Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Four Feathers by AEW Mason

I'd never heard of this book until a month or two back, when browsing Goodreads I saw it recommended as a classic adventure novel. Then, too, it's set during the Mahdist uprising in 1880s Sudan, when Gordon held Khartoum.

The story follows Harry Feversham, a young officer who resigns from his regiment when he learns that war has broken out in Sudan. All but three of his old comrades-in-arms believe that his resignation is because of his engagement to Ethne Eustace--but three discover the truth: that Harry Feversham is afraid of something. The three officers who know Feversham's secret send him three white feathers as accusations of cowardice, to which Ethne, when she hears of it, adds a fourth and breaks off the engagement. Broken-hearted, Harry vows to travel to the Sudan, prove his courage to each of the givers of the feathers, and restore the honour of his family name.

This was quite a good book. But it was not really an adventure story. It is much too quiet and introspective for that, and the majority of the plot stays with Ethne in England. There is practically no historical information on the Mahdist war and Harry's adventures in the Sudan are mostly window-dressing to the real substance of the story, which is the emotional and psychological fallout of the breaking of Ethne's engagement, and her subsequent relationship with Durrance, a friend of Feversham's.

This was a little maddening. I wanted to hear about the Sudan--which Mason seemed to have thoroughly researched, and could write grippingly about--and was instead left to bore myself with Ethne and Durrance. Mason was a good writer, and his characters are subtle and complex. But I lost sympathy for this pair very early on. Durrance loves Ethne, and she loves Feversham, but she agrees to marry Durrance anyway (for reasons that struck me as being supremely fatuous) and Durrance, who discovers that she loves Feversham, decides that Ethne would be happiest until Feversham returns in an engagement to him, and we are forced to watch these characters angst and suffer through this very artificial situation for most of the book while Harry Feversham is off in the Sudan getting his fingernails pulled out by villainous Emirs and what-not.

And that would have made an excellent book. I was continually struck by the seriousness and realism of the book. In a time when authors were prone to depicting the British Empire as a big happy playground for grown-up schoolboys (not that I mind, mark you--there's a place for GA Henty and his ilk), Mason's Sudan is a dangerous, arid place where danger and despair can make a man unrecognisable. The book is ostensibly about cowardice and courage, and it had the weight and darkness that could have made it a really gripping, informative, and edifying adventure story.

But instead Mason chose to spend the majority of his story on the limp and unconvincing Ethne/Durrance plotline, and missed his opportunity to write something great. The result is not terribly bad as books go, but its insight is marred by silliness and the adventure could have been far more satisfying.

The Four Feathers was loosely adapted into a film in 2002 starring Heath Ledger as Feversham. I haven't seen it, but Peter Hammond, who knows the history, has a bone to pick with its version of the historical events.


Lady Bibliophile said...

Bummer. It's always agonizing to see a great plotline gone to waste. By the description in your first few paragraphs, I was going to go straight off to look it up. But now, perhaps, I'll just regulate it to a possibility someday.

Standfast said...

A better film version - worth seeking out - is Zoltan Korda's 1939 film starring John Clements, Ralph Richardson and C. Aubrey Smith. It's an early Technicolor effort with a cast of thousands. I re-watch it with pleasure. And most of the film is set in Sudan.

Suzannah said...

Thanks for the recommendation! I'll keep it in mind!

Unknown said...

It may help to read Jamal Mahjoub's novel, In the Hour of Signs, which provides great historical info for this period.

Anonymous said...

Or read Churchill's "River War"


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