Fraser, George MacDonald. Royal Flash.

NY: Knopf, 1970.

The Prisoner of Zenda was one of the most popular novels of the late Victorian era, but this second packet of Gen. Sir Harry Flashman’s memoirs will tell you what really happened — and you can blame it all on Otto von Bismarck, the most arrogant and reactionary Teutonic imperialist ever to kick a peasant.

Flashy has been back from Afghanistan for a couple of years now and his social lionization is beginning to wear thin, when he has an encounter with the young Bismarck in London (who’s doing the Grand Tour “in reverse”) that makes a firm enemy of the ambitious junker. Moreover, and at about the same time, he has a week-long liaison with the gorgeous Mrs. Rosanna James, who gives off erotic sparks like a Roman candle — and who is about to go on the stage under the name of “Lola Montez.” (They part with a salute of flung crockery.) Four years pass. Flashman receives a letter from the Countess of Landsfeld, mistress of Ludwig I of Bavaria and the power behind the throne, begging him to come to Munich. Yes, it’s Lola, again, who has moved up the social and political ladder much farther and faster than anyone could have imagined. Mostly out of curiosity, Harry makes the journey — and immediately finds himself waylaid, blackmailed, and sucked into the conspiracy of Bismarck and his cronies to foment revolution in the Duchy of Strackenz, which will give Prussia an excuse to invade Schleswig and Holstein, which will be the first step on the road to German unification under Prussian rule. Because Flashman happens to be the absolute doppelganger of Prince Carl Gustaf of Denmark, who is about to wed Duchess Irma of Strackenz. All he has to do is successfully impersonate the Prince for a few weeks and then Bismarck will let him go, and pay him a pile of money to boot. Right? Sure. Even Flashman, who is no fool, knows better than that. Fraser takes a fantastic (in the original sense) plot-line and relates it in a way that makes it seem really quite plausible (far more so than Zenda). And Flashman, for once, is the victim of outside forces, not of his own greed and beastliness — or not much. Since Fraser was known for his lack of concern regarding political correctness, one also suspects that Harry’s opinions of Germans are at least partly the author’s own. An excellent installment in the series.

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