Thursday, 8 December 2011

Flashman and the Mountain of Light by George MacDonald Fraser

I’ve had this on the bookshelf for a few years now, and having some time ago given up on a rather foolish attempt to read all twelve in order, I picked this up, reasoning that Flashman withdrawal was a good enough reason to break sequence.

MacDonald Frasers’s eponymous anti-hero is a liar, a bully and a toady, who ducks and skives his way through some of the more colourful parts of nineteenth century history. In this episode he finds himself caught up in the Sikh War of 1845, and once again, Flashman has unwitting found himself in a tight spot.

He volunteers for a political role in an effort to avoid the inevitable fight between the Sikh kingdom in the Punjab and the East India Company, but is instead sent off to the court at Lahore. He is supposed to report back on court intrigue from the lions’ den itself, but after being dramatically rescued from falling off a high balcony by his servant, Jassa, his mind is strangely elsewhere.

I’m not certain what line our conversation took, once I’d heaved up my supper, because I was in that state of blind funk and shock where talk don’t’ matter, and I made it worse – once I’d recovered the strength to crawl indoors – by emptying my pint flask of brandy in about three great gulps, while Jassa asked damnfool questions. That brandy was a mistake. Sober, I’d have begun to reason straight, and let him talk some sense into me, but I sank the lot, and the short result was, in the immortal words of Thomas Hughes, Flashy became beastly drunk. And when I’m foxed, and shuddering scared into the bargain ... well, I ain’t responsible.

Flashman has overheard that the safest place for him to be is the durbar room (court) and he makes a sharp exit in that direction. Surprised when he gets there by scenes of utter debauchery, he’s quickly accosted by Mangala, slave and chief adviser of the Maharani:

She said I needed something to warm me, and a lackey serving the folk in the gallery put a beaker in my hand. What with brandy and funk I was parched as a camel’s oxter, so I drank it straight off, and another – dry red wine, with a curious effervescent tang to it. D’you know, it settled me wonderfully... I took another swig, and Mangala laid a hand on my arm, smiling roguishly. “That is your third cup, bahadur. Have care. It is ... strangely potent, and the night has only begun. Rest a moment.”

That might be hard work. The durbar is in the throes of an orgy, and Flashman feels ill disposed to restraint. He’s quickly brought to a booth at the end of the room and realises that he was in the presence of the notorious Maharani Jeendan, Indian Venus, modern Messalina, and uncrowned queen of the Punjab.

She’s quite a character:

...she was simply the lewdest-looking strumpet I ever saw in my life. Mind you, when a young woman with the proportions of an erotic Indian statue is found reclining half-naked and three parts drunk, while a stalwart wrestler rubs her down with oil, it’s easy to jump to conclusions.

Indeed it is. And it’s all too easy to get carried away. Flashman has another close shave before the night is out and has to get rescued by an American... and the war with the Sikhs hasn’t even begun yet.


  1. I like Flashy. Didn't get on with the mob at school who were clearly destined to turn into him though. I find also that when pushed he ends up heroic despite himself. Usually half-trousered with a strumpet on his arm admittedly!

  2. Definitely half-trousered and armed with strumpets in this one! As you point out, the real life Flashman sort is best avoided; George MacDonald Fraser's genius was to make his exploits fun to read.