Friday, 30 July 1999

George MacDonald Fraser: Royal Flash (1970)

Edition: Pan, 1975
Review number: 301

The second of Fraser's Flashman series, Royal Flash is a spoof on Anthony Hope's classic The Prisoner of Zenda. It keeps fairly faithfully to the plot of Hope's novel, with the central part falling to the cowardly Flashman rather than the gallant Rudolf Rassendyll.

The major change made by Fraser is the motivation for the escapade. Flashman has no liking for adventure, and it requires both blackmail and force to get him to imitate Prince Carl Gustav. The plot is laid by Bismarck, and is an attempt to destabilise the border region between German states and Denmark, one of the more volatile parts of Europe in the mid-nineteenth century. (The border provinces of Schleswig and Holstein were claimed by both German patriots and the Danish state; the 'Schleswig-Holstein question' was made complicated by the fact that Germany was at the time fragmented into a large number of independent states.) Carl Gustav, a Danish prince, is set to marry Duchess Irma of Strackenz, a fictional, tiny state joining Schleswig and Holstein on the German-Danish border. Bismarck, realising Flashman's uncanny resemblance to Carl Gustav, intends to substitute him for the prince, and then reveal his identity, framing him as an agent of British Prime Minister Palmerston, engaged on some underhanded business. The purpose of this plot is to get both the Danes and Germans in Strackenz up in arms, provoking a general war in the region.

Of course, Flashman goes through the whole adventure quaking with terror. What will happen if someone finds out he isn't Carl Gustav? What will Bismarck do to keep him quiet even if he succeeds? The beginning of a trend which continues throughout the series can be seen in Royal Flash: the bullying unsympathetic side to Flashman begins to be suppressed, the comic element is emphasised. (I like the joke after Flashy, in his guise as the prince, sleeps with a chambermaid, and says to himself that if a child is born of the liaison, and grows up thinking himself closely related to royalty, he would truly be "an ignorant bastard".)

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