George MacDonald Fraser took the central character of his sequence “The Flashman Papers” (of which this is the eighth volume) from the classic Victorian novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857) by Thomas Hughes. In that earlier work Hughes set up an elementary contrast between hero and villain. On the one hand there was the plucky, mischievous, cricket-playing, chapel-attending Tom Brown (in several ways rather a close parallel to Tom Sawyer); on the other the cowardly, bullying Flashman, eventually dismissed in disgrace from Rugby School for drunkenness. The years, however, have left Hughes’s ideas of virtue unfashionable and even mildly ridiculous; Tom Brown’s piety goes oddly with his aggressiveness, while his totally asexual behavior has become unbelievable. It was then perhaps an obvious notion—though like all such notions, brilliantly successful once conceived—for Fraser to seize Hughes’s opposition and invert it, taking Flashman beyond his expulsion from Rugby and making him, still as cowardly and cynical as ever, a great Victorian hero: at the time of this story, Colonel Sir Harry Flashman, no less, knighted totally undeservedly for service to the Empire and awarded the Victoria Cross even less deservedly for personal courage. Where Hughes suggested that the British Empire ran on “muscular Christianity,” Fraser suggested that its real constituents (at any rate in his hero) were unscrupulousness, superior force, and an undeviating attention to the main chance.
This appears on the surface to be especially true of the historical event with which Flashman and the Dragon is primarily concerned; namely, the conclusion of the Second Anglo-Chinese War of 1856-1860 with the combined Anglo-French march on Peking, and the burning of the Chinese emperor’s summer palace. What had happened, in brief summary, was that the British had found themselves with nothing to trade for the Chinese tea and silk which they imported in great quantities. They, and other European powers, had accordingly fostered the Chinese taste for opium, which the British could produce in their Indian possessions. When the Chinese government attempted to stop this trade, and indeed to keep its country closed to Europeans, the British provoked successive wars, each ending with the imposition of commercial treaties. Finally, at the end of a march on Peking, designed to force the emperor Yüan-ming Yüan to sign one such treaty, the British envoy Lord James Elgin ordered the burning and looting of the summer palace, with all of its irreplaceable art treasures, as a punishment for Chinese breach of faith.
The aforementioned seems to be an example of the most colossal greed and barbarity. The British appear successively as commercial failures, drug pushers, and vandals; their superior Christian civilization (of which Hughes was so confident) has nothing to offer and indeed adds a vicious note of self-righteousness to the whole affair. Certainly this is Flashman’s opinion. At the start of the novel, he is taken aback when an innocent-seeming vicar’s wife, Mrs. Carpenter, whom he is trying to seduce, offers him a large bribe to run a cargo of illegal opium to Canton, claiming as excuses, first, that the new treaty will soon make the trade legal, second, that opium is only a sedative anyway, and third, that the profits will go to building a new church. Flashman’s admiration for Mrs. Carpenter is only increased when he finds out that the cargo he is running is not even opium. It consists of Sharps carbines for the Taiping rebels, an insurrection against the Chinese government from 1850 to 1864. This trade would not even be accepted by the British government, which typically was trying to shore up the Chinese Empire against the Taipings while at the same time endeavoring to bully it into signing treaties. Mrs. Carpenter’s resolute pursuit of profit characterizes not only her, however, but also Flashman, the British authorities, and almost every European Flashman meets.
Is this novel, then, a sustained attack on Victorian England and its official image? It turns out not. For there is another side to the colonialist experience, which Flashman also records carefully. He notes very early that the rulers of China are not Chinese, but Manchus, a race of invaders who have reduced their subjects to worse than slavery. He gives continual details of the appalling cruelties of the Chinese Empire, many of them verified by factual references from Fraser (posing as the “editor” of Flashman’s memoirs). On Flashman’s first opium-running trip, an Imperial galley orders his boat to heave to, threatening to drown twenty Chinese prisoners if he refuses. He refuses, and the prisoners are drowned. The point here is that the Manchus would only use this kind of moral blackmail against a European. One of their own kind would take no interest in the fate of Chinese...