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Captain John Charity Spring, M.A.

I recently received the final coup de grâce for this project (telling the full story of John Charity Spring) from the agent for George MacDonald Fraser's estate. The message gave me the impression that they would not be sanctioning any other Flashman spin-offs either. I hope that is not true as, like thousands of others, I am dying to know more about Flashman's adventures during the U.S. Civil War.

However ... we (myself and Gregory, my writing partner) had a lot of fun working out some of the details so I thought it might be of interest to post them here. If you are a Flashman fan who has got here through an internet search, and you have your own ideas about this character, then by all means send me your comments or suggestions which, if I like, I will post here on the understanding that this is all on a strictly not-for-profit basis.

John Charity Spring is my favourite villain in fiction. He is a creation of George MacDonald Fraser (1925-2008), author of the 12 Flashman books. Spring appears in Flash for Freedom! as well as briefly in Flashman and the Redskins and Flashman and the Angel of the Lord.

Flashman actually never gets to know that much about him. Nor would he care to, given the treatment he received at his hands. Yet his full story would surely be a fascinating one.

From Flashman's point of view, the basic facts are these: Flashman's father-in-law owns shares in the (illegal) slave trade, and when he needs to spirit Flashman out of the country following a scandal in 1848, he gets Spring, who is a slave-ship captain, to take him as supercargo on his ship.

The ship is called the Balliol College. I am guessing that the name is a joke relating to the feud between Trinity and Balliol Colleges in Oxford (too politically-incorrect, unfortunately, to be explained here). After shipping a cargo of slaves from Dahomey to Roatan in the Caribbean, they are captured by the U.S. Navy. The ship is impounded, but thanks to a corrupt court, they eventually get off. Spring, though, is furious with Flashman, who has in the meantime tried to save his skin by impersonating a dead British naval spy on the ship, and when Flashman is recognised in a New Orleans bar by a Georgia planter who he has also antagonised in the course of his travels, Spring deliberately inflames the situation, starting a brawl in which Spring kills the planter. Flashman escapes, but is tracked by Spring to a house of ill-repute where he is taking refuge with Susie Willinck, the madam, a lady of his acquaintance. Taking an instant dislike to Spring, she drugs him and has him shipped to South Africa.

Spring then reappears ten years later (1858), as detailed in Flashman and the Angel of the Lord. He has not merely survived being shanghaied, but has retired to South Africa in considerable luxury. He makes the acquaintance of Flashman again at the Governor's residence while Flashman is returning to England following his heroics (or, at least purported heroics) in the Indian Rebellion, and, determined to pay him back, entraps him using his 17-year-old daughter Miranda as bait, drugging him and packing him off to the U.S. to face justice for crimes committed during his previous visit. At this point Spring drops out of the story.

Their first meeting is described in Flash for Freedom (p. 46):

At first glance he was ordinary-looking enough: square built, middle height, plain trousers and tight-buttoned jacket with his hands thrust into his pockets, low-crowned round hat which he didn't trouble to remove, and stiff-trimmed beard and moustache which gave him a powerful, businesslike air. But it wasn't that that stopped me: it was the man's eyes. They were as pale as water in a china dish, bright and yet empty, and as cold as an ice floe. They were wide-set in his brown, hook-nosed face, and they looked at you with a blind fathomless stare that told you here was a terrible man. Above them, on his brow, there was a puckered scar that ran from side to side and sometimes jerked as he talked; when he was enraged, as he often was, it turned red. Hollo, thinks I, here's another in my gallery of happy acquaintances.
"Mr. Flashman?" says he. He had an odd, husky voice with what sounded like a trace of North Country. "My name is John Charity Spring."

It then transpires that Spring was formerly a Classics Don at Oriel College, Oxford - or something like it anyway, but left involuntarily. We never quite find out the circumstances, but rage at his perceived ill-use by the academic establishment, we soon discover, is his driving passion, and never once does he let it go: he continually peppers his talk with Latin quotations and is always berating Flashman and others for their lack of education.

Until the 1880s, Oxford Dons, other than Professors or Heads of Colleges, had to give up their fellowships if they chose to marry - typically leaving to become lawyers, schoolmasters or country vicars. So the dons were, by and large, a young crowd. In modern terms, it would be like SCRs (Senior Combination Rooms - i.e. the college fellows) comprising solely of male JRFs (Junior Research Fellows).

Thomas Arnold (1795-1842), the famous educator, followed this pattern. He was made a fellow of Oriel College in 1815, but left in 1818 to become an (Anglican) deacon at Laleham, a village on the Thames. He married in 1820, and amongst his children is the poet Matthew Arnold (he is also, through his son Tom, a great-grandfather of Aldous Huxley). He formed a small school where he taught until being appointed headmaster of Rugby School in 1828. His reforms at Rugby are famous. It was he, more than anyone else, who promulgated the concept of Muscular Christianity: a brand of Christianity that particularly emphasised cold showers, good works and team sports. Thomas Hughes's Tom Brown's Schooldays, first published in 1857, was, more than anything else, a paean to Thomas Arnold. Flashman's original incarnation is as the villain of the piece here - a muscular but thoroughly un-Christian bully who Arnold eventually expels.

