Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Flashman and America

(Photo by your humble blog keeper.)
The Fourth of July is a day of quiet reflection in the United States.

Families gather over frugal meals to debate the legacy of the Federalist Papers, and when darkness falls, the populace comes together to discuss such topics as French influence on the doctrine of the separation of powers and to sit in rapt awe at the number of vowels in Montesquieu's name.

Independence Day is wrapping up here in America, and that may be why some passages in Flashman on the March, set though the book is in Abyssinia in the nineteenth century, resonate in the United States of America in the twenty-first:
"I've a sight more use for him and his like than for the psalm-smiting Holy Joes who pay lip-service to delivering the heathen from error's chain by preaching and giving their ha'pence to the Anti-Slavery Society, but spare never a thought for young Ballantyne holding the sea-lanes for civilization and Jack Legerwood dying the kind of death you wouldn't wish for your worst enemy."
That's as least as fine a burst of rhetoric as "Support the troops."

Flashman's misgivings about "a campaign which, to judge from the gloom at tiffin, promised to be the biggest catastrophe since the Kabul retreat" might provoke a shock of recognition, as will this exchange, about a leader known for his massacres of thousands:
"This makes it simple; the bastard'll have to go."

"You will try him, in a court, and put him to death?"

"Oh, I doubt that. ... "

"But you said of Theodore, `he will have to go'!"

"So he will, one way or t'other. Bullet in the back o' the head, shot trying to escape, dead of a surfeit of lampreys, who knows?"
If Larry Gonick, who writes and draws The Cartoon History of the Universe, is the new Herodotus, then Flashman's creator, George MacDonald Fraser, was the new Thucydides. And each is probably funnier than the original.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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46 Comments:

Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

George MacDonald Fraser knew where his bread was buttered so there are actually three Flashman novels set in America. However I think they're probably the three weakest of the series.

The three best IMHO: Flashman, Flashman at the Charge, Flashman in the Great Game.

Now that you're reading Flashman I hope you'll finally listen to the Patrick Tull audiobook versions of the Patrick O'Brian novels.

July 05, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I knew Fraser had set several of the Flashman books in America, but this is not one of them, for the benefit of newcomers to the series.

It's not the occasional reference to John Brown or Abraham Lincoln that hit home in this book, though, but rather observatiions like the onews I quoted here, which ought to go far to prove that entertaining fiction can provopke somber reflection, if proof is needed.

Funny you should mention Patrick O'Brian. An article I read about Fraser said one of his books pokes fun at sea-jargon-ridden books of the O'Brian kind. I want to read the scene where Maturin thinks cricket is played like hurling. Which book is that in?

July 05, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Ahh I remember the scene. He catches the ball in mid air, throws it up and knocks it for six. All illegally of course. I don't know which book but I think they have been shipwrecked on a beach somewhere and are playing cricket to keep up their morale so possibly its the Nutmeg of Consolation.

July 05, 2011  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Flashman's the best. I've learned more about 19th-century history from Flashman than from any other source. And the one you're on isn't even the best one: in the later books, Fraser gets kind of repetitive and relies too much on reciting lists of dangerous situations Flashman's survived and beautiful women he's given the time to and stuff. Still good, but not as. You've got some fine reading ahead of you.

July 05, 2011  
Anonymous solo said...

I want to read the scene where Maturin thinks cricket is played like hurling. Which book is that in?

You'll find the answer to that question in the comments of this post.

July 05, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I think that was THE NUTMEG OF CONSOLATION. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with the sea jargon in the O'Brian books. That belongs. (Them's fightin' words!)
And yes, Patrick Tull is a wonderful reader. There are two good ones, one bad one, and one who's miscast (normally reads a comic series, and that is so stuck in my head that he ruins O'Brian for me)

Isn't that a nice title/name of a ship?

July 05, 2011  
Blogger C.B. James said...

In our defense The Federalist Papers weren't published until 10 or so years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

If he's as much fun as The Cartoon History of the World and P.G. Wodehouse, I'm sure I'll enjoy Flashman. Adding him to the TBR stack today.

July 05, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Solo

Yes I think you're right. Now I come to think of it they dont let Stephen play in the cricket game in Nutmeg of Consolation precisely because of his previous problems.

I find it quite plausible that he wouldnt know the rules of cricket for although he went to Trinity College Dublin, they didnt become a bastion of the game until the 1830's.

Flashman of course would have played baseball at Rugby School or at least the English version "rounders".

July 05, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Although we did not debate the finer points of the Federalist papers, we did watch 1776, which has quite a lot of Constitutional content for a musical. It was one of my mom's favorites, though I hadn't seen it myself for a long time.

I was just thinking the other day that I should finally get around to those Patrick O'Brien novels. They were so popular when he was alive but I was surprised how fast they dropped off after he died.

