Culture

Imperial fiction: The Four Feathers

‘Good heavens! what a childhood you must have spent with that fear all alone with you. It makes me shiver to think of it.’
AEW Mason, The Four Feathers (1902)

It has a strong if slightly involved plot, plenty of character interest, and a dash of stirring adventure.
St James’s Gazette (1902)

You probably know the story, in broad outline at least. There’s this chap in the army who resigns his commission, shortly before he’s due to be sent abroad to fight, and there are three other chaps – officers in the same regiment – who each send him a white feather, as a symbol of his cowardice. Then his fiancée joins in and gives him a fourth feather, at which point he decides action needs to be taken. So he goes overseas in a solo capacity and undertakes acts of great bravery, thereby redeeming his sense of honour.

To a certain class of critic and commentator, AEW Mason’s The Four Feathers is a symbol of all that they find most unpalatable in British history and culture: it’s seen as militaristic and imperialist, rooted in racism and an outdated version of what is now called masculinity.

four feathersThis view, however, is primarily based on the film adaptations (of which more later) than on the original novel, which – as far as I can tell – is little read these days. And that’s a shame, because it’s a very good book indeed, a much more subtle piece of work than the movies would suggest. Which is why it starts this occasional series of pieces on the fiction of the British Empire…


The story starts on the fourteenth birthday of Harry Feversham, scion of an old military family, who – ever since the death of his mother in his early childhood – has been brought up under ‘iron discipline’ by his father, a retired general. No one, including Harry himself, is in any doubt that his future lies in the army; there is never a suggestion of an alternative. The hall in the big, empty old house on the Surrey-Sussex border, where he grows up, is full of portraits of his ancestors, and it is his destiny to have his own likeness added to theirs in due course.

But Harry isn’t like the other Fevershams: he ‘wore his father’s name, but he had his mother’s dark and haunted eyes, his mother’s breadth of forehead, his mother’s delicacy of profile, his mother’s imagination.’ And his mother was cut from very different cloth, ‘a woman as remarkable for the refinement of her intellect as for the beauty of her person’. Consequently the boy agonizes about whether he will ever be able to live up to the family name. ‘All my life,’ he reflects, ‘I have been afraid that some day I should play the coward.’

From the outset, it’s clear that our sympathies are meant to lie with this tormented boy, rather than with his illustrious ancestors. For, after all, who were these Fevershams with their much-vaunted military accomplishments?

They were men of one stamp; no distinction of uniform could obscure their relationship – lean-faced men, hard as iron, rugged in feature, thin-lipped, with firm chins and straight, level mouths, narrow foreheads, and the steel-blue inexpressive eyes; men of courage and resolution, no doubt, but without subtleties, or nerves, or that burdensome gift of imagination; sturdy men, a little wanting in delicacy, hardly conspicuous for intellect; to put it frankly, men rather stupid – all of them, in a word, first-class fighting men, but not one of them a first-class soldier.

Given that this was written during the course of the Boer War, Britain’s most significant conflict since Waterloo, it’s hardly a thunderous endorsement of our fighting forces.

After that introductory chapter, we jump forward thirteen years. Lieutenant Harry Feversham is now engaged and wishes to take the opportunity to give up on his army career. His fiancée is an Irishwoman, Ethne Eustace, whose father – hospitable, roguish, alcoholic – owns a rundown estate in Donegal that needs careful attention if it’s not going to go to rack and ruin. That’s where Harry sees his future: as far away as he can get from his father whilst just about remaining in the same country, up in the north-west of Ireland, losing himself (or perhaps finding his true self) in ‘the smell of its peat, its streams, and the brown friendliness of its hills’.

Before he can put his plan into action, however, ta telegram comes, telling him that his regiment is be sent to the Sudan, where the natives are growing restless. Harry burns the message and immediately sends in his papers, hoping that no one will notice the sequence of events: that he knew about the call to active service before he resigned his commission. But they do notice, and three brother-officers send him white feathers in disgust.

This is shocking enough, but to make things worse, Harry opens the box containing the feathers while in the presence of Ethne. She is horrified by his betrayal: that he would have concealed the truth of his decision, had not the feathers made such evasion impossible. And so, ‘tortured with humiliation and pain’, she adds a fourth feather to indicate that their engagement is at an end and that she never wishes to see him again. Her concern is not his apparent cowardice, but the fact that he kept such a secret from her.

The key word there is ‘apparent’. For Harry is not actually a coward at all. What he fears is not pain, suffering and death; it’s fear itself. He’s plagued by an imagination that his father doesn’t possess, and he can envisage all too well the possibility of freezing in combat. He has been harbouring such feelings his whole life, and now his love for Ethne has raised the stakes still further. ‘Disgracing my name and those dead men in the hall I think I would have risked,’ he reflects. ‘I could not risk disgracing her.’

poster Four Feathers (1929)For him, Ethne – the outsider, the Irishwoman with no connection to the military – represents the values he has inherited from his mother. That strand of his being is much more important to him than his paternal line.

So when he resolves that he will go to the Sudan himself, that he’ll try to redeem his reputation with acts of courage, it is not the good opinion of his comrades or that of his father – who has also severed all ties with him – that he seeks. It is Ethne alone who matters: ‘if the three take back their feathers, why, then she perhaps might take hers back too.’

She had once told him that true friendship transcends mere physical presence: ‘such friends – they are few, no doubt, but after all only the few really count – such friends one does not lose, whether they are absent, or even dead.’ But the break symbolized by that fourth feather removed any possibility of such a relationship, both in life and in death: ‘I wanted him to be sure, that we should always be strangers now and – and afterwards.’

That ‘afterwards’, that reunion in the hereafter, is what Harry now dreams of. ‘Had I fallen, although she would have felt lonely all her life, she would none the less have surely known that she and I would see much of one another – afterwards,’ he reasons. ‘I have a hope that if this fault can be repaired, we might still, perhaps, see something of one another – afterwards.’ His action in handing in his papers has destroyed any hope of happiness in this life, but his immortal soul might yet find peace.

This charge is so sacred to him that he can speak of it to just one person, Lieutenant Sutch, a man who had served with his father in the Crimea and had been crippled in combat. Sutch had known his mother – perhaps, we infer, had loved her himself – and he has shown Harry kindness and understanding. So it is to Sutch that Harry entrusts the task of informing his father should he fail to return from his expedition. But there must be, he insists, no mention of Ethne. And Sutch is saddened by this:

Even if he died with his mission unfulfilled, Sutch was to hide from the father that which was best in the son, at the son’s request. And the saddest part of it, to Sutch’s thinking, was that the son was right in so requesting. For what he said was true – the father could not understand.


This, then, is the set-up of the plot. And a mighty fine one it is too. The story that follows, however, is not quite what one might expect.

For a start, Mason eschews a simple schematic approach. The obvious path to follow is to show Harry engaged in three acts of bravery, each of which will earn him the right to return one of the feathers to one of his accusers. But that depends on fate, as Harry acknowledges: ‘I wait upon chance opportunities … They may never come.’ And, indeed, they don’t all come. One of the three men is ‘killed when the square was broken at Tamai’ – his feather can never be returned.

Then there is the fact that the vast bulk of the novel – over seven-tenths of it – is not set in Africa at all, but at home, in England and Ireland. Much of Harry’s heroism is not seen directly, only as reported back to Ethne.

Above all, there is the surprising lack of action. There are no set-piece battles, no skirmishes even. Harry kills no one, does not even fire a gun, for he has no interest in or need of arms. This is in sharp contrast to his comrades, men such as Colonel Trench – one of those who sent a white feather and whom he helps escape from the horrors of imprisonment in Omdurman. The two men make their way to an oasis where a confederate has left supplies of food and guns:

In a moment or two Trench’s fingers touched the lock and trigger of a rifle, and he became man again … ‘Now,’ said Trench, and he laughed with a great thrill of joy in the laugh. ‘Now I don’t mind. Let them follow from Omdurman! One thing is certain now: I shall never go back there; no, not even if they overtake us,’ and he fondled the rifle which he held and spoke to it as though it lived.

