultimately depicts a drunken Flashman detailing his adventure to Anthony Hope, who went on to write The Prisoner of Zenda decades later.
I’ve never been a fan of stories centering around the flimsy premise of people who just happen to have an incredible physical resemblance. To me the Prisoner of Zenda elements centering on Harry impersonating an indisposed prince for his Royal Wedding are the worst parts of the novel.
SPOILERS: We eventually learn Bismarck is planning to kill off Flashman-as-the-prince and expose the impersonation to foment chaos, thus justifying Prussian military intervention to absorb Schleswig and Holstein. That being the case I would have preferred that Bismarck and Rudi were just plain deceiving Harry about his resemblance to the royal groom-to-be.
In that scenario Flashman could have been publicly spotted as a fake by the Danes almost immediately, with Otto and Starnberg plotting to covertly engineer his quick assassination before he could be questioned. The villains could then proceed as planned, with the exposure causing chaos, etc, if not for Harry unexpectedly surviving the death-trap.
Back to the story, we readers get treated to Harry’s charm thawing his icy but beautiful (of course) bride, the fictional Duchess Irma. Complications to the story include an old friend of the prince that Flashman is impersonating and a military cabal of Danish nationalists called the Sons of the Volsungs.
Thrown into the mix are much more satisfying story elements surrounding agitation by a certain Karl Marx plus conspiracy theories about the sudden death of King Christian VIII of Denmark in 1848 (His wife was Caroline Amalie of Schleswig-Holstein. Hmmm.). I’d have preferred more attention to these items since they represented more of what I look for in Flashman’s historical adventures.
Hell, I’d have even preferred if Bismarck and Rudi tried to present Flashman as a supposed long-lost son of King Christian VIII showing up to foment chaos by gumming up the works regarding succession to the Danish throne. Christian and his wife Caroline had been trying to produce an heir for years and history tells us they even sought out alternatives at fertilization and other medical spas around Europe from 1818 to … 1822.
As my fellow Flashman fans know, 1822 was the year Harry was born so he would have been the right age for Bismarck to try pushing a conspiracy theory that Christian and Caroline had succeeded in artificial insemination of Christian’s sperm into a willing, fertile female cousin to carry the child. The process was already known and there were even theories that Napoleon the First’s son resulted from having his brother’s semen implanted artificially in Bonaparte’s wife Marie Louise.
Yes, it’s about as crazy – but not as unlikely – as a miraculous, identical resemblance to a fictional Danish prince. Plus all along Bismarck was planning on whatever deception he mounted being exposed anyway and then claiming Harry had been working as a British agent, all the better for fomenting the chaos he wanted in order to justify annexing Schleswig and Holstein.
In this reworking Harry could be coached to show up under another name claiming to be Christian VIII’s son from the 1822 insemination, thus causing scandal and confusion. He’d be set up to get killed and “exposed as a British agent” and the rest of Bismarck’s plan could proceed apace, with Harry’s survival an unexpected development. And the novel’s title would still be appropriate.
However, Royal Flash was only the second Flashman novel and Fraser seems to have still been feeling his way toward the exact formula of fact, fiction, action and satirical subtext that he would soon settle into for his classic antihero.
Moving along everything comes to a head just as the Revolutions of 1848 begin breaking out all over Europe, and in this fictional context tongue-in-cheekly begging the questions “What did Otto Von Bismarck know, and when did he know it?”
Our roguish main character finds himself fighting for his life above a Scandinavian waterfall, participating in an armed raid on Jotunberg Castle, having a lengthy but riveting sword-fight with Rudi Von Starnberg and ultimately facing the watery dungeon death-trap which Rudi plunges him into. Naturally Flashman survives all dangers and – as amoral as ever – he exploits the chaos all across Europe to steal and flee with the Crown Jewels of Strackenz.
The jewels in tow, Harry finds himself dodging deadly force from Lola Montez’s Allemania Gangs then gets caught up in the rebellious mob causing Countess Lola’s downfall in Munich amid all the political upheavals of the moment. Ever ready to switch sides at a moment’s notice the cad shamelessly joins Lola in her flight from Bavaria, only to have her oink and boink him into a stupor, then make off with the Crown Jewels herself, leaving Flashman behind.
In my mind the ONLY way that the movie Royal Flash improves on the novel is by adding one final encounter between Harry and Rudi after Lola robs and deserts the former. Given the way Starnberg lives rent-free in Flashman’s head for years after this adventure it works better.
Unfortunately, George MacDonald Fraser’s death in 2008 left Harry’s frequently-referenced rematch with Bismarck and Rudi during the Franco-Prussian War forever unwritten.
I place Royal Flash this low in my ranking of Flashman novels (only a couple left) because I find it too uneven. I’ve already discussed how annoyed I get with stories hinging on cosmically unlikely resemblances in face, voice, height, etc.
The aspects of this novel that I like are outweighed by the aspects that I find off-putting. The memory of the horrible film adaptation no doubt colors my feelings as well. +++
FOR MY DETAILED SPECULATIONS ON WHAT MIGHT HAVE HAPPENED IN THE FLASHMAN ADVENTURES REFERRED TO BUT NEVER FINISHED BY G.M. FRASER (like in the Australian Gold Rush, 2nd Opium War, Taranaki War and U.S. Civil War) CLICK HERE
FOR MY LOOK AT THE TOP SEVEN ROBERT LUDLUM NOVELS CLICK HERE
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