The Novel That Started A Shameful Movement
Occasionally a novel can have an unexpected influence that extends beyond its publication; such was the fate of AEW Mason’s most famous work.
Alfred Edward Woodley Mason was the creator of Inspector Hanaud, described as the first major fictional police detective of the 20th century. Hanaud was based on two real-life heads of the Sûreté and first appeared in a 1910 story, ‘At The Villa Rose’. He’s said to have helped shape Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot.
Mason briefly served as a Liberal Member of Parliament and later worked in naval intelligence, setting up counter-espionage networks. His Vanity Fair caricature portrayed him as a monocle-wearing Edwardian dandy, but those who remember him at all do so for the single novel that stands out from his other thirty-plus books.
The Four Feathers was a popular adventure novel written in 1902. Set against the backdrop of the Mahdist War, its hero Harry Faversham quits the army just before his regiment heads for the Sudan.
As a consequence he receives four white feathers, public marks of cowardice, including one white ostrich feather from his mortified fiancée. To redeem himself Faversham dons an Arabic disguise and saves his friends’ lives, winning back his girl.
The book is packed with colour, incident and an abundance of sub-plots, and has been filmed at least seven times, the most rousing version being the one made in 1939 by Zoltan Korda.
But twelve years after it was written the book’s continuing popularity gave it a darker influence.
In the autumn of 1914, self-righteous women all over the country began handing out white feathers to men who failed to enlist and wear the King’s uniform. The Order of the White Feather had been founded in August by Admiral Charles Fitzgerald, after Mason had popularised the idea.
Soon roving bands of militant females became part of the government’s propaganda campaign to encourage enlistment, but in doing so they also targeted the disabled, shell-shocked and wounded, or those who were ineligible to fight because of advanced age and infirmity.
The campaign was initially taken up with great fervour across the nation but ultimately backfired, as many men were compelled to sign up out of fear and subsequently suffered cruel unnecessary deaths.
The government attempted to distance itself from the White Feather movement but by this time it had come to mean that a man who would not fight was effeminate. Mason’s most patriotic adventure passed into history – possibly for the wrong reasons.