Monday, September 14, 2020

George MacDonald Fraser - Flashman in the Great Game

Regular readers might notice that I've been reading books relating to the Great Indian Rebellion of 1857. The subject is one that has fascinated me since the time when, as a boy I read George MacDonald Fraser's Indian Rebellion novel. It's set during the events in India and sparked an interest in me. Some of the questions I had reading Flashman remain important decades later. How did Britain almost lose control of India? Why did the rebellion happen? Why were both sides so vicious?

Having returned to the subject recently I was drawn back to Flashman to see how the book stood up. What I found was quite interesting. A couple of years ago I re-read the first Flashman novel and if you read my review of that you'll find I was quite shocked at how, on re-reading, Fraser's hero is utterly repugnant. Flashman in the Great Game is not as bad as Flashman. But having immersed myself in the period and read an account by an actual British soldier of his experiences during 1857, I was struck by two things. Firstly Fraser is remarkably faithful to the historical events - Flashman's feelings visiting the aftermath of the Cawnpore massacre are, relatively similar to those of William Forbes-Mitchell who actually went there around the time Flashman is supposed to have.

Flashman however is less repugnant than in the first novel. He falls in love with the Rani of Jhansi who actually uses him more than he uses her, and possibly for the first time in his life he is bereft at what takes place with a woman. But that aside he is his usual, racist, self. The racism is interesting not least because Fraser clearly intends it to be a reflection of actual feelings of British soldiers. But as I remarked when reading Forbes-Mitchell, in his actual memories of the vicious battles and brutalities, that author never uses a racist word. This might say more about Fraser than it says about Flashman.

Unlike Forbes-Mitchell, Fraser doesn't duck the question of British brutalities and reprisals. In fact the scene were Flashman wakes up tied to a cannon is one where Flashman (and Fraser) depict a unusually sympathetic attitude to the Indians. Knowing the material well its easy to appreciate the research that Fraser put into the Flashman novels. He does embellish - there's an subplot involving Russian machinations in India which is invented as a plot device. He also changes when necessary - the plot device for Flashman's escape from Cawnpore is different to what actually happened to the only boat to escape. But Fraser does manage to show the discontent at the heart of the Indian Army, even if he tends to put the blame for the mutiny on agitators and Russian secret agents. 

Unfortunately Flashman's odious beliefs and language make this a tiresome read, particularly in the light of some of the more recent readings highlighted below.

Related Reviews

Forbes-Mitchell - Reminiscences of the Great Mutiny 1857-59
Hibbert - The Great Mutiny: India 1857
Ward - Our Bones Are Scattered
Dalrymple - The Anarchy
David - Victoria's Wars
Farrell - The Siege of Krishnapur
Rathbone - The Mutiny

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