Read an Excerpt
From Michael G. Wood’s Introduction to The Four Feathers
Even this bare sketch of a life tells us quite a lot. Mason belonged thoroughly to the mainstream of English culture but also kept his distance from it; he tried his hand at many things; he knew the worlds he recreated in his fiction; he wrote for so long and in so many genres that it’s clear that writing itself was the central thread of his life. He had published quite a bit before he arrived, in 1902, at The Four Feathers, itself based on a short story. Literary historians rightly place the book in a tradition of patriotic fiction, where the romance of distant places and the lure of an imperial destiny mark all the characters and make them heroes. We may think of The Prisoner of Zenda (1894), by Mason’s friend Anthony Hope, any number of novels and stories by Rudyard Kipling, and the later Beau Geste (1924), by C. P. Wren. All of these books suggest that although chivalry is not dead, Englishmen may have to go abroad to get a chance to exercise it.
As Peter Keating says in The Haunted Study (see “For Further Reading”), the “social function” of such fiction “was perfectly well understood by its authors”:
First, it had to sustain the mood of adventurous exploration that was necessary for the expansion and maintenance of the British Empire. Secondly, it took upon itself the task of instilling into the new and unformed democracy an appreciation of the long years of progress that had turned Britain into the greatest imperial power the world had ever known (p. 354).
Mason was a loyal Englishman and did not dissent from any of this. The Four Feathers is not a critique of imperialism. But there is a curious, elegant note of melancholy about the book that brings us closer perhaps to the work of Joseph Conrad than to that of Kipling. “The conquest of the earth,” Conrad wrote in Heart of Darkness, published the same year as The Four Feathers, “is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only.” The idea, in The Four Feathers as in much of such fiction, is that of service, the dedication of the self to a noble project, combined, in Mason’s case, with the idea of a genuine attachment to the foreign places themselves. Durrance, for example, loves the African desert and is described at one point as “a man . . . who came to the wild, uncitied places of the world with the joy of one who comes into an inheritance,” and a little later as “the inheritor of the other places.” Now, inheritance is not conquest, and from one point of view the very idea that an Englishman could inherit anything in Africa is a piece of imperial whitewash, self-deception at best, hypocrisy at worst. But then we need to add that the inheritance in Durrance’s case is metaphorical—he doesn’t own these other places, he just feels the joy of one who does—and it is in any case now lost to him, since he is blind. What he loves, precisely, is the Africa he can’t have—just as he loves, in Ethne, the woman he can’t marry. There is a concentrated image of these ambivalences of empire on the last page of the novel, where Durrance is traveling back to the East. His ship leaves the Suez Canal and steams southward down the Red Sea. He looks forward mentally to what was to become the Battle of Omdurman (1898), when the British Army would “roll up the Dervish Empire and crush it into dust”—no regrets about conquest there. But then the novel ends with the stars Durrance can have no sight of: “Three nights more and, though he would not see it, the Southern Cross would lift slantwise into the sky.” The other places are still there, and still loved, but theey belong to no one, neither the Dervishes nor the British.