July 05, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I seem to recall that the scene was described to me as Maturin knocking the wickets to splinters rather than knocking it for six. Bit it appears that solo has provided the answer. Let's see who's right.

July 05, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Matthew. Yes, Flashan does muse several times in this book that his current situation reminds him of this, that, or the other, presumably from some earlier novel. And yes, this book has me thinking more about 19th-century history than I could imagine most books doing, and making it a lot more fun, too.

Perhaps the books ought to be on the reading lists of war colleges everywhere.

July 05, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Aha, solo, many thanks. I remembered the discussion had taken place on a blog, probably this one, but I'd never remembered it was in that particular discussion.

I am gratified that I remembered the scene's essectials accurately, though, and I'll probably try to start with that book when I get to O'Brian.

July 05, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., that is a nice title even if it's not the one of the book in question. It resonates with me because I'm sprinkling a bit of nutmeg in my coffee these days.

Why? Because it's there.

July 05, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, C.B., saying anyone is as much fun as Wodehouse is akin to suggesting to a monotheist that there are many gods, but Flashgman is right up there. And, as you'll see from more experienced readers' comment, the book I'm reading now is not even regarded of one of the best in the series. I'm also always glad to meet another Larry Gonick fan.

Hamburgers may not have been a staple of the American diet in 1776 either, but that doesn't stop anyone from eating them at Independence Day barbecues. In fact, though, I can see why 1776 is celebrated more than 1787. It's a lot more fun thumbing one's noses at the king and throwing tea off ships than it is getting down to the serios business of writing a constitution. It's more like a party.

But one could easily work a bit of history and erudition into a Constitution Day celebration in the form of a backyard barbecue game: Chug-a-lug as many beers as one can, then try to spell "Montesquieu." In Philadelphia, this could even be made a civic festival on the lawn of the National Constitution Center.

July 05, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I'm tempted to seek out 1776 just to hear those debates rendered into song.

July 05, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Hmm. Listening to NUTMEG at the moment. It starts with them ship-wrecked because the Diane was destroyed. Raffles gets them Nutmeg as a substitute (hence name). To be frank, I didn't pay attention to the cricket/hurling game, though I remember the book starts with a game.

July 05, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I was more amused by the hurling side of the scene in question, having recently discovered that fast and graceful game.

July 05, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

It's fun if you're in the right mood. As my sister said, though, it would never have been made today. Too wordy.

July 05, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's just what someone said about the movie version of The Maltese Falcon a few years ago when I attended a panel discussion of the book.

My optimistic v-word is clearlog

July 05, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I never could get into the Flashman series, they seemed to have too much of the "Swinging London"-era Peter Cook/Dudley Moore comedic parody to them--all that farce and mindless womanizing--but I will admit to a certain fondness for the Richard Lester film, Royal Flash, 1975. Perhaps because I'd had a terrible crush on Oliver Reed since 1969's Women in Love,one that was revived during his stints in the Three- and Four Musketeers movies--also directed by Lester with screenplays by GM Fraser!

Gags and action aside, I don't think I've ever seen any films that, on every level, more clearly evoked the 17th century (my favorite century at the time) for me. Marvelous attention to period detail. And Royal Flash brought 19th-c. to life the same way.

July 05, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Having just finished Flashman on the March, I'd have some sympathy for complaints of farce and mindless womanizing, though these did not bother me much. King Theodore's rapid descents into and rises out of madness, for example, reminded a bit of some of Moammar Ghadaffi's odder moments, as reported in the media. Against that background, they struck me as a plausible rendering of an absolute dictator under siege.

The womanizing? Well, maybe that part of Flashman's character has the envious but indulgent sympathy of male readers. I may not believe that all Abyssinian women are that beautiful, but there are just enough observations about differences between East African and English morality, say, to make the story more than a mindless, comic sex romp. And this was not even supposed to be one of the better novels in the series. I will surely read more.

July 05, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"The womanizing? Well, maybe that part of Flashman's character has the envious but indulgent sympathy of male readers."

No doubt. Just don't try it at home, guys!

July 05, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Flashman never tried it at home in this book, which he spent entirely away from home. In fact, he was forever longing for his beloved Elspeth.

July 05, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"I'm sprinkling a bit of nutmeg in my coffee these days."

And it's good for you! Many anecdotal refs to its health values online. Like its fellow spice cinnamon, which I imagine is in a shaker near the nutmeg at your coffee house of choice...? Of course all that goes out the window if we're talking about sprinkling it on egg nog.

Elspeth, Elisabeth. Hmm, I like it!

July 05, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

which I imagine is in a shaker near the nutmeg at your coffee house of choice...?

Right next to it! I still don't know why Connecticut is the Nutmeg State, though.

