Sep 17 2010 12:34pm

Zenda reimagined with sex: George MacDonald Fraser’s Royal Flash

If I read The Prisoner of Zenda when I was ten, I read the Flashman books when I was fourteen or so, and re-read them when new ones came out until one day I suddenly noticed that they’d been visited by the sexism fairy and stopped enjoying them. Royal Flash is the second of them, and one of the weaker ones. It really is The Prisoner of Zenda redone with sex, and with a dishonourable coward in the hero role. I can understand the urge to do this, but I find Royal Flash mean-spirited and, unforgivably, much less funny than the original.

The conceit here is that Bismark noticed that Flashman is the double of a Danish prince, except for the prince being bald, and coerces him into a complicated exchange plot. As always with Fraser, real historical figures are woven into the narrative—in this case Lola Montez as well as Bismark.

The two men are identical, once Flashman is shaved and given the prince’s dueling scars. There’s no reason given, it’s just one of those coincidental double things—which makes it oddly much less plausible than The Prisoner of Zenda. The conceit is that Flashman told the story to Hope (Hawkins, which was Hope’s real name) and he made it into the bestseller version. This therefore follows Hope quite closely—it’s set in an imaginary German principality, the dungeon is the same, some of the characters have the same names and so on.

Like all the Flashman books, it’s full of sex—and where Rudolf is so honourably chastely Victorian, Flashman takes any and every opportunity to get any woman into bed. The marriage with the princess bothered me a lot, because the sex is so non-consensual, and what bothers me most is that I don’t think I noticed it was non-consensual when I read it as a teenager. Potentially triggering spoilers: The fact that she doesn’t want him is seen by him as a good thing, he rapes her and she likes it. Yuck.

My problem with Flashman is that he’s not just a rogue, he really is despicable. Fraser knew this, at least with the early books. I think Fraser fell in love with his own creation later and softened him. But here he is despicable, a coward and a bully and a toady and a rapist and a thief, telling the story in his own words and from a perspective much later in his life. I think you’re supposed to find it sexy and funny and clever, and I just find it clever and somewhat repellant. This probably wasn’t the best one to re-read now, because I never really liked it, but I wouldn’t have been reading it at all if not for the double identity thing.

As George MacDonald Fraser is on the one hand dead (so his feelings can’t be hurt) and on the other a huge bestseller (so his sales cannot be hurt by anything I say) I think I can reasonably say that I disliked this book and do not recommend it. I did keep reading it though, even not liking it, as Fraser’s readability and ability to spin a story remains as high as ever.

And that’s it for double identity for the time being.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

David Levinson
1. DemetriosX
This probably is the worst of the Flashman books, in part because the narrative is split over a fair amount of time, making things disjointed. As for the sexism fairy, that is part of the point of Flashy. He's supposed to be a pig. The original was despicable and Fraser tried to keep as much of that as possible for creating an anti-hero. I think you're right though that Fraser softened him later to make him more likable. Anti-heroes went out of fashion (I never liked them much, myself), so he had to smooth out some of the rough edges. Learning to ask first did save his life when he encountered Geronimo.

ETA: It's odd that of all the books, this is the one they decided to try making a film of. I've never seen it, but since Fraser wrote the screenplay, I assume the script is all right. I can't really picture Malcolm McDowell as Flashman, though.
Pamela Adams
2. PamAdams
Yeah, Flash was never my cup of tea. (or flask of brandy) I much prefer the Dand McNeill stories.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
Pam: Oh, me too. I love the Dand McNeill stories, especially "The General Danced at Dawn".
4. earlgrey
Fraser wrote better books and much better screenplays.
Julian Augustus
5. Alisonwonderland

I think you have to put the Flashman books in context; they are written for a certain age group. Like you, I read them as a teenager and to most teens the anti-hero that is Flash is enormously appealing. For those kids who, in their pre-early teens, despised the original Flashman, introduced as the school bully who was eventually kicked out of Eton (?) in Tom Brown's Schooldays, meeting Fraser's Flashman as an army officer when they were in their mid-late teens and going through their own rebellious phase was a revelation. The way Fraser managed to get Flashman involved in just about every major historical event in that period of the 19th century, and how Flash managed to survive every catastrophe by being a weasel and a coward and a hedonist (all qualities anathema to moralists everywhere) made compelling reading for a rebellious teenager. That is why the books were so popular.

As an adult, of course you have a much greater appreciation of history and much finer sensibilities, so you see the flaws in Flash's anti-hero antics. Your mistake, I think, was in re-reading the book in the first place. Leave the books to the young kids; at least it might open their minds to some 19th century history.
6. HelenS
Rugby, not Eton. I could never get into Flashman, but I did read Tom Brown.

I think I picked up the first Flashman book under the impression that it was by George MacDonald. You've no idea what kind of head-turning experience THAT is!