This isn’t Harry’s world. He genuinely isn’t a soldier, and has no ability or desire to act like one. In a novel often referred to as a Boy’s Own adventure, our hero isn’t a combatant at all, and – rather pleasingly – he ends the book as an historian. The men who give him the feathers, on the other hand, are professional soldiers. And they receive as little sympathy from Mason as does General Feversham.

There is, however, one officer who is portrayed in a positive light. Jack Durrance is an old university friend of Harry, who serves in another regiment (the East Surreys rather than the North Surreys) and who is his rival for the hand of Ethne. He is not among those sending feathers, but he is the better officer for all that:

Robert Powell - Four Feathers (1977)

Robert Powell as Jack Durrance (1977)

He was a soldier of a type not so rare as the makers of war stories wish their readers to believe … he was neither hysterical in his language nor vindictive in his acts; he was not an elderly schoolboy with a taste for loud talk, but a quiet man who did his work without noise, who could be stern when occasion needed and of an unflinching severity, but whose nature was gentle and compassionate.

Like Lieutenant Sutch, Durrance has some imagination – the quality that distinguished Harry’s mother from his father – and, like Sutch, he has a promising military career cut short by terrible injury. He is struck blind by the power of the sun in the deserts of North Africa, and is invalided home.

He has long dreamt of ending his life in uniform: ‘You know my creed,’ he used to say. ‘I could never pity a man who died on active service. I would very much like to come by that end myself.’ But now he must face a much more challenging task: that of living with his disability. He strikes up a friendship with Sutch, recognizing that they are in the same position:

One of the two was old, the other comparatively young, and the younger man was most curious to discover how his elder had managed to live through the dragging profitless years alone. The same sort of lonely life lay stretched out before Durrance, and he was anxious to learn what alleviations could be practised, what small interests could be discovered, how best it could be got through.

And ultimately that’s what Mason’s novel is about. Not the fantasy heroics of glorious death on the battlefield, but the grubby reality of living with whatever fate throws at one. Harry’s acts of redemption have no element of grandeur or fearless self-sacrifice – they’re on a much quieter level, a reduced, human scale.

‘He had put himself to a long, hard test,’ we are told of Harry, on his return to Ethne in Ireland; ‘and he knew that he had not failed.’ Meanwhile, she has come to recognize the truth that ‘It was the possibility of cowardice from which he shrank, not the possibility of hurt’. And consequently she too has grown: ‘She had suffered; she had eaten of the tree of knowledge.’


That moral thread lies at the core of the book, but there are many other pleasures to be found.

There’s the sub-plot of Jack Durrance turning detective to figure out the story behind Harry’s actions. Having been blinded, he works hard at paying attention to his other senses, and likes to surprise people by reading the subtext of their words and by describing the physical setting. He does this rather in the manner of a blind Sherlock Holmes: ‘It was a delight to him to make discoveries which no one expected a man who had lost his sight to make, and to announce them unexpectedly. It was an additional pleasure to relate to his puzzled audience the steps by which he had reached his discovery.’

There are also the homoerotic undertones to Lieutenant Sutch’s friendship for Harry. He understands entirely why Ethne is attracted to the young man: ‘there was nothing astonishing in the girl’s fidelity to any one who was really acquainted with Harry Feversham.’ As for himself: ‘The passage of the years had not diminished his great regard for Harry; he cared for him indeed with a woman’s concentration of love.’

Then there are the minor characters, including the comic figure of Captain Willoughby, who attracts Mason’s most savage scorn. An ugly, stupid buffoon, he’s forever twirling his ridiculous moustache and revealing himself to be – even by General Feversham’s standards – desperately unimaginative: ‘He was not a man to be persuaded; having few ideas, he clung to them. It was no use to argue with him, for he did not hear the argument, but behind his vacant eyes all the while he turned over his crippled thoughts and was satisfied.’ Worse yet, he’s a crashing bore:

In the smoking-room or at the supper-table he crushed conversation flat as a steam-roller crushes a road. He was quite irresistible. Trite anecdotes were sandwiched between aphorisms of the copybook; and whether anecdote or aphorism, all was delivered with the air of a man surprised by his own profundity. If you waited long enough, you had no longer the will power to run away, you sat caught in a web of sheer dullness. Only those, however, who did not know him waited long enough; the rest of his fellow-members at his appearance straightway rose and fled.

