It’s a safe bet to suppose that while you’ll know of The Four Feathers and its essential storyline – after all, it’s been adapted for film six times – you probably won’t be able to name its author. In fact you’re almost certainly more likely to know that the most recent film version of the book was in 2002 and starred Heath Ledger and Kate Hudson, or indeed that Beau Bridges took the lead as book’s protagonist, Harry Feversham, in the 1978 film adaptation, iconic for those of a certain age.
Alas, unlike many other great authors of the era – think H G Wells, Jerome K Jerome, Conan Doyle or J M Barrie – the name Alfred Edward Woodley Mason has all but faded from public consciousness, burned away in part by the vibrant Technicolor of Alexander Korda’s 1939 cinema spectacular of The Four Feathers, said to have been Winston Churchill’s favourite film. It’s no small irony since the above writers were all close friends or acquaintances of Mason’s – a luminous literary circle that included Anthony Hope, author of The Prisoner of Zenda and Arthur Quiller-Couch, more famous today for giving us The Oxford Book of English Verse 1250–1900 than his dozens of works of fiction.
A E W Mason, as he was known, was born in Camberwell in 1865 – just weeks after the American Civil War ended, when Lord Palmerston was still prime minister. He grew up in Dulwich, the son of a chartered accountant but eschewed the family firm for a life of letters. Among those who influenced him was Oscar Wilde, who encouraged his literary efforts. But already by 1902, when The Four Feathers appeared, Mason had written and published more than half a dozen novels and established himself on the literary scene. It was during a conversation in the smoking room of the Garrick in September 1900 that he made the fateful decision to travel somewhere ‘really hazardous’ and he hit upon the idea of a shooting trip to the Sudan, according to his biographer Roger Lancelyn Green (himself an intimate of J R R Tolkein and C S Lewis).
Mason set off in January 1901 by way of Marseilles, taking with him letters of introduction, which opened doors to the great and the good in Cairo. He travelled down to Suakin on the Red Sea in the north west Sudan and stayed with the governor who helped him arrange his trip into the interior. ‘I had half a dozen camels and three native servants, none of whom could speak English,’ Mason wrote later. ‘This did not cause much inconvenience, as one’s wants are very simple in the dessert.’ He travelled by camel to the city of Berber on the Nile, the best part of 300 miles due east of Suakin, following the regular caravan route, and setting off, he said, each day at 3am. ‘I did not sleep in a tent,’ Mason explained, ‘as there was no dew, but had a bedstead put up in the open air; you see, sometimes there are scorpions about.’
The author was enchanted by the desert and slowly the story came to him. ‘The solitude itself sets you thinking,’ he later told an interviewer. After arriving at Berber, he travelled on to Khartoum, where Sir Reginald Wingate, the governor of Sudan, welcomed him. Just outside the city was the site of the battle of Omdurman, where Kitchener, leading an Anglo-Egyptian force, had defeated the Madhist Sudenese army just over two years before in 1898, thereby avenging the death of General Gordon at the hands of the Madhi in 1885.
Mason was shown the House of Stone – the Madhi’s open air prison that became a key location in the novel – and learned from Wingate, who had been director of intelligence at the time of the 1880s revolt in Sudan, how he had arranged the escape of various British soldiers from the prison with the help of a native named Onur Isa, who was disguised as a Dervish and dropped matches marked, ‘Made in Birmingham’ to demonstrate his identity to the captives. The experience of travelling in a country recently at war with Britain was not without its dangers and paved the way for a heroic romance on a grand canvas – with a narrative stretching over the best part of a decade from the British Isles to the sandy wastes of the Sudanese desert.
Mason returned to Britain via the Alps (where he did some fact checking on his previous novel which was still being serialised) and then settled down to write the book that we now know as The Four Feathers. As you’ll recall, it’s the story of a man who grows up in a strongly military family – his father is a gruff, remote Victorian general – but fears that he himself is a coward. After becoming engaged to be married the plot turns on his decision to resign his commission on the night before his regiment is due to be sent to Egypt in 1882.
As Mason was to explain, Feversham does this because he fears his cowardice will bring shame upon his family and the woman he loves. As a result he is presented with four feathers – three from brother officers who believe him to be a coward – and one from his fiancée, Ethne. In the 1939 film version (the fourth film adaption, no less), Korda softened Ethne’s cold-as-ice rejection of Feversham by having him snap a white feather from her fan – while in the book she terminates their relationship herself by breaking it from her fan and presenting it to him just before their engagement party. (Mason took violent exception to this change and later explained her reaction, saying: ‘Youth is apt to be hard.’).
In the author’s own words these two presentations of feathers provide the ‘mainsprings’ of the story, in which the hero decides to head out to the Sudan and oblige the three officers to take their feathers back by demonstrations of his heroism, and ultimately then to persuade Ethne to take hers back too.
The Four Feathers was serialised in the Cornhill Magazine from January to November 1902 and was published as a single volume in October of that year. ‘Its reception surpassed any of the earlier books,’ wrote Mason’s biographer, ‘and it was at once realised that Mason had produced a class – a judgement which has not been shaken in 50 years.’ Within 40 years close to a million copies were sold, with the first film adaptation coming in 1915, before a second in 1929 (with King Kong’s director Merian C Cooper and the producer David O Selznick at the helm.) By the time Robert Powell and Simon Ward joined Beau Bridges for the 1978 adaption, Mason’s story had well and truly passed from the pages of fiction to into the public sphere.
Ardent early fans of the book included the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who read it at both poles – quite possible a unique literary qualification – and who said ‘it was his Bible and that he wouldn’t be without it anywhere!’ Read at the distance of more than 120 years, I would say that the book holds up tremendously well: the affecting melodrama and excitement felt by the Edwardian readers is alive as ever, and the text is delightfully free of excessive, burdensome exposition.
That The Four Feathers probably remains Mason’s best-known work does not take anything away from a glittering literary career. His more than 30 novels included 1913’s The Witness for the Defence as well as six highly influential Inspector Hanaud detective novels, an inspiration for Agatha Christie’s Poirot. In addition to this, he served as a Liberal MP (elected for Coventry in the landslide of 1906) and then knocking on 50, he joined up in the first world war, though he didn’t serve in the Manchester Regiment long before being snapped up by the newly instituted Secret Service which sent him to Spain on counter-espionage work. These experiences informed his later literary output. What else? He was also a useful fast right-arm bowler, in the ranks of the Authors’ Cricket Club (alongside P G Wodehouse, Conan Doyle, A A Milne and his close friend, the publisher and Punch staffer E V Lucas who would describe Mason as having a laugh that ‘was famous in both hemispheres’). He was also a keen mountain climber and president of the Swiss Alpine Club. Finally, it’s said that he was offered but turned down a knighthood and died in 1948.
Writing in the New Statesman in 1951, Graham Greene paid tribute to Mason’s memory, declaring: ‘How seldom in literary life do we pause to pay a debt of gratitude except to the great or the fashionable, who are like those friends that we feel do us credit. Conrad, Dostoievsky, James, yes, but we are too ready to forget such figures as A E W Mason, Stanley Weyman, and Rider Haggard, perhaps the greatest of all who enchanted us when we were young.’ It’s hard not to agree. Certainly Mason deserves to be remembered and the best way to do that is to pick up a copy of The Four Feathers.