I would expect Spring to have been born around 1805 (one gets the impression that he is middle-aged in 1848, and it says that his beard and moustache are white by the time of Flashman And the Angel of the Lord, which is 1858) - although we could go five years either way. That means that, ordinarily, he would have completed his degree around 1825, and therefore would have missed Thomas Arnold at Oxford. Because of the high turnover of academic staff in those days, plus the fact that there were fewer applicants, it would have been a lot easier to get an academic job then than it would be now. The fact that Spring did not succeed, or succeeded and was later kicked out, suggests to me that either (i) he was not good enough or (ii) he was guilty of a serious misdemeanour. I propose both. In regard to (i): you will note that in any walk of life it is always the wannabes - the ones who did not quite make it - who are the most obsessive. In regard to (ii), Spring's impetuous temper would not have sat well at Oxford. As a former student and (briefly) lecturer at Oxford I can testify that Oxford dons, by and large, are the most relaxed and laid-back people in the world. The most famous Oxford academics of Spring's era were gentle and equable. I am thinking in particular of theologians John Henry Newman (1801-1890), the high Anglican who became a Catholic cardinal, and Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800-1882), after whom one of the Anglican Halls is now named. I doubt, though, that Spring would have much time for theology, or any other subject where there is no definite right and wrong, and the fact that there is a right and wrong in Classics would have been one of the things that would have appealed to him. Vaulting ambition, I think, is what would have driven the young Spring. He is a grammar school boy from Lincolnshire, let us say. Somewhere on the coast (to explain the familiarity with boats). He is encouraged by a teacher to apply to Oxford, and gets in, but he fails to get a fellowship at the end of his four years of study. A don at Oriel (real or invented - we are not sure) takes a shine to him, and offers him preferment in exchange for Spring compromising himself in certain ways (he is a pretty youth, let us say). Spring accedes, but the don either reneges on his part of the bargain or is not in a position to carry it out anyway. Spring is incandescent with rage and either kills him or nearly kills him but, either way, has to leave Oxford, and, possibly, the country. Spring is unable to talk about this - not so much because he compromised himself, but because of the humiliation of being played for a sucker, and his story from then on is - resolutely - that the whole thing was simply about academic jealousy.

One plan for the start for the book was "You will find no mention of John Charity Spring in the Oxford rolls ..." (which is true), and would lead on to either his name having been erased or never having been entered in the first place. I incline towards the latter.

So much for his early life. From here the path to being a slave ship captain is clear enough. He cannot return to England and this is in any case the fastest route to wealth for an unprincipled man of action like himself. All the time, though, he is plotting to get back at those b*stards at Oxford, the ultimate vindication, in his eyes, being some killer piece of scholarship. So John Charity Spring and the Quest for the Holy Grail, or John Charity Spring and the One True Cross are possible sequels. Any quest really - provided that the stakes are high enough. The entertainment is provided by dint of the fact that there are no things that the truly crazy person will not do. The travels of Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890) may be useful inspiration here, although Burton's was a different kind of eccentricity.

There is talk in Flashman and the Angel of the Lord of Spring founding a University in South Africa. We had given some thought to this. Spring would certainly be seeking some kind of royal stamp of approval for this University, and the obvious candidate would have been Prince Alfred (1844-1900), Queen Victoria's second son, who was a naval officer and made a Royal Visit to Cape Colony in 1867. Given his essentially coarse character, Spring, we think, may well have devised lewd entertainments in order to secure royal patronage, and here things could definitely have gone seriously wrong. We think a possible outcome here is Spring's forced exile to Cuba.

Anyway - that was about as much as we had. The remaining issue was just the voice. In other words, who is telling the story? We doubt that Spring's autobiography would be that interesting. It would probably read like Mein Kampf - a relentlessly serious tract focusing on his mission (advancing scholarship) only referring to events in his life that had relevance to this mission. It would be something to quote, but could not be the primary voice. A third-person narrative would probably be the thing or (Gregory's suggestion), Spring telling the story of his life to a grandchild on his death bed. One thing I would love to write is a description of Flashman by Spring. Fraser's placing of Flashman in pretty much every significant military event of the era stretches credibility to snapping point and beyond, and Spring would probably have therefore mostly seen Flashman as a fantasist.

Update (August 2011): At long last, someone - Barry Tighe to be specific - is writing about Flashy's experiences in the U.S. Civil war: http://canwritewillwrite.com/Flashy.html. Chapter One, posted already, is a great read!

Update (February 2012): It turns out that there is another putative chronicler of Flashy's U.S. Civil war experiences: Des Browning. He sent me the first two chapters, plus a snippet where Flashy helps Lincoln with an address he is due to give at a Gettysburg cemetery. This, too is a great read. The style is closer to GMF's, but unlike Barry Tighe he is going to have to get past the watchful dragons of the Fraser estate as he uses characters invented by GMF. I wish him luck!