“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops at all—
As always, dear readers, welcome. If you don’t recognize our quotation, it’s from a poem by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886),
Number 254 or 314, depending upon the edition, written, it is thought, in 1861. Here’s the manuscript—
We don’t know about you, but we really like to read the manuscripts of works we’re fond of, especially if they’ve got things crossed out or replaced or added to. Then, it’s as if you’re actually looking over the writer’s shoulder as she/he works. Here, for instance, is the first page of John Keats’ (1795-1821) “Ode to the Nightingale”, written one spring day in 1819. You can see Keats changing his mind as he writes. (The title was changed, too, in the days between writing and printing, and we now know it as “Ode to A Nightingale”, which somehow makes it less personal to us.
But this posting is neither about nightingales or hope, but about feathers: in particular, white ones.
In 1902, the adventure novelist AEW Mason (1865-1948),
published a new novel, entitled The Four Feathers.
It was set in the 1880s, when Britain had newly conquered Egypt,
taking it from the government of Ahmed ‘Urabi (1841-1911, whom the British called “Araby Pasha”),
an Egyptian army officer who had led a successful revolt to detach Egypt from the fading Ottoman empire. As he was a nationalist, the government in London was anxious that he might threaten their control of the Suez Canal, and so an expedition was sent in 1882 to assert British dominance.
Unfortunately for their rule, there arose to the south, in Egyptian-ruled Sudan, an Islamic revivalist movement, led by Muhammad Ahmad (1844-1885), called the Mahdi, “the rightly-guided one”.
Under his leadership, the Anglo-Egyptian government was driven from the Sudan and the Egyptian governor, Charles Gordon (1833-1885), a well-known British soldier,
was killed in January, 1885, as the Mahdi’s men captured the capital, Khartoum.
The Mahdi died soon after, but his movement was continued by Abdallah ibn Muhammad (1845-1899), who called himself the Khalifa, “the successor”. Initially successful, he was eventually defeated just north of Khartoum, at Omdurman in September, 1898, by an Anglo-Egyptian army under HH Kitchener, pursued, and killed.
With this violent era as the background, the story is about Harry Feversham, a young British army officer, who, just before the 1882 attack on Egypt, resigns his commission, and finds himself attacked as a coward by three fellow officers and his own fiancée. To show their opinion of him, each presents Harry with a white feather, a traditional symbol in Britain since at least the 18th century of cowardice. The rest of the story concerns Harry’s eventually successful redemption, including going disguised to the Sudan and rescuing one of those officers who sent him a feather. By the end of the novel, one of the other officers is dead, but two of them, and his fiancée, now convinced of his courage, take back their feathers. (If you’d like your own copy to read, here’s a LINK: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/18883/18883-h/18883-h.htm )
This was not only a very successful novel (it’s still in print, over 100 years later), but was the source of an entire series of films, from the first—an American production—in 1915 (a silent, of course)
to a second, in 1921 (a British production, for which we can’t seem to locate a poster), to a third, in 1929,
which could have been an early “talkie”, but, instead, had a musical score soundtrack, but no dialogue.
After this came the one which we have always thought the best, that of 1939, which was filmed on location and was, for us, the most convincing, although, like a number of the others, it picked and chose what it wanted from the novel and moved the period from the 1880s to the mid-to-late 1890s, including a depiction of the battle of Omdurman.
Films didn’t stop there, however, as there were further adaptations, in 1955 (entitled Storm Over the Nile),
and, most recently, in 2002.
When you read the original, you know that you’re in the late Victorian/Edwardian world, where “manhood” and “courage” are all about men in red coats
proving themselves by being involved in what, to people in the 21st century, would seem like brutal colonialism. Within its own time, however, this was seen as being a story about a man full of doubts about who he was within his society, making a decision which prejudiced those he cared about against him, and who then, through taking great personal risks, found a surer sense of himself and regained the respect and affection of those who mattered to him. And that’s why, we think, not only has the novel survived, but why people keep using it as the basis of films.
But what about those white feathers as symbols?
The current theory is that the idea of cowardice is derived from the once-popular sport of cockfighting.
Supposedly, roosters with same-patterned/colored tails were better fighters, while those whose tails included white feathers were weaker. As far as we know (we’re not chicken experts), this has not been scientifically proven.
The idea of cowardice, and its symbol, however, was one which one of our favorite authors would have faced before he became a second lieutenant in 1916.
From August, 1914, members of “The Order of the White Feather” would stop a young man not in uniform in any public place in Britain and, by handing him such a little present, try to shame him into joining the army.
Considering what could have happened to anyone who, having taken that feather and then enlisted, we might disagree with Ms Dickinson about there being much hope involved.
Thanks, as ever, for reading,
And remember there’s