I have just read that Connecticut is not just the Nutmeg State, but also the Constitution State and, my favorite of all, "The Land of Steady Habits."

July 05, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

from www.netstate.com

The Nutmeg State

Nutmeg, the powder used for seasoning foods, is ground from the seed of the fruit of the Nutmeg Tree, Myristica fragans. A couple of stories exist as to the origin of this nickname. One story has it that this nickname came about as a comment on the ingenuity and shrewdness of the citizens of the state. In a story, perhaps originated by Sam Slick, it is claimed that the people of Connecticut were so ingenious and shrewd that they were able to make and sell "wooden" nutmegs to unsuspecting buyers. A variation on this story maintains that purchasers did not know that the seed must be ground to obtain the spice and may have accused yankee peddlars, unfairly, of selling worthless "wooden" nutmegs. It may be that these wooden nutmegs were whittled by idle sailors on ships coming from the spice island and sold as souvenirs.

July 05, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

All right, now for the Land of Steady Habits.

July 05, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Your reference librarian at your command, m'lord...

The Land of Steady Habits

This nickname came about because of the strict morals of the people of the state.

A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles, edited by Mitford M. Mathews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951) defines "Land of Steady Habits" as "1. Connecticut, applied in allusion to the strict morals of its inhabitants," (page 954).

July 05, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I shall endeavor to have a suitable wisecrack prepared for delivery tomorrow afternoon.

July 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Perhaps I should make that "upon arising from bed tomorrow afternoon" -- as I do like clockwork each day.

July 06, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Some readers have claimed a triumvirate of Napoleonic era historical fiction (that's written in English).

Patrick O'Brian > navy (Aubrey/Maturin novels).

Bernard Cornwell > army (Richard Sharpe series--The books are quite good and I highly recommend the UK TV series starring Sean Bean as Sharpe, Daragh O'Malley as Patrick Harper).

Allan Mallinson > cavalry (Matthew Hervey novels. Mallinson was a UK cavalry officer and knows whereof he writes). I'm reading these now.

v-word = gunwat

July 06, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Elisabeth

But whats great about the Patrick OBrian is OBrian's gift for avoiding the obvious. OBrian never takes us to the Battle of Trafalgar whereas Cornwell drags us through the entire Peninsular campaign and of course to Waterloo. My favourite OBrian novels are the ones where almost nothing happens at all. Nutmeg of Consolation is one of those and in the one before it the highlight of the novel is Stephen Maturin's visit to Buddhist temple where he meets an orangutan.

July 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

So, does George MacDonald Fraser offer a mix of the obvious and the less so in the Flashman books?

July 06, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Adrian,
I understand what you mean about being dragged through each and every battle of the Napoleonic Wars. O'Brian is certainly the best writer of the 3 and I'd recommend his books to anybody, including those who aren't typically drawn to historical fiction. But I've had some success recommending the Sharpe novels to "reluctant" male fiction readers. Ones that might, at least initially, find O'Brian "too slow", "too wordy", etc. Readers for whom the writing is secondary to fast-paced storytelling. Of course, I suppose not many reluctant readers are perusing DBB...

Mallinson falls somewhere between the two in writing vs storytelling. He begins the Hervey saga with Waterloo, thus opening up subsequent tales to a variety of locales. Mallinson's ear for period speech rings true and at the beginning of the novel I just finished, A Call to Arms, our hero is in Rome, mourning the death of his wife (killed by Indians the year before in Canada), when he chances upon that promising young poet, Percy Shelley. So, unlike the Sharpe novels, there is not a linear progression through the Peninsular War but postings to India, South Africa, etc. and opportunities for plenty of non-battle activities. And I admit I am partial to the role of horses (rather than the Wooden Worlds of O'Brian's ships) in the Mallinson novels.

July 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, I'm a bit of a reluctant reader of historical fiction, or at least I was. Novels about the past were a foreign country to me, but now at least I'm getting a few stamps on my passport.

July 06, 2011  
Blogger Matthew E said...

So, does George MacDonald Fraser offer a mix of the obvious and the less so in the Flashman books?

Definitely. On the one hand we get the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny; on the other hand we get all kinds of references to Flashy's experiences during the Civil War, but no book that actually tells that story. We do get books, though, for lesser-known events like the First Sikh War or the Baccarat Scandal.

It's the most frustrating thing about the Flashman books: Fraser died before he had told half the stories there were to tell. And there was a period of time where Flashy was, apparently, being shanghaied over half the world, and we're reading it going, hold on, he's in the U.S. in this book, but he must have been in China not long before because of that other book, so how'd he get from here to there so fast, and...

July 06, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Have to look for Mallinson. O'Brian is definitely well above the Cornwell level. For one thing, the novels are much richer in the trivia of the times and in comic elements. I really like Cornwell, but his character is your basic John Wayne type of hero, a man who has risen from the ranks against all odds because of superhuman skills and bravery. And WATERLOO was not very strong. The battle was inadequately researched.

