Friday, October 2, 2015

The Flight of the Heron by DK Broster

 Today I'd like to review just the kind of book I decided to start this blog for...a melodramatic vintage adventure novel, the kind best eaten up with a spoon and lashings of whipped cream.

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.
One of the things I particularly enjoyed about The Flight of the Heron was the maturity that brought serious emotional gravitas to what otherwise might have been a lightweight melodrama. The theme noted above--the calling out of the dormant sense of honour in Keith Windham's character, which brings the grace of friendship to a lonely life--adds welcome depth, and also communicates something very important about the Jacobite cause. The history depicted was well-researched, and avoided the common trap of over-simplification. And the characters were sympathetically drawn, with good and bad on both sides.

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.


Jamie W. said...

I am looking for this book at once. Fingers crossed that my college library will have it--I've not struck out so far with Wodehouse and Mary Stewart (the lady adventure novelist, not the Queen of Scots). And this sounds exactly like my cup of tea. I am always looking for an heir to the Scott-Stevenson-Buchan dynasty. (Any more suggestions?)

Suzannah said...

Hope you find it, Jamie! Wodehouse and Mary Stewart are both wonderful reads. I'm not sure I would call DK Broster a worthy heir to the Scottish adventure dynasty, but she succeeds pretty well.

My other suggestion would be Mary Stewart, who alone of anyone I've read is able to evoke the sense of suspense and chase that Buchan did so well :).

Jamie W. said...

They've got it! I won't get my expectations up too high, but I'm looking forward to it.

Kim Marsh said...

I was exposed to the sheer crassness of Diane Gabaldon on the television and re-read these to take the taste away! Perhaps not the greatest of books but a good well researched and enjoyable read. The other two novels are well worth it too. While north of the border can I recommend "Not Peace but a Sword" by Jane Oliver? Set in the period between the start of the Civil War and the act of union. Not overly sympathetic to the Covenant but not overly biased either. Makes the "parcel of Rogues" motives more comprehensible.

Suzannah said...

"Sheer crassness" - hahahaha, oh, thanks. I have never dipped my toe into those books because from what I'd heard of them I thought they might be something of the sort. It's interesting to note, though, that Diana Gabaldon cites DK Broster as an inspiration--presumably for the historical aspects of her own series.

And thanks for the Jane Oliver recommendation too. I'll see if it crops up.

Liz said...

I read The Flight of the Heron in a class reading of the novel when at school in 1965 when I was about 13 years old. It was riveting and our entire class was in tears at the end. I will never forget the atmosphere in the room as the bell went and the teacher felt she had to stay while we composed ourselves!! Different times and unlikely to be repeated today. I went on to read the sequels during a holiday in the Highlands in my early 20s, married, and in love with the romance of Scotland's Jacobite history.

Unknown said...

Like Kim Marsh, I have just been fortunate enough to re-read the Jacobite Trilogy by DK Broster, which I originally read in my late teens. What a shame Diana Gabaldon's latest efforts (helped on by the Broster works) had to include graphic sex scenes...I couldn't finish her works either in her books or on DVD! Broster shows that this is never necessary to write decent historical fiction. Such a pity that the Highlands are currently overrun by tourists looking for "Jamie and Claire" souvenirs. Glenfinnan NT shop has such as these.
Frances Haragan


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