Saturday, September 09, 2006

Feathers Feathers, Everywhere

Title: The Four Feathers
Author: A.E.W. Mason

Against my better judgment, I really liked The Four Feathers. Ask ket, she heard me squeal in excitement while reading it : ). Published in 1902, the year after Queen Victoria died, it still has very much the feel of a “Victorian” novel. Bravery and courage have not yet become ridiculous concepts, and the “might and right” of the British Empire remains unquestioned. I should view a book like this with a jaundiced, cynical eye. And yet, the adventure and romance was sweeping enough that I completely fell for it, and finished the last chapter with a huge grin all over my face.

The story is familiar to many. Harry Faversham comes from a long line of distinguished British military men. On the night of his fourteenth birthday, he listens to a gruesome story of cowardice told by a group of Crimean War veterans. Jump ahead thirteen years into the future, and he is an officer in the British army, engaged to a strong and beautiful girl named Ethne, and has a firm best friend – Lieutenant Durrance. Life is good.

Or is it? Being the imaginative boy he is, Harry is haunted by the spectre of the tales of cowardice he heard as a boy. And so, on the night that his regiment is ordered to the Sudan, he resigns his commission. Three men (although not Durrance, as it is told in the numerous film versions) then present him with three white feathers: a symbol of cowardice. Ethne, who was present when he received them, then gives him a fourth and breaks off their engagement. And thus the stage is set for a story of adventure, travel, and romance, as Harry departs to the Sudan on a quest to display his bravery and make the three men – plus Ethne – take back their feathers.

Interestingly, much of the story is told through the eyes of Ethne and Durrance, as they learn of what Harry has done through the tales of others. Ethne is a much stronger character in the novel than in any of the film versions I’ve seen, and the reader spends a great deal of time with her in Ireland. And it’s not only Harry who displays bravery. One could make a very strong argument that Durrance shows as much – if not more – courage than his friend, and is the true hero of the book. But I’ll leave that to you to decide.

The novel’s examination of bravery is interesting. Harry is not, by definition, a coward. Rather, he resigns his commission because he’s afraid he may act like a coward, thus disgracing Ethne. What he fears – to borrow that classic phrase – is fear itself. (Which makes one wonder whether JKR had him in mind when choosing the name for her own Harry?) And Mason makes it clear that Harry’s problem is a surfeit of imagination, nothing more. Compared to his father and his father’s military friends – whom Mason portrays as somewhat dimwitted – Harry is intelligent and sensitive. Most people, Mason seems to be arguing, are brave not because they have overcome their fears, but because they are too stupid to know that they should be scared. Harry simply is not stupid, and that is his problem.

I wish that Harry really would’ve been a coward. It would’ve made his story much more interesting. Also, the novel’s concept of bravery is very old-fashioned compared to how we define it – or how we should define it – today. But I shouldn’t wander down that path, because I could write pages on the topic, and then everyone would stop reading because they’re bored!

Finally, a few words on British Imperialism are necessary, although I’m not an expert on the subject. Emil Korda’s classic 1939 film of The Four Feathers is famous for being very “rah-rah” pro-British. I was expecting to find this in the novel, but there was much less “Rule Britannia!” cheering than I had expected. Mason is more concerned with his characters than politics, and simply treats the British Empire as an unquestioned fact. He doesn’t glorify it – but, he doesn’t criticize it either.

However, one could easily fault the novel from an Orientalism standpoint (to borrow the word as defined by Edward Said), in that Africa becomes nothing more than an exotic playground in which young British men can test their mettle. It’s a dangerous wilderness, important only because of the white men fighting in it. And that could be a problem for many.

Still, I haven’t enjoyed a novel as much as I enjoyed The Four Feathers in a long time. I have a love for the classics, and I enjoyed the old-fashioned feel to Mason’s writing. Plus, I’ve always adored sweeping adventure stories in the desert (*cough* The Blue Sword *cough*), so I. The Four Feathers was a nice little vacation for me, and one that I look forward to repeating at least once in the future.

posted by Elizabeth at 5:58 PM


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