Last week I finally got around to reading Les Trois Mousquetaires
, and this week, more or less by accident, I read Royal Flash
. They're both excellent historical thrillers, and it's interesting to compare them. MacDonald Fraser is following very much in Dumas's footsteps. He takes real historical events from the mid-19th century, and recasts them so that history is no longer an inevitable unfolding of grand themes, but rather a haphazard collection of accidents, more often than not turning on who happens to be sleeping with whom. The first two paragraphs sum it up brilliantly:
If I had been the hero everyone thought I was, or even a half-decent soldier, Lee would have won the battle of Gettyburg and probably captured Washington. That is another story, which I shall set down in its proper place if brandy and old age don't carry me off first, but I mention the fact here because it shows how great events are decided by trifles.
Scholars, of course, won't have it so. Policies, they say, and the subtly laid schemes of statesment, are what influence the destinies of nations; the opinions of intellectuals, the writings of philosophers, settle the fate of mankind. Well, they may do their share, but in my experience the course of history is as often settled by someone's having a belly-ache, or not sleeping well, or some aristocratic harlot waggling her backside.
Nevertheless, Fraser, like Dumas, simultaneously pays his respects to the Men of Destiny; his portrayal of the young Bismarck has not a little in common with Dumas's treatment of Richelieu.
The most obvious difference, of course, is in the treatment of Honour, and at first sight the two books give diametrically opposing views. D'Artagnan is superficially portrayed as a classical hero, driven by the purest of motives; his courage, his loyalty to his friends, his love for Mme. Bonacieux and his devotion to the Queen. Flashman, in contrast, is by his own admission an utter scoundrel. Given that Les Trois Mousquetaires
was apparently written by two people, I do wonder whether D'Artagnan's interesting character is a serendipidous product of creative differences. On several occasions, he behaves every bit as badly as Flashman. He steals money from his landlord, while simultaneously trying to seduce his wife; he more or less rapes Ketty, then uses her to get close to Milady; he intercepts private letters from Milady to de Wardes, and exploits them to turn her against him.
D'Artagnan does all these very bad things, but somehow never really admits to himself what he's up to. He always has some handy excuse available; he's doing it for Mme. Bonacieux or for the Queen, or his victims were evil people who anyway had it coming. The engaging thing about Flashman, in contrast, is his straightforwardness. He never tries to excuse anything, but frankly admits that he's a bully, a heartless exploiter of women, and, when necessary, a cold-blooded killer. But, at the same time, I wonder whether he isn't also distorting the truth, this time in the opposite direction. If he were the snivelling coward he likes to claim he is, could he really have had all these hair-raising adventures, and would he have been quite so magnetically attractive to women? Despite everything, you feel that, somehow, he isn't such a terrible person after all.
The thing that's common to both books, it seems to me, is the way in which they subvert staple characters in the adventure story genre, and turn them into real people. D'Artagnan's a hero, but he could go over to the Dark Side at any moment. Flashman's a villain, but sometimes, to his and the reader's surprise, he finds his heart touched by love and affection. I wonder what would happen if they ever met? Perhaps D'Artagnan would challenge Flashman to a duel, to avenge some slight to a great lady's reputation, or perhaps they'd go off together to the best brothel in Paris and indulge themselves until daybreak. I think it would all turn on some trifle: a dropped handkerchief, or what one of them had for breakfast. Life doesn't make as much sense as we want it to, and both of these authors do a wonderful job of capturing its unpredictability.