Never heard of the Dand McNeil stories. Must take a look.
7. Raskos
Jeez, people still read the Dand McNeil stories? Loved them. You could have put together the Glossary from The Sheik and the Dustbin at our kitchen table.
jon meltzer
8. jmeltzer
This is the worst of the Flashman books because Fraser, still feeling his way into the series, broke what became a basic rule: everything is true but Flashman himself*. When Flashy is off in mythical European duchies, the whole concept of a discovered treasured trove of secret memoirs by a real prominent figure becomes strained. 

(*okay, there are some made up characters and some returns of "Tom Brown" ones. But all the major historical ones are real. )
9. Foxessa
I am just that much older than you that the very first Flashman novel I read -- I never finished. Because of the sexism. Also for other reasons. I also can't handle the television series Dexter, with a torturing serial killer as the protagonist. Such an old-fashioned girl! Hey, me and Louisa May Alcott, soulmates! Lolz.

Love, c.
11. a-j
Arguably MacDonald Fraser's finest work is the World War Two memoir Quartered Safe Out Here, an account of his part in the Burma campaign. It's also very funny at moments as well. Join others in giving a thumbs up to the Dand MacNeill stories.
As to Flashman, I still read some of them but not the first three (Royal Flash is the second) as the narrator is too repugnant. Fraser did seem to soften the character considerably in the later books which involve Flashman's problems arising from his cowardice and misogyny. Older male critics in the UK tend to prefer the earlier novels, I prefer the later for exactly the same reason.
Elio García
13. Egarcia
I compare Flashman to a much more ribald Cugel. The pleasure of reading would-be tricksters like these -- they're both very bad men with no innate redeeming qualities -- is that they so often have their feet to their fire and you get a kind of schadenfreude about it. Unlike Cugel, of couse, Flashy often manages to actually get the better end of the stick, generally through ridiculous coincidences.

I think Fraser's softening of Flashman later on actually had the effect of making it seems to me that some of the very conservative social/political positions -- especially those that seemed eerily to match contemporary politics -- were the author himself stepping into the story and turning a bit didactic. I didn't care for it. When Flashy was just this awful brute, liar, and cad, all the particular nastiness could be understood as the worst excesses of the depicted era deliberately put into one character for satirical effect.

And so, I'm in the position of being one of those teenagers (14? 15? Going on 33) who apparently are the intended fans of the novels.

My absolute favorite of the novels is probably Flashman at the Charge, with the ridiculous presence of Flashman at the Thin Red Line, the Charge of the Heavy Brigade, and the Charge of the Light Brigade all on the same day. (Also, yes, because of the scene where he throws his latest conquest, naked, out of a speeding sled in the vain hope that it'll let him outrace his pursuers both from their stopping to check on her and from the lightened load. It's funny in that horrible, 'I can't believe he just DID that' sort of way which is a large part of the series' humor.)
15. MindElemental
I read most of the Flashman novels as a teenager, but I recently read a couple more as a grown-up (well, 23), and they still hold up for me.

I agree with the comments upthread about Flashman's vileness being the whole point of the character. Actually, I'd subdivide it further. There's the cowardice, which is played more for laughs... and then every so often, he does something truly take-the-breath-away horrific, such as selling his latest paramour into sexual slavery, or tricking a man who could expose him as a fraud into volunteering to be beheaded.

But the cynical worldview is another part of what I like about the series. I mean, this is a world where the greatest hero of the British Empire is a liar, bully, and coward; and which
favourably depicts neither native nor European.
16. Doug M.
In one of the later books -- "Flashman and the Tiger" -- Fraser breaks the all-real-but-Flashman rule again, bringing in Sherlock Holmes. It's just as bad an idea as it sounds.

I think the turning point for the series is probably not in the series itself. It's Flashman's guest cameo in Fraser's very odd novel "Mr. American". The American of the title is a Wild-West type who ends up in Britain in the years before WWI; a 90+ year old Flashman (now a long-retired general and massively respectable) is a minor but (mostly) wise and sympathetic character. ISTM that's the point where the whole character concept got away from him; none of the books written after that are better than okay.

I agree with Egarcia that the later books are more didactic and polemical. I'm not so sure that it's because Fraser fell in love with Flashman, though. My guess would be that he just got crankier and more dogmatic with age -- the last couple of books really do have that get-off-my-lawn feel too them.

Having said that, several of the books really are pretty good, both historically accurate and funny.

Doug M.
David Levinson
17. DemetriosX
In Mr. American, Flashman is still womanizing as best he can at over 90. I don't recall him being all that wise, either. Cunning, perhaps, but still Flash.

Of course, another problem with the later books is that Fraser had to come up with plausible ways to get his character into some of the places he'd claimed to have been while meeting certain time constraints. And yet for me, the big thing about these books is that I actually learned quite a bit and they made me go read about Queen Ranavalona and Brooke of Sarawak and the Russian push into Central Asia.

