My summer trip is over and I'm back home. What a nice two weeks, I'm truly sad to be back here and having to face boring, unpleasant reality. It'll be rough getting back with ROTC. I've had a rather nasty summer and this trip has been the best thing that has happened to me since school ended. Sadly, it was simply a stay of execution and soon I’ll have to face the music and deal with what has happened. Until then, I’ll just have to try to keep it together; not an easy task.
I’d really like to talk about the conference and how much fun I had there, but right now I want to do a small review and reflection of something I read while on the flight back from the UK. It is quite obvious that I get the inspiration for this blog from Rudyard Kipling’s short story about imperialism and adventure, so it might also be easy to guess that I have an interest in that period of history. One of the most famous pieces of fiction set in the era is A.E.W. Mason's The Four Feathers.
Set in the 1880s with the background of the Anglo-Sudanese war which would cost General “Chinese” Gordon his life and inspire many of our images of the British Empire in the latter part of the 19th century. The novel centers on a Harry Feversham who resigns his military commission for fear of being proven a coward, but in the end three of his fellow officers send him white feathers signifying cowardice. When his fiancé, Ethne Eustace, finds out that he wouldn’t even face the chance, she gives him a fourth feather and vows never to see him again in this life or the next. This spurs Harry to try and win back his honor so that even if they can’t be together in this life, they can in the next one. Anyhow, so Harry’s ventures into the wartorn Sudan and through the course of the book he wins his honor and Ethne back.
There are some times when you are in a situation where a book just speaks to you. If you had read it some other time, it might have just been another book, but because you feel a certain way at the time it takes on more significance. For me, The Four Feathers, hit me at a very trying time. The story of a man so afraid of the possibility of cowardice ruining his reputation that he makes a decision that creates a situation even worse than his fears and his path to redemption. I can relate to that—that’s kind of what happened to me recently and it has been causing me many sleepless nights and much grief. However, there’s a character—which I didn’t even mention and that’s Jack Durrance.
Jack is Harry’s best friend and almost is really the central character of the novel since Harry is out of it for many chapters. He is deeply in love with Ethne, who doesn’t return his affection and would prefer to die in battle. In the novel he doesn’t give Harry one of the feathers—because he doesn’t know of Harry’s cowardice. Yet even when he learns of Harry’s shame, Durrance is the only character besides LT Sutch who does not condemn Harry and is the catalyst behind the attempt to go out and rescue Harry, for the sake of their friendship and because Durrance knows Ethne doesn’t love him. Not only that, he goes out of his way to make sure Ethne doesn’t suspect that he knows this and tries to spare her from the pain of breaking off their engagement by breaking it off himself. In my mind he is a very noble and selfless character.
Let’s not look past the efforts Durrance goes through to try and save Feversham from the terrible prison in Omdurman and that he doesn’t condemn Feversham for his cowardice. Durrance is a good, valiant soldier who quickly rises to the rank of Colonel during his time in the Sudan. Durrance is prepared to face death, but instead he is blinded with no hope of regaining his sight—a fate really worse than death for such an active and vigorous young man. Not only does he deal with that with a quiet dignity and grace, he also accepts that Ethne will never love him and would be miserable if he allowed her to marry him. Also, in a slightly odd way, he’s extremely worried that because of his blindness he’ll become selfish and so he is constantly on guard against this possibility.
Here is a man who has every right to feel sorry for himself: the woman he loves is in love with his best friend, who is in mortal danger. On top of that, he is blind and unable to do the one career path which he wanted to follow and has been denied the kind of honorable death he had hoped for instead. Durrance never allows himself to be overcome with pity for his situation, but instead faces his fate with that “stiff upper lip” that the English have made so famous. Or as Pink Floyd put it: “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way.”
And really, that is what Durrance is doing. He isn’t allowing himself to wallow in pity, but no one is reaching out to him and he isn’t opening himself and his tribulations to anyone else. He is quite literally hanging on in that quiet desperation. Really, he has lost everything—his only love—he doesn’t want to marry since he’s afraid that’ll make him selfish. He’s also lost the army, his chosen career path and his sight. What can he do? His friends will be deployed and he can only be left behind. Indeed, the last line of the novel is about Durrance standing on the deck of a ship heading south, looking up (in vain) at the stars as the Southern Cross appears. While not a completely sad ending, it really is not a hopeful one for Durrance either.
Personally, I can really was touched by the story. I can relate to a man so afraid of the possibility of failing he causes an even greater problem for himself. Likewise, I admire Durrance’s courage and steadfastness, traits I wish to emulate. Durrance is a man who knows he’ll live out the rest of his life alone and sightless, but is resigned to this and faces it unflinchingly. I personally hope I can muster the same grace when I’ll have to face the world alone.
Sorry for any spoilers, but it has been out for over 108 years.