Wednesday, March 07, 2007

A.E.W. Mason - The Four Feathers

This Victorian novel of courage, bravery and honour, described as "The gripping tale of one man's struggle to ease the brand 'coward' from his name" on the cover is much more than similar tales of daring do.

Anyone who has seen any of the various films made from the novel, might be disappointed to find that there are few military details or epic battle scenes. Rather this novel is about the thoughts and emotions of a few individuals caught up in another of Britain's myriad of colonial wars.

Harry Faversham resigns from the army, just before his regiment is sent to fight in the Sudan. Immediately he is given four white feathers (three from his friends and one from his fiance - who also makes it clear that no Victorian lady will marry anyone with a tinge of cowardice to his name). The novel then follows Faversham's trip to the Sudan where, for the next five years he learns to blend in to the natives, and save the lives of his friends. He hopes, as a result to win his love back.

Here of course, we have all the settings for a classic Victorian action novel. Now, it'd be wrong to pretend that this is all that different a book, filled as it is with examples of stiff-upper lipped English bravery and dodgy attitudes to the locals. However it does have some interesting insights into the Victorian attitudes to heroes and cowardice. And in a contemporary time of war, it does also make clear (albeit obliquely) that those who don't want to fight, are also sometimes brave.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Rather than "daring do," "derring do" is an essential but only partial focus of this fascinating story. The character study is rich and complex, and the exploration of what courage, cowardice and honor are, or appear to be, is pretty subtle in places. Some parts of the plot are puzzling and seem opaque. I can see why more than 5 films have been made of this multilayered story, it's that compelling to read and visualize. I've only seen the most recent film version of the novel, but hope to see the others, especially the 1939 version.