My favorites are probably At the Charge and The Great Game. I still wish he'd written the one about the war in South America, though.
jon meltzer
18. jmeltzer
@16: There is no Flashman-meets-Holmes story, just as there are no Dune sequels and no Rama sequels. 

"Royal Flash" is bad, but it does exist. The Lola Montez part (one of the many instances in which Flashman is outsmarted by one of his paramours) is okay, and something elaborating on that without the Zenda episode would have been a better book. 
19. wkwillis
The author writes convincingly. I remember an incident from the memoirs of Grant (or Sherman?) when for just a second I thought they were talking about meeting someone who acted like Flashman, and I actually spent at least one second thinking that it really was Flashman, and wondering what the Limey bastard was up to now!
20. a1ay
All good comments - I agree that "all true but Flashman" is a vital part of the series (even the splendid John Charity Spring is weakened slightly by not being real). Personally, I was gutted that he never wrote the Civil War novel (or novels).

Flashman does seem to mellow over the course of the books, but this is almost believable as representing Flashman himself mellowing over his life. It's not impossible that Flash aged 19 was much more of a bastard than Flash aged 45 or 60.

The interesting point about Flashman, for me, is: is he, really, a hero?

Because in a lot of cases he has a choice. It's almost never "Flashman, you must do this terribly dangerous thing or I will kill you here and now." It's "Flashman, if you don't do this terribly dangerous thing the Queen will be very upset, or your wife may look down on you, or your fellow officers may laugh at you and scorn you in polite society, or your reputation as a hero will be tarnished, or you'll end up in prison." And those are all survivable. A true coward wouldn't give a damn about his reputation.
David Levinson
21. DemetriosX
@20: Interesting points, but on the heroism front, it should be noted that a lot of his "heroic acts" are the coincidental result of him running for his life. He does occasionally talk himself into doing something actually brave, usually only when everyone is looking and a refusal would cost him the good life back home.

The Civil War book would have been a good one, but I was more interested in the War of the Triple Alliance, because it's something I don't really know anything about and books on it are hard to come by (and none of them would have explained how he got into that balloon). It wouldn't surprise me if he was at Khartoum, too. That would have been quite a tale.

A year or two before he died, Fraser said he was trying to choose from three different subjects for the next adventure. I don't know if he said what the possibilities were. He had excluded Australia. It was on Flash's CV, but said he probably wouldn't get around to writing it. (Ned Kelly, maybe?)
jon meltzer
22. jmeltzer
@21:  I believe there is something in the Papers saying he was at Khartoum.  (And how could he not be ... he was at every major disaster in the 19th century). 

I sometimes wonder if the Estate will be getting a new editor.  Admittedly Fraser will be hard to replace, but, for example, the Boswell papers went on being published after the original editor retired or died.  It would be interesting to speculate on who they'd pick. 
jon meltzer
23. jmeltzer
@20: Flashy would have problems with that "prison" thing. 
David Levinson
24. DemetriosX
@22: Ooooh, a new "editor". I don't know how I'd feel about that. Fraser had a pretty unique voice and Flashy's use of that voice is even more unique. I'm not sure who could fill those shoes. Alexander McCall Smith? He's a) too nice and b) has several successful series of his own going, but he might be able to pull it off.
25. a1ay
Not Sandy McCall Smith. Way too nice.

How about Christopher Brookmyre? He seems to have run dry somewhat, and he's a bright lad who'd be able to manage the research.
26. a-j
I read one interview with MacDonald Fraser in which he said that he would never do a Civil War Flashman because he did not want to be bombarded by all the War Between the States buffs pointing out the mistakes he'd made. In a later interview he said he had not written one because he felt the war itself was rather done in story terms!
Isn't it Khartoum he's off to with Chinese Gordon at the end of Flashman on the March?
I'd have liked to have read an account of his time as a deputy to Wild Bill Hickok, hey ho.
a1ay@20 - I've also wondered if Flashman is perhaps rather braver than he makes out for the reasons you give.
Another cameo appearance for him - he's referred to in Black Ajax which is partly narrated by his father who, if memory serves, is as much a cad.
Not sure about another editor. The thought is tempting but the only successful 'continuation' I'm personally aware of is Kingsley Amis's James Bond novel Colonel Sun (under the pseudonym Robert Markham). I can't think of any other that has worked for me.
27. OtterB
Flashman on the March?

I originally read this as "Flashman on Mars," perhaps because I was just rereading A Princess of Mars.

Haven't read these. Tried once years ago because I kept hearing other people say they were fun, bounced off. Reading this, I don't think I'll try again. But the library has The General Danced at Dawn, so I'll give that a try.

I do appreciate it when "I have to try that" is in the library rather than needing to be purchased.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment