Sunday, March 11, 2012

Flashman at the Charge - Chapter 5

After his harrowing charge into the Russian battery in chapter 4 of Flashman at the Charge, chapter 5 finds the 'pride of the Empire' as a Russian prisoner of war.

Harry actually states that being a prisoner of war in those days wasn't really all that bad. He's done time in all sort of prisons in a number of situations so he speaks from experience. A few things benefited him in the Crimea though. One was he was being held by another European power and they tended to view things very similarly back then, their Tsar later ended up being related to Queen Victoria, war was to some extent thing still considered a 'gentleman's game' and as such prisoners, especially officers, should be treated well. Harry was a recognised hero amongst the other British prisoners, particularly the enlisted men, and in a rare moment of self examination he does actually feel something for these men and the way they look up to him, when he knows they are far braver than he has ever been. The Russians also respect Flashman's bravery for riding into the guns, they don't realise that he was so unmanned by fear that he didn't really know which direction he was going.

Flashman doesn't stay at the front all that long, he is transported inland to be held at the estate of a Count Pencherjevsky; a Cossack. Via his anti-hero George MacDonald Fraser gives readers a good look at how he felt about the Russia of the 1850's. It's a huge country, Harry even compares it to the endless plains of the American West, and the US comes off second best in the land stakes. It's unrelentingly bleak and brutal. Most of this is not due to the landscape, but the Russian institution of serfdom. The serf system still existed in Russia until the later part of the 19th century, it was a form of legalised slavery, and in Harry's opinion the slaves on the plantations in the deep south of America had it better than the supposedly 'free' serfs toiling under Russia's endless skies.

It is on the way to Pencherjevsky's estate that Flashman runs into an extraordinary character. His name is Count Nicholas Pavlovitch Ignatieff, and he would become one of Harry Flashman's greatest adversaries. At the time Flashman sees him as another privileged and brutal Russian officer. He is courteous to Flashman, but only because he sees him as somewhat of a social equal. Both army officers, both from the landed gentry and both from money. Ignatieff is in many ways like John Charity Spring, in that he is a psychotic villain, but he differs from the insane slaving captain in most other respects. Firstly Ignatieff is real, the reality of the man suggests that George MacDonald Fraser took significant liberties with the character to mould him into Harry's adversary. Both John Charity Spring and Ignatieff are capable of great cruelty without giving it a second thought, but where Spring flies into an insane rage, Ignatieff is totally cool and completely in control, he knows what he is doing and it's highly possible that he enjoys it. Harry comes away from the encounter positively terrified of the man.

There's another shock waiting for Harry when he arrives at Pencherjevsky's. He has just eyed off the Count's attractive daughter, and is shown to his quarters which he will share with another British officer. Harry enters the room and comes face to face with Scud East of Rugby.

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