Tuesday, February 21, 2006

In Fifty Years, This May Require a Footnote of Its Own

I've just finished reading the latest Flashman installment from George Macdonald Fraser. The 12th in the series, Flashman on the March is a story of the Victorian British expedition (invasion?) into Abyssinia (now Ethiopia).

The Flashman books feature an almost unbelievably amoral rogue named Harry Flashman, a minor character that Fraser liberated from the 19th Century novel Tom Brown's School Days. Fraser places Flashman, Zelig- or Gump-like, into a variety of major historical events of the Victorian age. He's a coward, but through luck and bluster always manages to emerge a hero. The books are great fun, and I recommend this latest as well.

My eye was caught by the end of the Explanatory Note, which included an interesting echo of today's history.

This section is part of the conceit that Fraser is simply editor of the recently discovered Flashman Papers. Fraser, a British writer, sets up the historic context of the story -- an apparently insane Abyssinian monarch has taken the British envoy hostage and is massacring his people. The British send in a limited force to free the hostages and depose the tyrant. Not to stay, not to create a new democracy. A limited mission.
All of which [Flashman] records with his customary shameless honesty, and it may be that along with the light he casts on a unique chapter of imperial history, he invites a comparison with a later and less glorious day.

For Flashman's story is about a British army sent out in a good and honest cause by a government who knew what honor meant. It was not sent without initial follies and hesitations, in high places, or until every hope of a peaceful issue was gone. It went with the doubt that it was right. It served no politician's vanity or interest. It went without messianic rhetoric. There were no false excuses, no deceits, no cover-ups or lies, just a decent resolve to do a government's first duty: to protect its people, whatever the cost. To quote Flashman again, those were the days.
To steal a phrase from characters in another set of favorite books (the Aubrey/Maturin series), he can't say clearer than that.
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