And yet this absurd, despised figure has the temerity to condemn Harry with a white feather. ‘An obstinate stupidity was the mark of the man,’ concludes Ethne, when finally she meets him. ‘How dare he sit in judgment upon the meanest of his fellows, let alone Harry Feversham?’ Nor are the others seen as being worthy of passing sentence. ‘They were just ordinary prosaic regimental officers,’ reflects Durrance. ‘Here were men who could deal out misery and estrangement and years of suffering, without so much as a single word spoken, and they went about their business, and you never knew them from other men.’

Nonetheless, Willoughby provides a little comic relief. And it seems for a while as though another minor character, Mrs Adair, a young widow with a fancy for Jack Durrance, might do the same. But then she gets to tell her own story and she emerges instead as a rather tragic figure, looking back on what she sees as a wasted life. After leaving school, she had married the man – ‘of whom I knew nothing’ – that her domineering mother had chosen for her. ‘The case is common enough,’ she observes, ‘but its frequency does not make it easier of endurance.’ And she explains to Durrance the misery of married life in the upper-middle class:

Oh, how dull it was! Do you know the little back streets in a manufacturing town? Rows of small houses, side by side, with nothing to relieve them of their ugly regularity, each with the self-same windows, the self-same door, the self-same door-step. Overhead a drift of smoke, and every little green thing down to the plants in the window dirty and black. The sort of street whence any crazy religious charlatan who can promise a little colour to their grey lives can get as many votaries as he wants. Well, when I thought over my life, one of those little streets always came into my mind. There are women, heaps of them, no doubt, to whom the management of a big house, the season in London, the ordinary round of visits, are sufficient. I, worse luck, was not one of them. Dull! You, with your hundred thousand things to do, cannot conceive how oppressively dull my life was.

four feathers 1977

Harry Andrews as General Feversham (1977)

Her spiritual impoverishment is matched by that of General Feversham. Towards the end of the story, Durrance tells him of Harry’s deeds, how his son’s heroism has now been acknowledged by his erstwhile comrades; and the General sits there with his hand covering his face, concealing his expression. ‘Even when he did speak, he did not take his hand away. Pride forbade him to show to those portraits on the walls that he was capable even of so natural a weakness as joy at the reconquest of honour by his son.’

The Four Feathers is often cited as a typical example of the stiff upper lip, but fiction has few more devastating criticisms of that mindset than Mason’s stark account of General Feversham: ‘He had suffered much during these five lonely years of his old age, though not one of his acquaintances up to this moment had ever detected a look upon his face or heard a sentence from his lips which could lead them so to think.’

Mason’s theme throughout is self-sacrifice, as exemplified by Harry, Ethne and Durrance, but Mrs Adair and General Feversham exist as a counterpoint to that central triangle. They too have made sacrifices, but they have also starved themselves of emotional sustenance, and there’s a hollowness to their lives as a consequence. There is a balance that needs to be struck.

And it is possible that not even Harry and Jack Durrance, for all their virtues and their suffering, manage to strike that balance. Early on, we are told of their reluctance to express their emotions:

The friendship between these two men was not one in which affectionate phrases had any part. There was, in truth, no need of such. Both men were securely conscious of it; they estimated it at its true, strong value; it was a helpful instrument, which would not wear out, put into their hands for a hard, lifelong use; but it was not, and never had been, spoken of between them. Both men were grateful for it, as for a rare and undeserved gift; yet both knew that it might entail an obligation of sacrifice. But the sacrifices, were they needful, would be made, and they would not be mentioned. It may be, indeed, that the very knowledge of their friendship’s strength constrained them to a particular reticence in their words to one another.

