A. E. W. Mason – moral courage and martial virtue

GREG JINKERSON pays tribute to an influential exponent of the British imperial ideal

In his lifetime, Alfred Edward Woodley Mason (1865-1948) had a reputation as a globetrotting man of action who could turn forays in politics, theater and war into popular and gripping novels. If that had been the sum of his achievement, it would have been no mean feat. A page-turner as a means of escape shouldn’t be despised out of hand, and is far too rare in fiction. And Mason is indeed an entertainer. But his stories are too sermonic to have been conceived as penny dreadfuls. And even if genre appeal was the basis of much of Mason’s popularity, a look at the books themselves, and at the life, reveals something deeper – a writer who could use popular formats to paint a late Victorian picture of manly virtue.

Although best-known today as the author of The Four Feathers (1902), a seven-times filmed story of then-recent British engagement in the Sudan campaign, he wrote 30 novels in a busy 60-year career, alongside several plays, three historical works and numerous short stories for magazines. 

Spanning mystery, thrillers and historical romance, and selling well in each, Mason had clear affinities with authors he admired from a generation earlier like Doyle, Kipling or Haggard – men who had mined exotic career locales for fictional settings and themes to build up imperial verdicts. As for more recent comparisons, he would appear to have few cousins, either political or moral. Current purveyors of swashbuckling or military adventures, like Clive Cussler or Tom Clancy, do not give the reader any lasting moral treasure to carry away.

Born in Camberwell, London, England in 1865, Mason developed an early love for reading, especially adventure stories, as well as for Dickens. Dickens’ painstaking approach would have a large influence on Mason’s own approach to novel writing.

There is not a book of Dickens which does not show that the story was designed to its end before it was written…I think you will hardly analyze any permanent book of imaginative literature and find much trace of the boasted system of sitting down with a pen and a fair sheet of paper, and just letting things go (1)

Mason attended Trinity College at Oxford at the same time as fellow future authors Arthur Quiller-Couch (his roommate at university, nicknamed ‘Q’) and Anthony Hope (author of The Prisoner of Zenda and other novels). Q was something of a mentor to Mason, encouraging him to write as he was embarking on his own first novel.

As an author, Mason was extremely famous in his lifetime, and handsomely paid for his prolific output – at the time of his death in 1948, he was earning from five to six thousand pounds a year from his writings (2). But whether his books were his main claim to fame can be debated, for he had an impressively varied career filled with achievements and travels. There was hardly any profession or hobby that could add glamour and sparkle to a man’s image as the beau ideal in which he didn’t dabble, and in many cases flourish – politics, cricket, historical studies, soldiering, espionage, and exploration.

Burnishing the bohemian side of that ideal, he won much campus fame appearing in student productions at Trinity. After finishing at Oxford in 1888, his first professional job was with a touring company of actors performing in both staged dramas and comedies. It was about this time he first became a published author, issuing a play called Blanche de Maletroit (1894) based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson. He went on to write a number of plays which won him some notice, and earned him some money, on the London stage. Soon enough, that early literary bent which had shown itself at Oxford with Quiller-Couch, Hope and others, led to Mason’s first book, A Romance of Wastdale, in 1895.

In both his professional and literary work, Mason cast a vision of knightly virtue which transcended his own day and retains its appeal seventy years on. In 1906 he was elected Liberal MP for Coventry as part of that year’s “Liberal Landslide” to the Campbell-Bannerman government. Mason served only a single term before retiring from parliament in the next election. During World War I he served with the Manchester Regiment and was promoted Captain, and later joined the Royal Marine Light Infantry. At the end of the war, Mason was involved in counter-espionage work for the British government in both Spain and Mexico. He was offered a knighthood in 1937, but declined the honor.

Much of his popularity and sales arose, no doubt, from his strong command of genre and power to draw milieu without becoming bogged down in historical material. From the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685 in The Courtship of Morrice Buckler (1896) to the Mahdi uprising in Sudan in The Four Feathers, Mason could conjure just enough military detail or local color to provide solid scaffolding for the imagination. Yet for all that, settings and genre were incidental to the deeper vision of chivalry he wished to cast in his novels and countless short stories. The plots depend much more upon psychological drama than on their historical backgrounds.

For The Four Feathers, Mason was inspired indirectly by the Anglo-Sudan War of the 1880s and 90s, but more directly by a hunting expedition in the Sudan just two years after Kitchener’s decisive victory over the self-appointed Mahdi Abdullah al-Khalifa and his forces at Omdurman in 1898. Mason’s deft research and eye for detail are abundantly clear throughout the novel. In an early scene, just in passing at a dinner party, we overhear an old war story as told by the hero’s father, General Feversham. The occasion is an annual reunion of old veterans, and the anecdote teems with the kind of historical detail Mason ladled onto scenes as an entrée to the story’s dominating idea:

Lord Wilmington. One of the best names in England, if you please. Did you ever see his house in Warwickshire? Every inch of the ground you would think would have a voice to bid him play the man, if only in remembrance of his fathers…. It seemed incredible and mere camp rumour, but the rumour grew. If it was whispered at the Alma, it was spoken aloud at Inkermann, it was shouted at Balaclava. Before Sebastopol the hideous thing was proved

General Feversham is the reader’s compass, orienting us first in England, and by degrees narrowing the focus. Lord Wilmington would presumably have been a relative of his namesake the Prime Minister, a worthy voice indeed to urge patriotism. If that voice weren’t loud enough, the whisperings of his “house in Warwickshire” suggest Shakespeare, who was born there, would also “bid him play the man.”

