The Four Feathers is one of the most famous adventure stories of all time, although probably through the many movie adaptations rather than the original book. The story of Harry Feversham, who is handed white feathers for cowardice by three friends & his fiancée, & his quest to make them take back their feathers, is well-known. I was surprised to find that, for me, Harry wasn’t the hero of this story at all.
Harry Feversham has grown up in a military family. The portraits of his ancestors look down upon him at Broad Place & his father fought in the Crimean War. Every year, on the anniversary of a great battle in the Crimea (& also Harry’s birthday), a group of old soldiers get together at Broad Place to tell stories & remember their fallen comrades. On one occasion, when Harry is home from school, he joins the men & hears stories of great bravery & also great cowardice. Harry is a sensitive boy, who takes after his dead mother, Muriel, rather than his stolid, unimaginative father. As he goes to bed on that night, he looks at the portraits of his ancestors & believes that he is destined to be a coward rather than a hero. Only one of his father’s friends, Lieutenant Sutch, sees what the boy is feeling & offers to help him if help is ever needed.
Years later, Harry has joined the Army & is engaged to a beautiful Irish girl, Ethne Eustace. At dinner with friends in London, he talks of resigning his commission & living with Ethne in Ireland. She loves her home in Donegal & will never leave it. A telegram arrives for Harry telling him that his regiment is about to be deployed on active service in the Sudan. He burns the telegram without telling his friends of the contents. One of the men, Captain Trench, has glimpsed his own name on the telegram as it burned & determines to find out what was in the telegram. He & Lieutenant Willoughby visit a mutual friend, Castleton, who had sent the telegram, discover the contents of the message & realise that Feversham had sent in his commission on the very same night, as if he hadn’t known about the deployment. The fourth man at the dinner, Lieutenant Jack Durrance, is unaware of all this as he can only focus on the fact that Harry is engaged to Ethne, the woman he loves.
At a grand ball at Ethne’s home in Ireland, Lennon House, all seems set fair for Harry & Ethne’s future. A box is delivered to Harry in the middle of the ball. He opens it in Ethne’s presence & three white feathers flutter to the ground. Ethne asks the meaning of the curious gift & Harry tells her the truth, that he resigned his commission even though he knew that his regiment was destined for war. Ethne is shocked & her proud nature won’t allow her to marry a man she can’t respect. She takes a white feather from her fan & adds it to the three feathers from Castleton, Willoughby & Trench. The engagement broken, Harry leaves next day to tell his father what he has done & he effectively disappears.
Harry eventually decides that he must force all four to take back their feathers. He goes to Egypt & the Sudan in disguise & lays his plans to prove his bravery & remove the stain of cowardice. Meanwhile, Ethne has never stopped loving Harry. She burns all his gifts & letters but keeps his photograph by her always. Jack Durrance doesn’t know of the feathers & has no idea why the engagement has been broken off. He continues his friendship with Ethne, hoping that one day she will turn to him. On active service in Africa, Durrance is blinded & Ethne decides to marry him. Staying with a friend, Mrs Adair, who is herself in love with Durrance, Ethne receives a visit from Willoughby, who brings her his feather & tells the story of Harry’s bravery. Ethne is torn between her love for Harry & her determination, as she says, to not ruin two men’s lives. She says nothing to Durrance but his perception is keen & he will not stop until he has discovered the secret of Harry’s disappearance.
The Four Feathers is the kind of book that could only have been written before WWI. The story is full of a very Victorian notion of bravery & honour that the characters believe in absolutely. Harry is the most influenced by it & the fact that he endures great hardship & pain during the years of his quest barely redeem him in his own eyes. All he cares about is that his reputation is restored in the eyes of the others, especially Ethne, as he asks that the men return the feathers to her. He feels that his life is effectively over. He assumes that Ethne doesn’t love him & will marry someone else but he wants her to know about his deeds so that they may meet as friends in the afterlife.
I found Ethne a difficult character to sympathise with. She is just as rigid in her notions of right & wrong as old General Feversham, Harry’s father. Her determination to marry Durrance although she doesn’t love him, is misguided & she is very cruel to him in one scene where she walks away from him as he is talking, knowing that he’s blind & thinks she’s still there. To me, Jack Durrance was the real hero of the book. He gradually discovers Harry’s story &, because he believes that Ethne has ceased to love Harry, asks her to marry him. When he’s blinded, he offers to release her from their engagement & eventually believes that she loves him, mistaking her changed attitude to a growing love for himself rather than her delight at hearing of Harry’s redemption. His unselfishness in helping Harry & Trench escape from the horrific prison at Omdurman & releasing Ethne from her promise made him more heroic to me than Harry’s quest. Harry is no coward. He could have gone on active service & would probably have acquitted himself well. I suppose it reflects the different attitudes to heroism that we have now, over 100 years after the book was published. And, of course, if the telegram had come the day after Harry has resigned his commission, his honour would have been intact but there would have been no book! The Four Feathers is a great read & a portrayal of a way of life & of attitudes that have disappeared.