Soon afterwards, Durrance sails from Dover for Egypt and, as his ship leaves the dockside, he thinks he sees Harry’s face in the crowd watching its departure. But it can’t be him, ‘because the face which Durrance had seen so distinctly for a moment was a haggard, wistful face – a face stamped with an extraordinary misery; the face of a man cast out from among his fellows’. It’s a striking feature of the novel that the two men never meet again.


The_Four_Feathers-538112775-small

And finally, what about those criticisms of The Four Feathers? It’s clearly not any kind of endorsement of militarism, as I’ve been trying to argue, but is it racist and imperialist?

Well, yes, by modern standards it is. There is an established critical argument that British imperialist fiction depicts the Empire as nothing more than an exotically decorated stage – peopled by a voiceless cast of black and brown extras – upon which white protagonists act out their dramas. And that is certainly true of the passages here that are set in Africa. The Sudan here fulfils much the same function as does Narnia in C.S. Lewis’s stories: it’s a fantasy land where those who have won the greatest prize in the lottery of life can have adventures and find themselves.

There are some expressions of understanding, so that Jack Durrance finds himself on the side of ‘the sorely harassed tribes of the eastern Sudan. He liked them; he could enter into their hatred of the old Turkish rule, he could understand their fanaticism, and their pretence of fanaticism under the compulsion of Osman Digna’s hordes.’

But there’s only really one African character in the entire novel, Abou Fatma, and he’s hardly a man of independent action; formerly General Gordon’s servant at Khartoum, his role is simply that of a loyal friend to the British. He sustains a near-fatal wound trying to help Harry escape from Omdurman, yet returns to make a second successful attempt to save our hero. But he gets little credit for his efforts. Harry doesn’t even correct Ethne when she congratulates him later: ‘I am glad that you escaped from Omdurman without the help of Lieutenant Sutch or Colonel Durrance. I wanted so much that everything should be done by you alone without anybody’s help or interference.’ Abou Fatma simply doesn’t count.

All of which is less than ideal.

So, yes, the novel takes for granted the existence of the Empire. And yes, it is interested only in its white middle-class characters. But the problem I have with a critical approach that foregrounds such concerns, is that, having made these points, I’m not sure what we’ve achieved. Did we really need telling that Britain in 1902 wasn’t as enlightened about race as we are today? If so, then we should consider ourselves told. The truth – the regrettable truth – is that the impact of empire on the conquered and the colonized did not loom large on the agenda of either writer or reader.

To my eyes, the most arresting aspect of the book is not the absence of African characters, but other absences. The absence of an explicitly Christian faith, for example. It is the Muslim characters who refer to the divine will, not our heroes; admittedly, there is the talk of ‘afterwards’, and there is much Biblical imagery, but the moral decisions are not made with God in mind. Nor are they made in the name of patriotism, let alone jingoism; the only empire that gets mentioned at all is the Dervish Empire. And there is that lack of enthusiasm for much of the ethos of the British Army, seen in the portraits of General Feversham and Captain Willoughby.

In short, there is no thumping of an imperial tub, just a collection of characters who are flawed and who sometimes lose their way as they struggle to do the right thing. Read at this distance, there’s a sense of insecurity and fragility about the whole enterprise.

And, lest we lose sight of what made this book so enormously popular, there is also, above everything else, a storming good story to be told.


FOUR FEATHERS, THE (1939)

John Clements as Harry and Ralph Richardson as Durrance (1939)

The films

There have been seven movie adaptations of Mason’s book. I don’t know either of the first two silent versions (filmed in 1915 and 1921), but I’ve seen the others and they all fall woefully short of the novel. There’s a big-budget American version from 1929, one of the last major works of the silent cinema. Then there’s the most famous version, from 1939, directed by Zoltan Korda, which is even more spectacular, and which was remade in 1955 by Terence Young as Storm Over the Nile, using the same script (which means I won’t treat the latter as a separate entity here). There was Don Sharp’s television adaptation in 1977; and finally an unsuccessful but interesting version in 2002, directed by Shekhar Kapur.

