Adventures with Words: Flash for Freedom by George MacDonald Fraser
Well, put this on the list of books that wouldn’t get published today. Not because it’s bad – it’s one of the best of the Flashman novels – but because it doesn’t contain the ritual and required denunciation of slavery as the most evil institution in human history. The trouble is, slavery is also among the most ubiquitous and enduring of human institutions. It was only in the 18th and 19th centuries that a small group of campaigners – loonies the lot of them – got it into their minds that the enslaving of peoples was intolerable and set out to have it stopped. The greater surprise is that they succeeded.
In this story, our hero is unwittingly caught up in the slave trade and shipped off under the command of one of Fraser’s most memorable ‘villains’, the embittered classicist John Charity Spring, captain of a slave ship taking part in the Triangle Trade across the Atlantic. Flashman, with his usual policy of following the Yellow Rule, “I’ll never do harm to anyone if there’s a chance he may harm me in return,” is nevertheless somewhat taken aback at the workings of the slave trade but takes care to cross to the other side of the road. Arriving in America, further misadventures ensue, including a meeting with a young Abraham Lincoln (who is one of the few people to perceive the cad and the coward hiding behind Flashie’s bluff exterior), running a slave estate and the usual encounters with a wide variety of women.
Fraser’s great skill is presenting the worlds of the 19th century through the eyes and opinions of the people who actually lived then, rather than filtering it through modern sensibilities. A curious side effect of doing this is that reading Flashman always leaves me wondering what unconscious hyprocrisies of our own time our descendants will look back on and ask, “How could they have allowed this?”