Don't care for Flashman.

July 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Matthew, I've read that Fraser was good on accuracy, and I know he wrote at least one book of history. Did he get his facts right as far as you know, especially when writing about lesser-known campaigns?

As far as his being shanghaied all over the world, his diversion to Abyssinia in Flashman on the March establishes him in my mind as a character apt to wind up anywhere at short notice, whether he wants to or not.

July 06, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Peter, knowing of your interest in Antiquity / the late Antique and now your (hopefully) burgeoning interest in reading more historical fiction may I recommend 3 authors? You might be surprised to find out they are all women.

In alphabetical order:

Gillian Bradshaw:
> The Beacon at Alexandria (Ptolemaic Egypt)
> The Bearkeeper's Daughter (you-know-who)
> Imperial Purple (Byzantium)
> Horses of Heaven (well, you knew I'd like that one)
> Island of Ghosts (Roman Britain)
> The Sand-Reckoner (Archimedes of Syracuse)
> Render Unto Caesar (historical crime fiction set in Rome)
> The Sun's Bride (ancient Rhodes)

Pauline Gedge (a countrywoman of yours)

Most of her novels are set in ancient Egypt, my favorites being:
> Child of the Morning
> The Twelfth Transforming
> The Scroll of Saqqara
but the excellent
> The Eagle and the Raven (set in Roman Britain)

Cecelia Holland
> Two Ravens (medieval Iceland)
> The Belt of Gold (9th c. Constantinople of Empress Irene)
> Great Maria Jerusalem (set in the Kingdom of Jerusalem; author thinks it's her best novel)

All 3 authors, perhaps Gedge most of all, create absolutely pitch perfect historical settings. Many feature historically-believable women as main characters. (You know I detest historical fiction with contemporary-type women characters clad in period dress so that women readers can "relate" to them.) One caveat, some of these feature romances that male readers might not care about (but they can skim the mushy parts).

July 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yeah, I figured that anyone who writes as Cecilia, especially, would include mushy parts.

Thanks for the recommendations. Someone had recommended Gillian Bradshaw to me in this space before. Was it you?

July 06, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Whoops! My copy-and-paste job jammed Holland's Great Maria and Jerusalem together. The former is one my favorite historical novels; the latter is Holland's favorite of her novels.

I wouldn't be surprised if I was the one who had recommended Bradshaw to you before. Possibly because most of her fiction is set in the Late Antique/ "Dark Ages".

And, my god, how could I have left off that list Robert Graves's Count Belisarius and Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian, which is possibly one of the greatest novels of the 20th c. (not only in my opinion).

July 06, 2011  
Blogger Matthew E said...

Did he get his facts right as far as you know, especially when writing about lesser-known campaigns?

Well, you've seen the footnotes in FotM; I'm far from enough of an expert to dispute any of that stuff. I've never come across anything in the series I know to be wrong, although, of course, Fraser does include some fictional elements. But those are easy to spot.

July 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

One passage in Flashman on the March has a fair chunk of exposition -- what in other books might seem an information dump. But the conceit that the books are Flashman's diaries makes it easy to work this sort of thing into the book. The passage is something like "Now, let me explain the workings of that peculiar and interesting campaign ..."

July 07, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder if the Flashman books are plagued by scarcity, at least in the U.S. The two titles available for the Kindle, for instance, are the same two I found at the Strand in New York today.

July 08, 2011  
Blogger Matthew E said...

It could be. I've never had any trouble finding them, but then I'm in Canada.

But I thought of something this morning: you've got this detectives blog, so there are a couple of the Flashman books you should absolutely read: Flashman and the Tiger and Flashman and the Angel of the Lord, in which he briefly meets two of the great 19th-century detectives. Only thing is, you shouldn't read Flashman and the Tiger without reading Flash for Freedom! and Royal Flash first, and those are the second and third books, so if you're going to read them you really might as well read the first one first... especially since you shouldn't read Flashman and the Angel of the Lord without reading, I guess, Flashman and Flash for Freedom! before that. Flashman and the Redskins also fits in between Flash for Freedom! and Flashman and the Angel of the Lord; you could do without it if you wanted to, but it's actually one of the best ones. Really the simplest thing is just to read them in publication order, but if you're having trouble tracking them down that may not be practical. Order them used online?

Note that Fraser also wrote a couple of non-Flashman books that do take place in the Flashverse, Black Ajax and Mr. American. They're all right; not essential, but if you really get into these books, as I have on occasion, you'll be glad to have them.

July 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for that thorough grounding in Flashmania, though following it will force me to exercise some patience because I bought Flashman and the Tiger at the Strand.

July 08, 2011  

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