Man, it’s good to come back to Flashman. After a period of trying to broaden my palate with other popular historical fiction writers of varying quality, it took less than one paragraph of Flashman And The Dragon to remind me of what I was missing. I was beginning to think that I was holding other writers to some unfair or impossible ideal; but no, I have been reminded that Flashman really is that good. This is what historical fiction is capable of, and there’s no excuse for anything less.
Chronologically, we meet Flashy here just after his pre-civil-war adventures with Tom Brown in the USA (that adventure is chronicled in Flashman and the Angel of the Lord). Somehow he has wound up in Hong Kong, awaiting a ship home. Of course, once again his attention for the ladies gets him into trouble, and our ‘hero’ winds up running opium into the Chinese mainland, hoping to make some quick cash and get some attention from a smitten clergyman’s wife. But it’s all a ruse, and Flashy ends up getting a much closer look than he intended at the fighting that has been tearing China apart for ten years…
By 1860, when Flashman foolishly drifts up the Yangtse, the rebels known as the Taipings were at their greatest strength. Years earlier, the movement had started when a humble clerk failed his exams and fell into a religious frenzy. He came up with his own crazed version of the Christianity that was being peddled by Westerners in China at the time, and gathered quite a following, which eventually snowballed into what was effectively the biggest and bloodiest civil war of all time, with an estimated death toll up to sixty million. The Taipings fought against the Imperial forces of the Manchu dynasty, the invaders from the north who had ruled China as a high caste for centuries, engulfing enormous swathes of China in their war. Somehow, this event has slipped off the radar in the intervening years, and Westerners, for the most part, have never even heard of this titanic conflict. Perhaps it’s because the Taiping Rebellion, as it’s known, had the misfortune to have occurred around the same time as the far more fashionable American Civil War (though it lasted eleven years longer than Lee and Grant’s little spat).
Please excuse the excessive use of italics, but the real-life figures and history that Fraser has to play with here are absolutely astonishing, especially given their little-known status in this part of the world.
But there’s more: in the midst of this mind-blowing struggle, Britain decided to step into to once again force the issue of trade with the stubborn Mandarins, inevitably causing more war. Hilariously, in cities like London and San Francisco, immigrant Chinese were scorned and feared for their spreading of the opium habit- ‘a heathen curse on Christendom,’ as Alan Moore satirically put it in his Victorian-era League of Extraordinary Gentlemen- when in reality, opium was outlawed and almost unknown in China before Britain fought two wars to be able to import it there.
And that’s where Flashman steps in. He soon becomes involved in his country’s efforts to negotiate (at the point of a bayonet, natch) with the Mandarins at Peking. One of the most interesting themes of the book (to an anti-colonial whelp like myself) is Flashy’s description of the Chinese at this time: arrogant, insolent and as racist as he is himself. What’s true is that before the mid-19th century, China had existed in a kind of dream-world for centuries, believing itself to be literally the centre of the world (‘the middle kingdom’), with a god for an emperor. It wasn’t until the First Opium War in the 1840’s that China was forced to accept that there were other powers in the world besides itself, and that it would sometimes have to respect those powers. But the belief that Westerners were sub-human barbarians (not aided, of course, by said wars) seems to have returned, and Fraser depicts them as treating the Westerners like scum, hampering their efforts every step of the way to Peking.
Now, my mindset would generally be that the Chinese had every right not to aid the British in getting their claws into the country. If they had any sense, they would obviously have seen what was happening in the rest of the world, and done everything they could to keep the foreigners out. But Frasier’s point here is that this policy was being proposed by a rotting structure of small-minded, bigoted Sino-centrists, to coin a phrase. And, to be fair, he goes a fair way towards convincing me that he has a point. If the Chinese had had a more realistic take on the world and its politics, perhaps they would have accepted a certain amount of trading (which was perhaps inevitable anyway) and played their advantage to maintain a more powerful position among the nations. Instead they were crushed and humiliated because they refused to accept the reality of the situation. As usual, Frasier manages to convince me at least that there is another side to the story, or that the nations crushed by the imperial powers didn't always behave like angels either.
There’s a very high level of Orientalism in the book too- quite enough to make Edward Said run crying to his harem. The Chinese court, and in particular the famous Summer Garden, are portrayed as being so alien as to be ‘not of this earth.’ It’s as evocative as it is convincing. I have a particular love for a slightly unreal take on exotic cultures, probably as a progression from my love of the alien worlds of science fiction when I was a kid. My heart sings as Flashman wanders through corridors of green jade and dragon temples, and however patronising it is, I will always love this kind of thing, even if I know that it's all slightly silly.
Something else I love about this book is that it’s one of the Flashman novels that really focuses on the history. While Flashy himself is the glue that holds the series together, I have always felt that the books fall apart whenever the emphasis is on too many of Frasier’s fictional characters or unlikely coincidences (I rather loathe fan-favourite John Charity Spring, for example). I far prefer the books in which Flashy is thrust through a series of real events, and Flashman And The Dragon is played almost completely straight in this regard. Almost all the impossible events that the anti-hero bumbles through really happened, which adds a certain frisson to the proceedings. The only serious fictional intrusion is Flashy’s dealings with the scheming Trooper Nolan (of note to those looking for the Irish connection!), which falls rather flat compared to the rest of the novel.
Alongside tantalising hints as to an elderly Flashman’s presence at the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, and a brief walk-on part for ‘Chinese’ Gordon (whom Flashy seems to have come to know better later on- surely at Khartoum?), possibly the saddest missed opportunity here occurs at the very end of the book, when Flashman’s American contacts catch up with him, and shanghai him into what is surely the most lusted-after of Frasier’s unwritten books: the scoundrel’s adventures during the American Civil War.
Flashman And The Dragon is an epic adventure through a never-never-land that really was, and will likely introduce the reader to a world of extraordinary events and characters. Not to be missed.