Monday, November 28, 2011

Flashman - Chapter 3

The 3rd chapter of Flashman opens with young Harry getting his wish of being given a junior officership in Cardigan’s 11th Light Dragoons (the name was later changed to 11th Hussars, but early on Cardigan even makes a joke that Flashman is a little heavy for a ‘light’ dragoon).

This is the first time readers of the books would encounter James Brudenell, the 7th Earl of Cardigan. Cardigan has gone down in history as the man who led the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War (the event was later immortalised in verse by poet laureate Alfred Tennyson), the name has also become famous as a knitted button up garment generally worn by elderly men and women. The Cardigan of the Flashman books seems to embody everything that was wrong with the British Army’s aristocratic, often incompetent leaders. He’s arrogant and spoiled, he’s also petty and completely unable to ever admit that he was wrong about anything. I’m not sure if this was historically factual, or whether George MacDonald Fraser did it for comic effect, but Flashman’s Cardigan has a speech impediment similar to that of noted ‘wabbit hunter’ Elmer Fudd, he regularly pronounces his ‘r’s and 'l's as ‘w’s. He’s also referred to by some of his men (not of course to his face) as ‘Lord Haw Haw’.

There was an interesting split in the 11th Hussars at the time, something which Flashman explains. Cardigan had dreams of leading an elite regiment, and although he did serve briefly in India, he had little time for the career officers in his unit who had spent a large amount of time on the subcontinent. The high handed peer referred disparagingly to these men as ‘Indians’. The newer younger officers, like Flashman, became known as ‘plungers’. Flashman was probably set to rise under Cardigan’s leadership. His commander was largely about appearance, and Flashman looked great in the uniform and on a horse, he was also extremely good at toadying up to his leader, despite his personal feelings about the man’s shortcomings as a military commander.

During this time Flashman took an intense dislike to a brother officer by the name of Bernier. The feeling was mutual. Bernier was the regiment’s crack shot and best blade, he had been the best horseman until the arrival of Flashman. One day in London Flashman chanced to see Bernier with his girlfriend; a pretty little French girl by the name of Josette. Being the unpleasant sort of man he is, Flashman seduced Josette, just so he could have something else over Bernier. It was always going to be discovered, and Bernier surprised the two of them in the act. He later hit Flashman in a fit of jealous rage.

Although Flashman knew that discovery meant disaster he was unable help himself. Once Bernier hits him, he’s between a rock and a hard place. If he allows it to go unanswered then his reputation is shot and he’ll lose any respect anyone had for him. On the other hand Bernier’s a crack shot, and would be likely to kill or seriously injure Flashman if it comes to a duel. Eventually Flashman answers the slight and challenges Bernier to a duel. Pistols at dawn.

Again Harry’s planning comes to the fore. He’s managed to cultivate the friendship of another junior officer called Bryant. Bryant is the regiment’s pauper. It was not possible to survive as an officer in the British Army during Queen Victoria’s reign without some sort of monetary backing. Bryant manages to scrape by, and as he’s funny and good at games of chance he keeps up goodwill and his funds. How exactly Bryant got to where he has, is never explained, he’s too young to have risen from the ranks, but his sleight of hand suggests that he may not have come by all his money honestly. Flashman explains his plan to Bryant. Bryant will offer to act as loader for the two men. and ensure that Bernier’s pistol is unloaded, and Flashman will shoot wide. This upholds Flashman’s honour and saves his skin at the same time. If the deception is discovered then both men will probably be hung for the crime. Flashman offers Bryant 10,000 pounds to do the act. He has no intention of ever paying, but as long as it works he’ll walk out of the duel with honour and life intact.

It was just as well that Flashman did have Bryant unload Bernier’s weapon, because as it is he actually feels the passage of the wadding and the powder past his face. Had the gun been loaded at best Flashman would have suffered a severe and disfiguring facial injury. He then fired wide and accidentally whipped the top off the attending doctor’s bottle of some medicine, and was hailed as a brilliant shot who took the honourable action and deloped, when he could have killed his opponent. During this affair readers discover a slight peculiarity in Flashman’s physical make up. Most people when scared go white in the face, not Flashman. He goes red in the face, the more scared he is the redder he gets. People often mistake his cowardice for anger, it’s helped his reputation no end over the years.

The aftermath of the duel, which will impact on Flashman’s life in years to come concerns Tommy Bryant. Once the duel is over Bryant wants the 10,000 pounds Flashman promised. Flashman predictably refuses, and he knew he had Bryant over a barrel. Bryant can’t publicly admit to his actions, he’d be putting his own neck in the noose. Flashman will just deny the accusations and he’ll probably be believed. Bryant has no option, but to swallow it. He does vow revenge though, and he proves to be a bad man to make an enemy of.

The duel and it’s outcome creates a small wave through London society, and Flashman becomes a minor celebrity, even being praised by the Duke of Wellington. It also has another unintended affect. Strictly speaking duelling is illegal. However out of the public and legal eye, especially in the military, it is not only accepted, it’s encouraged. The old school tie types who run the British military machine see duelling as a perfectly acceptable way for men to settle matters of honour. Cardigan even had to rubber stamp the Bernier Flashman duel before it could go ahead. Unfortunately the attention the duel creates brings it into the busy eyes of Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Prince Consort of Queen Victoria. Albert does not approve of duelling and makes his displeasure known.

Cardigan has to discharge Flashman from the Hussars for a brief period until the fuss over the duel dies down. Albert actually wanted Flashman decommissioned, but Cardigan refused as he felt Flashman was a ‘pwomising officer’ (ahhh how little did he know). It was common practice in the British Army in those days for officers to be handed around from regiment to regiment as needs demanded. Flashman, to his horror, is going to be posted to Scotland!

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