Saturday, November 26, 2011

Flashman - Chapter 1

Before beginning the chapter reviews I need to say a few words about reading order and explain how the books were written to an extent. The books are not written chronologically. They started to veer off significantly with the 4th book; Flashman at the Charge, and never really got back on track, jumping around all over the place from then on. There is a chronological order on the inside of the 2005 paperback edition that I'm using for this, but even using that there are significant gaps in the old soldier's life. I wouldn't suggest to even attempt reading them chronologically, I've done it and it's not all that satisfying an experience. I've read all the books a number of times; chronologically, in publication order, and just any old how. I recommend reading them in publication order, that was after all how they were written, and that's what I'll be doing in this.

The cover of the 2005 paperback edition has a picture of a youngish Flashman in his dress uniform, leaning on a ceremonial sword, a calvaryman's sabre, I assume, with a scantily clad Indian lady at his feet, wound lovingly around one leg. Flashman himself wears a rather knowing smirk under his magnificent set of calvary whiskers. A horde of heavily armed Afghans can be seen massing in the distance. The first packet of the Flashman Papers covers the years 1839 - 1842.

The back of the book sums it up beautifully:

Can a man who is expelled from Rugby School as a drunken bully, who wantonly seduces his father's mistress, who lies, cheats and proves a coward on the battlefield, who romps his way through the boudoirs of Victorian Britain to the erotic frontiers of her Empire be all bad?

The book opens with an explanatory note from George MacDonald Fraser explaining the discovery of the manuscript and how he came to be in possession of them and was given permission to publish them. He believes that they were written sometime between 1905 and 1910, when Flashman was over 80. There is the possibility that they were dictated. I doubt that due to their expository nature and highly racy contents. His scandalised relatives buried the papers following Flashman's death in 1915, and it is a wonder they weren't destroyed. Fraser said his editing amounts to correcting spelling, punctuation and the addition of a few historical notes.

The passage from Tom Brown's Schooldays where Flashman got himself drunk and was subsequently expelled from Rugby School has been pasted onto the front of the first packet.

Flashman begins the manuscript by saying that Hughes got it wrong, even at the age of 17 (it's often stunning to realise exactly how young Flashman is in this first book) he knew better than to mix his drinks, which he supposedly did in the passage from the book. He blames this on his friend Speedicut.

He claims that he is concerned with facts and that he will be completely truthful in the manuscript, even if he is breaking the habit of 80 years. He asserts that he has a knighthood, a Victoria Cross, high rank (I believe he was a brigadier general when he retired from active service) and popular fame. Looking at the picture of him above his desk from his early days in Cardigan's Hussars (they were originally the 11th Light Dragoons, until Prince Albert changed the name) he can see a tall, roughly handsome young officer. He has always described himself as tall (6'2" or 3"), powerfully built and darkly handsome (even Hughes admitted that he was big and strong and could be charming when he wanted to be). Flashman describes the picture with his usual candour as being the portrait of a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, a thief, a coward and a toady.

He goes on to cover the episode of his drunkenness in more detail than was in Tom Brown's Schooldays and talks about how he was to face the school's legendary headmaster; Dr Thomas Arnold (Arnold is one of the many real characters that will appear throughout the books, and he is the first genuine historical figure to make an appearance). Flashman admits to being terrified of Arnold, moreso than of any punishment he may choose to levy on the student. He says that facing Arnold in his study he was as scared as at any time throughout his life and when a man has done what Flashman has throughout life (riding into a Russian battery at Balaclava - Flashman at the Charge, and waiting for the torturers in an Afghan dungeon - later in the pages of Flashman) that is saying something. It is interesting that even at this early point in the books George MacDonald Fraser was referencing incidents that would not actually occur until later in the books. He also talks about the sad end to Scud East later in this chapter, and that doesn't happen until book 5 Flashman in the Great Game.

Flashman is expelled, and as he leaves the school Scud East offers him his sorrow that he's being expelled (East was Brown's best friend and had suffered as much at Flashman's hand as any younger boy had), Flashman calls him a liar and damns his sorrow. He later reflects that all East's gallant goodness got him in the end was a painful death by a sepoy's bayonet in the dust at Cawnpore. Thus ends the opening chapter of Flashman.

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