As a broad criticism, all are guilty of over-simplifying the subtleties of the story, so that in 1929, 1939 and 1977 Jack Durrance is now one of the three who send the feathers, which changes his position entirely. He becomes just another stupid officer who doesn’t understand Harry. In both 1979 and 2002, the story is further changed so that he is blinded in action, which loses the Biblical echoes of him going into the wilderness and losing his sight. Mrs Adair, meanwhile, is dropped entirely, except from the 1921 version.

Worse are the changes made to the character of Ethne in the movies, no longer Irish but English, and herself the daughter of an officer. Rather than presenting an alternative, she becomes merely part of the chorus of disapproval, insisting that duty is everything.

‘Some people are born free. They can do as they like without concern for consequences,’ she tells Harry in 1939. ‘But you were not born free, Harry, and nor was I. We were born into a tradition, a code which we must obey even if we do not believe. And we must obey it, Harry, because the pride and happiness of everyone surrounding us depends upon our obedience.’

The same encounter is found in 1977 when Harry tells Ethne he resigned because he didn’t want to go to war, and she tells him he’s out of line: ‘You didn’t want? As a soldier, you had no choice, Harry.’ She says she’ll go abroad with him and he counters that he doesn’t want her to be a soldier’s wife. ‘You want?’ she replies. ‘You want? Can you only think of what Harry Feversham wants? And now you want me to support you and turn my back on family and regiment and country?’ He protests: ‘What is that to do with us?’ And she responds as though she is speaking with his father’s voice: ‘It is us. It is. It’s in our blood, it’s what we are. And all alone, you decide to throw it all away.’

In one respect, there is a note of imperialist doubt that creeps into the various treatments. When explaining his reasons for resignation, Harry tells Ethne, in 1939: ‘We’ve discussed it so often. The futility of this idiotic Egyptian adventure. The madness of it all. The ghastly waste of time that we can never have again.’ In 1977 Ethne tries to persuade him to re-join the regiment, and Harry scoffs: ‘Why? To go and fight the Dervishes for the glory of the Empire? To plant the flag in the Sudan?’ And he’s no more convinced in 2002: ‘I sometimes wonder what a God-forsaken desert has to do with Her Majesty the Queen.’

Apart from sounding terribly anachronistic (I don’t believe that an officer of the 1880s would have expressed such opinions, and there’s nothing in the novel to justify them), these arguments are entirely undercut by the rest of the films. Because, unlike the book, they focus almost entirely on the military campaigns in Africa. They have big battle sequences, which – impressive though they are – have nothing to do with the original story.

And that’s the biggest flaw in all the movies. Having jettisoned much of the psychological subtlety of Mason’s characterizations, they then resort to precisely the kind of Boy’s Own action adventuring that he had so studiously avoided.

John Laurie - Four Feathers (1939)

John Laurie as the Khalifa (1939)

Which is not to say that they’re not worth watching. In particular, the 1939 and 2002 versions are interesting for the light they shine on their own times. In 1939, on the eve of what was already an inevitable war, the tone is more obviously bellicose and patriotic. It also uses the term ‘fuzzy wuzzies’ (not found in the book) and features John Laurie in brown-face make-up as the Khalifa. It is this version that has really fixed the image of the story, despite being so far wide of the mark set by Mason.

The 2002 film – directed by a man born in a British colony – takes a more anti-imperialist line, and gives much greater prominence to the character of Abou Fatma. Coming at a time of the West’s growing conflict with political Islam, however, it’s none too sympathetic to the Muslim forces. Even so, despite being released after 9/11, it didn’t do very good business.

There are things to be said for all the adaptations. 1929 has a nicely dark tone and Fay Wray as Ethne. 1939 has Ralph Richardson bearing an uncanny resemblance to John Sessions doing an impression of Ralph Richardson. 1977 has Jane Seymour muddle-headedly choosing Beau Bridges rather than Robert Powell. And 2002 has some beautifully filmed fighting.

But mostly what can be said of the films is that they illustrate the truth that the movie is a very third-rate art-form when compared to the novel.


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