The Four Feathers has recently come back into print (available from Penguin) after a long hiatus. It is on the one hand a compelling adventure story set in an exotic location, and on the other a thoughtful examination of the nature of cowardice and fear, and of how one can be mistaken for the other. Finally, the story examines in detail the consequences of one man's actions on the lives of his friends and family.
The story opens in England, in 1869. Every year, on June 15th, Crimean War veterans who participated in the assault on Redan (1855) gather at Broad Place, the home of General Feversham in the Surrey Hills, to commemorate the battle. The anniversary is also the birthday of the general's son Harry, who on this occasion is allowed to sit with the company, as they reminisce over the bloodshed, pain and suffering they underwent in "clipped, matter-of-fact tones". Only one of the company notices the effect these tales are having on young Harry who, unlike his father, possesses a strong imagination. Lieutenant Sutch notes that Harry seems particularly affected by two tales of cowardice, and longs to reassure him. Later, when Harry is sent off to bed, he stands facing the portraits of the Feversham men, all of them soldiers, lined in ranks one above the other to the dark ceiling above. The stares of those grim, dead men seem to accuse the boy - from that moment young Harry is convinced he is a born coward.
Thirteen years later Harry Feversham is a lieutenant in the East Surrey Regiment. There is trouble in Egypt and the Sudan, and the likelihood of war. Harry is dining with some of his brother officers. He tells them that he is engaged to be married, and that he intends to resign his commission, and move to Ireland to manage the estates of his future wife's aged father. The company extends him a measured congratulations, not entirely happy to see a fellow officer leave the service, but willing to allow him to follow his own fortunes. A telegram arrives for Harry during the evening, and the others note that Harry seems somewhat disturbed by the message. Harry discards the telegram in the fireplace, and later that evening sends in his resignation.
The telegram was from the colonel of Harry's regiment, notifying him that they have been activated for service in the Sudan. For Harry, this is dire news. He believes himself a coward, and while willing to accept his fate, his greatest fear is that he will disgrace his betrothed. He decides to pretend he did not receive the message. Two of the other officers present suspect differently, however. When they discover from the colonel the contents of the telegram, the three of them send Harry a box with their cards enclosed, along with three white feathers - accusations of cowardice. Harry was in the presence of Ethne Eustace, his fiance, when he received the box, and did not dissemble their meaning to her. Ethne, humiliated to discover that her betrothed is a coward, and was willing to marry her under false pretences, breaks off the engagement. To make certain that Harry understands that she intends a complete break, Ethne breaks a white feather from a fan and hands it to Harry in her own turn.
Harry decides that he must redeem himself, and force each of his four accusers to take back their feathers. He therefore undertakes the journey to the Sudan, disguises himself, and waits for the moment in which he can reclaim his honor.
At this point, I'll take time out for two brief paragraphs of background on Britain's involvement in the Sudan, which ought not to strain the reader's patience.
With the exception of India, no other country in the world has inspired as much Victorian era legend and romance as the Sudan. Despite the fact that it is the largest country in Africa, and holds three-quarters of the Nile, the Sudan is a backwater on just about anyone's scale. Cataracts restrict navigation to the north, vast swamps block travel to the south, and the banks are flanked by hundreds of miles of waterless wasteland. Commented one observer, "I have passed through it, and have now no fear for the hereafter." So how did this country come to loom so prominently in the imperial imagination?
In 1869 French engineers finished a momentous project: the construction of a canal through the Suez. Egypt became a country of enormous strategic significance, especially to the British who, by 1875, owned an eighth share the canal. Any circumstance that threatened Egypt also jeopardized the canal, and Britain's links to India. In 1881 the rise of Mahdiya, a localized religious cult that united the tribes of the Sudan, became a serious threat to the stability of Egypt. In a nutshell, that is how the British became involved in a war in one of the world's remotest and least desirable backwaters. The main action of the The Four Feathers takes place from 1882 to 1888; however, the Sudan conflict was not to be fully resolved for another ten years.
The film versions of this novel (of which there were six, with a seventh due for release in 2002) tend to emphasize the more adventurous aspects of the story, and add battle scenes to the footage that never occur in the novel. However, most of the setting for the novel is in England and Ireland, concentrating on the effects of Harry's actions, and the occasional news of his deeds in the Sudan, on those he left behind - particularly on Ethne, and his friend Jack Durrance (it should be noted that there is a considerable sub-plot devoted to Durrance, his service in the Sudan, the tragic loss of his sight, and his courage and personal growth while coping with this handicap). Harry effectively disappears from direct view until close to the end of the novel.
In the last few chapters of the book, we begin once again to follow Harry Feversham directly, rather than through the eyes of others. Harry allows himself to be captured, in order to effect the rescue of one of his accusers from the infamous Sudanese prison known as The House of Stone. Through suffering, sickness, and dire pursuit, they eventually manage to escape back to Egypt. Harry has redeemed himself in the eyes of his father, his accusers, and most of all, Ethne. This was no assurance of a reunion between Harry and Ethne, however. While Ethne was overwhelmed with joy that Harry had attained redemption, she had promised in the interim to wed Harry's friend Jack Durrance, for whom she felt some responsibility. It was only Jack's selfless friendship and newly acquired insight that ensured a happier resolution for all.
On-line text of The Four Feathers