A very British adventure

The Battle of Omdurman, 1898
 The Four Feathers by A.E.W. Mason is a great classic tale of adventure. Set towards the end of Victoria's reign at the height of the British Empire, it is a stirring tale of romance, loyalty and adventure. Harry Feversham comes from a long line of British military heroes. Harry, an imaginative sensitive young man, haunted by the thought that he might prove to be a coward under fire, becomes engaged to Ethne Eustace, an emotionally insensitive young lady. Terrified that he will disgrace Ethne he resigns his commission on the eve of being sent to the Sudan. Branded a coward by three of his fellow officers he is sent three white feathers as a sign of their disapproval, and Ethne hands him a further feather.

Feversham leaves the country determined to win back Ethne and prove himself. There then follows a series of adventures in the Sudan as Feversham attempts to rescue one of the white feather wielding officers from the notorious House of Stone prison in Omdurman. Harry's tenacity and courage wins through, and he proves himself as a man. A man, moreover, who is extraordinarily brave, able to face life knowing exactly how bad it can be but willing to risk himself for what is right nevertheless.

What I find unusual about this novel is how modern the hero is. This is no stiff upper lip, going into battle all-guns-blazing- hero, but a modern sensitive man with his own personal hang-ups, who is nevertheless willing to risk his own life to do what is right. The background to the story may be British imperialism and the mores of the day (1902) but it is oddly modern, and could equally well have been set in modern-day Iraq or Afghanistan with a British or American hero. It's no surprise that Four feathers has remained a popular subject for film-makers as it can be tailored as a gung-ho or a sensitive tale depending on the tastes of the film-maker. The book remains however a sensitive evocation of the life of a military man. It's a great adventure tale with a very human hero at its heart, who it is completely impossible not to root for. Great story-telling, well-told, of a vanished age but which nevertheless is still hugely relevant to a modern world.


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