Having deftly indexed Wilmington’s national pedigree, Mason launches the story far afield with a list of four places. They are all Crimean locales, and situate the story in that campaign. But more than that, their recitation paints a picture of developing horror, the mortifying change which a rumor of Wilmington’s cowardice undergoes as it flies from town to town and grows to settled fact, spreading throughout the theatre of war. The geography is as may be. Mason’s focus is the dominating idea of cowardice, and the fear which a young boy might feel about finding cowardice in himself.

Most of the General’s guests hang on every detail of his reminiscence of camp life, but two of his listeners are penetrating far further into the interior of Wilmington’s ordeal: the General’s son Harry Feversham, whose birthday is being celebrated at the gathering, and the General’s friend Lieutenant Sutch. As the General’s story concludes,

…there was only one in all that company who sat perfectly still in the silence which followed upon the story. That one was the boy Harry Feversham. He sat with his hands now clenched upon his knees and leaning forward a little across the table toward the surgeon, his cheeks white as paper, his eyes burning, and burning with ferocity. He had the look of a dangerous animal in the trap. His body was gathered, his muscles taut. Sutch had a fear that the lad meant to leap across the table and strike with all his strength in the savagery of despair. He had indeed reached out a restraining hand when General Feversham’s matter-of-fact voice intervened, and the boy’s attitude suddenly relaxed

Harry, whose father entirely misunderstands his son’s cast of mind, finds a kindred spirit in Sutch. Having reached his appointed curfew, Harry leaves the party well past midnight. Passing through a gallery of ancestral portraits, Harry is frozen with guilt and foreboding by their seemingly interrogating faces. Concerned for the boy, Sutch follows him out discreetly. Recognizing Harry’s nascent imaginative powers, as well as his potential for physical courage, he longs to assure him that acting in spite of fear is a more impressive feat than never experiencing fear at all.

[The portraits] were men of one stamp; no distinction of uniform could obscure their relationship – lean-faced men, hard as iron, rugged in feature…men of courage and resolution, no doubt, but without subtleties, or nerves, or that burdensome gift of imagination; sturdy men, a little wanting in delicacy, hardly conspicuous for intellect; to put it frankly, men rather stupid – all of them, in a word, first-class fighting men, but not one of them a first-class soldier. But Harry Feversham plainly saw none of their defects. To him they were one and all portentous and terrible. He stood before them in the attitude of a criminal before his judges, reading his condemnation in their cold unchanging eyes

There is Sutch’s (and Mason’s) dominating idea: the distinction between a first-class fighting man, stupid and near-animalistic in his conduct, and a first-class soldier, who carries the gifts of imagination, delicacy and intellect. These gifts Sutch has carried into battle, and he knows them also as burdens. His hope for Harry, expressed in an offer of friendship, is that the boy would overcome the burden of imagination and transform it into courage.

Mason’s trip to the Sudan included a visit to the notorious military prison near Omdurman, the House of Stone, which became a typical canvas for one of the book’s most memorable scenes. Harry, having earlier in the book resigned a commission in Egypt that should have been his conventional path to family glory, has since lost most social connections. Three army friends and his fiancée Ethne have sent him four white feathers, signifying his condemnation for cowardice. But gradually, through a series of daring actions proving vast physical courage and mental toughness, Harry redeems himself and wins back their respect.

It is within the House of Stone prison that Harry passes one of these tests of courage. Harry has heard that his friend Trench is a prisoner inside it. After a day of grueling labor, every prisoner toward evening is shoved into the house with little regard for comfort or safety. The size and conditions of the prison are such that men are routinely trampled nightly. Witnessing these horrors night after night, Trench lives in fear of a similar demise.

All of this Harry learns from outside the camp. Despite the danger, he willingly enters the camp as a prisoner for the express purpose of providing his friend Trench with hope and companionship. Their encounter in the House of Stone demonstrates the triumph of Harry’s imagination over his fears, and his graduation from coward to first-class soldier.

Back!” he cried violently, “back, or I strike!” – and, as he wrestled to lift his arm above his head that he might strike the better, he heard the man who had been flung against him incoherently babbling English.

“Don’t fall,” cried Trench, and he caught his fellow-captive by the arm. “Ibrahim, help! God, if he were to fall!” and while the crowd swayed again and the shrill cries and curses rose again, deafening the ears, piercing the brain, Trench supported his companion, and bending down his head caught again after so many months the accent of his own tongue. And the sound of it civilised him like the friendship of a woman

Here was Mason’s gift: to penetrate the fog of war, and bring forth the heartbeat of humanity and friendship behind the rubble of jingoism. Harry resigned his commission, but became a soldier. Mason declined a knighthood, but played the man in every field of endeavour.

Author’s Notes

  1. A.E.W. Mason, “A Few Words on Fiction,” in A.E.W. Mason: Appreciations (New York: George H. Doran Company, no date), p20
  2. Roger Lancelyn Green, A.E.W. Mason (London: Max Parrish, 1952), p89