Under Two FlagsFebruary 17, 2009
Under Two Flags, by Ouida, is the mother of all books about running off to join the foreign legion, although technically when Bertie Cecil leaves England for Algeria, he joins the Chasseurs d’Afrique, a cavalry regiment.
Bertie is an officer in the Life Guards, which seems to mean that he gets to hang out with other aristocrats a lot and never has to fight, unless some jealous husband challenges him to a duel. Bertie is languid and elegant and perfectly suited to this lifestyle, but his family, although excessively aristocratic, is not well-off, and Bertie is the second of three sons. The elder brother is the heir to Royallieu, the family estate, and the younger, Berkeley, is their father’s favorite. Berkeley has a gambling problem, and, what’s worse, a weak mouth or chin or something, which is how novelists indicate that someone is going to turn out to be evil in books like this. Yes, it’s another inexplicably evil younger brother.
Bertie manages to float along on absolutely no money at all for a while, winning horse races, hanging out with his friend the Seraph, and and coming up with sneaky ways to spend time with his mistress, Lady Guenevere.Meanwhile, Berkeley is getting ever deeper into debt, and he somehow thinks it’s a good idea to try to borrow money from Bertie at the same time as he whines about how Bertie is even more extravagant and deeper in debt that he is. He also — horror of horrors — asks Bertie to borrow money from Seraph for him, because he has no inborn sense of honor. Whatever. Bertie might be better off if he had less of an inborn sense of honor.
Anyway, eventually Berkeley eventually gets so desperate for cash that he forges Bertie and the Seraph’s names and gets a loan from some evil, evil Jews — although, as stereotypes go, it could be worse — the Jew in question is a least smart, which is more than I can say for the ones in Baroness Orczy’s books, for example. And then, because he is stupid, Berkeley sends a letter to Bertie, confessing all. Bertie happens to recieve this on the same day he has lost an important race — Forest King, his beloved horse, was drugged; Bertie is incapable of doing such a thing as losing otherwise — and he wanders around on a hill or something in Germany looking tragic until he is comforted by the Seraph’s eight-year-old sister, Venetia, who gives him a little jeweled box which, of course, will be important later.
It gets a little complicated here, but Bertie gets arrested for the forgery and realizes that he can’t clear himself unless he confesses that he was with Lady Guenevere on the night the loan agreement was signed which he has already promised her that he will not do. So in spite of the fact that Lady Guenevere isn’t very nice, and is definitely not in love with him, and that Berkeley is utterly without honor, Bertie decides to take the blame and runs off with his excessively loyal servant Rake to join the French army in Algeria.
The bulk of the book, though, takes place twelve years later, when Bertie is well-established as a corporal of the Chasseurs — he hasn’t attained a higher rank because his commander, Chateauroy, hates him — and his story becomes entangles with those of two women.
One of these is a seventeen-year-old girl called Cigarette, who is sort of the mascot of the French army. Most of what I’ve read on Under Two Flags trashes the book but praises Cigarette, which is cool with me because I get to be different.
I hate this character.
I’m not sure I can explain why very well why, but here’s one explanation: cardboard characters, whatever else you say about them, do have the virtue of consistency. Real well-writen characters usually don’t, because they’re more realistic. Cigarette is inconsistent, but her inconsistencies are always in service to the plot. This leaves her with neither consistency nor realism, although apparently her scarlet lips and vivacious dancing and her random spurts of generosity make up for that. And aside from numerous scenes where Cigarette plans to get revenge on Bertie only to change her mind because the nobler side of her nature has taken hold again, her place in the plot could easily have belonged to one of the other characters. Although if Rake or Seraph threw themselves in front of a firing squad to save Bertie’s life, the homoeroticism would have been a bit too conspicuous, I suppose.
The other woman who comes into Bertie’s life is the Princesse Corona d’Amague, who is as beautifully cardboardy as Bertie, and makes a good love interest for him. The sight of her haughty, aristocratic beauty and her “imperial blue eyes” (what does that even mean?) recalls vividly to Bertie the life he has never quite succeeded in forgetting.
The Princesse is in Algeria for her health, which is not something I’ve ever read of happening before, but Ouida makes the thin excuse work for her, as Seraph and Berkeley follow the Princesse. Why? Because (surprise!) she is actually Venetia, Seraph’s little sister. Venetia was married, for the space of several hours, to a dying Spaniard, and her marriage has two important functions in the narrative: a) because her name is different, Bertie doesn’t figure out who she is until she recognizes the little jewelled box he’s kept with him all these years, and b) she gets to still be a virgin, and when she falls in love with Bertie, she’s falling in love for the first time.
She does fall in love with him, of course, as does Cigarette, and Venetia gets to show off the fact that she can be haughty and kind at the same time while Cigarette loses her temper a lot and makes herself look silly. Berkeley shows himself to be utterly without honor yet again, Rake dies in Bertie’s arms, and Cigarette alternates between heroics and temper tantrums.
Eventually Chatauroy gets Bertie to hit him and then sentences him to death. Seraph discovers Bertie’s true identity and has to be chained to a pole to stop him from fighting the firing squad, and Cigarette arrives with a pardon just in time to throw herself in front of the oncoming bullets. She makes the longest deathbed speech ever, which makes me want to strangle her even more than I already do, and then Bertie gets to go back to England and be reunited with the Forest King.
He marries Venetia, too, but in the end, I think it’s all about the horse. That, and constructing a perfect test case to find out how far a true man of honor will go. Heroes of adventure novels are always doing silly things for their honor, but it doesn’t get a lot sillier than this.