Sunday, May 17, 2015

Flashman and the Mountain of Light

Flashman and the Mountain of Light appeared in 1990 and was the ninth of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels, chronicling the adventures of the notorious cad and unlikely Victorian hero.

Apart from being among the most entertaining examples of historical fiction one is ever likely to come across the Flashman novels have the added bonus that Fraser knew his Victorian history and the historical backgrounds are generally pretty accurate. Another plus is that they include copious endnotes, a feature some people dislike in novels but that I’m personally very partial to. In the Flashman books the endnotes are as much fun as the novels themselves.

Harry Flashman was a minor character in the immensely popular popular Victorian novel Tom Brown’s School Days, in which he appears as a drunkard and a bully. In his 1969 novel Flashman Fraser decided to turn him into a hero, or rather an anti-hero. After being expelled from Rugby for drunkenness Flashman joins the army and participates in the catastrophic First Afghan War. He quickly shows his true colours. He is a bully, a womaniser, a drunkard, a coward and an all-round cad. By pure good luck and quite undeservingly he ends the book acclaimed as a hero (helped by the fact that he is one of the very few survivors and therefore everyone who knows the truth about his lies and cravenness is dead).

Flashman proved to be such a huge success that it was followed by no less than eleven sequels recounting Flashman’s exploits in most of the great colonial wars of the 19th century.

Flashman and the Mountain of Light describes Flashman’s experiences in the Punjab during the First Sikh War of 1845-46, which happens to be one of the most fascinating and bizarre of all Britain’s colonial wars. As usual Flashman does his level best to avoid becoming involved in anything even mildly perilous, and as usual he ends up being in the thick of the action. Both on the battlefield and in the bedroom. As so often Flashman finds that the action in the bedroom is the more dangerous, especially when the bedroom belongs to the Rani Jindan. In the course of his career Flashman gets mixed up with some of the most extraordinary women of the 19th century and few were as extraordinary, or as dangerous, as the Rani Jindan.

Flashman deals with the situation in his customary manner and as always it seems that no matter how hard he tries to play the coward he still ends up being the hero.

Harry Flashman could easily have been one of the most unpleasant of all literary anti-heroes. That he ends up being a perversely likeable rogue is due partly to his honesty about his own many failings but also due to the fact that he does have some actual virtues.  He might be dishonest and cowardly but he’s also an intelligent and perceptive observer of the historical events in which he becomes embroiled. In fact more often than not his understanding of the situation is more clear-sighted and realistic than that of the men who are supposedly running the British Empire. It has been said that Britain acquired its empire in a “fit of absent-mindedness” and that can perhaps be seen as one of the major themes of the Flashman novels.

As always Fraser’s prose is delightful, the book is packed with outlandish incidents and the more outlandish the incident the more likely it is to be based on actual history, and Flashman is as gloriously debauched and as cowardly as ever. It’s all great fun.

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