DK (Dorothy Kathleen) Broster's The Flight of the Heron, set during the 1745 Jacobite uprising under Bonnie Prince Charlie, is the first of the once famous Jacobite Trilogy. It follows the intersecting fortunes of two men, who at first glance seem almost complete opposites. Ewen Cameron, a young Highland laird in the service of the Prince, is dashing, sincere, and idealistic. Major Keith Windham, a professional soldier in the opposing English army, is cynical, world-weary, and profoundly lonely. When a second-sighted Highlander tells Ewen that the flight of a heron will lead to five meetings with an Englishman who is fated both to do him a great service and to cause him great grief, Ewen refuses to believe it. But as Bonnie Prince Charlie's ill-fated campaign winds to its bitter end, the prophecy is proven true--and through many dangers and trials, Ewen and Keith find that they have one thing indisputably in common: both of them are willing to sacrifice everything for honour's sake.
I summarised this story on Twitter a week back with the words "Honour, nobility, drama, heartstrings"--and you'd better believe it! The book has a slow first section (of five) which takes its time introducing you to the characters and their motivations. Pretty shortly, however, the book becomes unputdownable, and I polished the second half of the thing off in one afternoon.
I can see why The Flight of the Heron has always been so popular. It is melodramatic. It is intense. It is about people with a wonderfully touchy sense of honour. There were times when I told myself this was the best Jennifer Freitag book I've read since Plenilune.
I have to admit that at times the characters' sentiments were so lofty as to seem unreal to me, but I freely acknowledge that I've always thought ours a peculiarly cynical age. In the end, I'm not a hundred percent sure whether a sense of honour like this ever historically existed--but it's awfully good fun to read about, and I loved that the sense of honour shared by the two main characters was what brought these enemies together and made them friends. Not that Keith Windham's sense of honour is quite as functional as Ewen Cameron's; in fact the whole point of the book revolves around how Ewen's sense of honour calls out and revives Windham's, so that his friendship with Ewen restores him the capacity to care about such things. As Belinda Copson points out in D K Broster: An Appreciation (caution: link contains spoilers!)--
There is more going on here, though, than a tale of gallant deeds and misunderstandings. Ewen Cameron is a true romantic hero, with high notions of chivalry which others find difficult to live up to. But in Keith Windham, Broster has created a much more complex character, for whom an unexpected friendship is a form of personal salvation. Windham has had a lonely unloved childhood, neglected by his mother and betrayed by a woman he loved; and has since resolved that he will form no other close relationships, since these have only let him down. He is resolved on a cynical approach to life and a friendless military career. His friendship with Ewen breaks through this protective shell, and the decisions he is forced to make about the competing claims of friendship, honour and duty make him re-examine his own opinions and values.Much has been made of the fact that the most intense relationship in this (rather intense) novel is not the one between Ewen and his fiancee, Alison (though there were a couple of bits that had me misting up) but the rather complicated friendship between Ewen and Keith. This focus on male friendship is actually something that was a bit more common in older times (Heron was first published in 1925)--think of the friendships in books like The Lord of the Rings or Twelfth Night or John Buchan. Still, I'm actually really glad I began reading this book before looking at the Goodreads reviews, because you can't bung a brick in there without hitting someone who thinks The Flight of the Heron is some kind of homosexual romance. I've read enough history to know you can't always discount such allegations out of hand, so I read The Flight of the Heron with an open mind, but I honestly couldn't see anything that would lead anyone to think the friendship between the two characters goes anywhere beyond what was considered normal in close friendships at that time. Yet another example of moderners reading their own interpretations back into behaviours that they no longer understand.
Apparently DK Broster consulted around eighty reference books before beginning work on The Flight of the Heron, and the historical and geographical accuracy of the novel has always been highly praised. Broster herself had never planned on writing about the '45--there were already so many books dealing with it--but succumbed on a trip to Scotland, and wrote a whole trilogy. That may explain an oddity of this novel, which is that it assumes the reader is already pretty familiar with the history of that uprising. I am not (hey, it's been years since I read Waverly), but I didn't let that slow me down. I was particularly fascinated, however, by Broster's decision to give an ominous leadup to the Battle of Culloden, and then skip right over it to the aftermath. This was noteworthy because the battle was the turning-point, or in plotting lingo, the Midpoint, of the whole plot. Even more intriguing, I knew I'd seen this technique, of skipping over the Midpoint, elsewhere--in some of Shakespeare's comedies. But I'm anticipating next week's 5 Act Structure in Shakespeare post.
|Apparently, The Flight of the Heron was filmed in the '60s. No idea if it's any good or not.|
Another was the fact that Broster stands squarely in a long tradition of Scottish adventure writing. The three most venerable practitioners in this tradition were of course Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and John Buchan, all of whom wrote adventure stories about Jacobites, and all of whose influence can be traced in the story. I don't think that Broster quite lives up to their standard, but she gives it the old college try, and succeeds remarkably well. If you like those authors, you'll probably thoroughly enjoy DK Broster's The Flight of the Heron.
Find The Flight of the Heron on Amazon and The Book Depository.