The Way of an Eagle by Ethel M. Dell (1912)

Review by A Reading Group Member:

In a beleaguered fort, amidst the Himalayan foothills, during the height of the British Empire, young languorous Muriel faces the prospect of death by resorting to opium. She is rescued by the irreverent Lieutenant Nick Ratcliffe, who appears to Muriel to lack the stature and nobility for such a role. During the course of a harrowing flight through the mountains, Nick reveals his underlying resourcefulness and willpower, an almost feminine gentleness in his care of Muriel and an eagle-like ferocity during a death struggle with a tribesman. Such a combination of jester, knight, nurse and devil both intrigues and alarms Muriel. Fear finally gains the ascendancy on her return to mainstream society and she withdraws from Nick and his proposal of marriage. Against backgrounds of exotic India and rural England, emotions overflow in the face of Nick’s demonstration of ‘ resolve ‘ in his wooing of Muriel and her increasingly active avoidance of him. This story, regarding the redemptive qualities of love, requires the hectic traversing of a series of climactic events before, predictably, protagonist and antagonist become one.

‘The Way of an Eagle’ was Ethel M. Dell’s first book. It was published in 1912 after 8 previous rejections but by 1915 it had gone through 30 reprintings. The book was made into a film by G.B.Samuelson in 1918. Its continuing popularity, the latest reprint being in 2007, suggests that the story has touched a chord with its readers. Though critics have disliked her work intensely, Dell has consistently ignored them, regarding herself as a good storyteller.

The book is certainly based upon an archetypal storytelling structure. Thus a protagonist, the fragile and feminine Muriel, is introduced. Youth is emphasised in terms of a dependency on her Brigadier-Father and a romantic attraction to the Adamic Captain Grange, in contrast to her ultimate rescuer, the serpentine Lieutenant Nick Ratcliffe. The emergence of Nick as an antagonist, rather than, say, an irritant, stems from his deadly fight with a tribesman during their escape across the mountains. The ‘uncivilised’ savage ferocity revealed by Nick in this incident initially fascinates and frightens Muriel, a ‘Tyger Tyger burning bright’ mug shot of human nature, in effect. However, during a recuperative return to society, the disorder inherent in Nick begins to threaten Muriel. ‘Nick’ or passion is now fully the antagonist.

Flight back to edenic England follows, in the hope of refinding formalistic security. But Nick can’t be so easily exorcised. Reappearances, with a now longer term approach to wooing, causes Muriel to seek protection within the aura of the simple, placid, Herculean Captain Grange [to the extent of becoming engaged to him]. However, the effort involved in avoiding Nick, in favour of equanimity, begins to undermine this safe preserve. For instance, she starts to become somewhat irritated by Captain Grange’s flatness of affect. In short, the intensity of her defensive tactics is drawing her into the very territory she fears so much. Indeed, a taste for unbridled passion begins to emerge in her enjoyment of the furore of a stormy night. Thus stasis gives way to kinesis and the storyline becomes one of redemption.

Whilst a series of clarifications regarding Nick’s interventionist behaviour brings a realignment of her outlook [and an end to marriage plans with Captain Grange] it takes a crystallising event to catalyse the leap Muriel needs to make if she is to fully side with Nick. This occurs back in India when Nick [now one-armed and dressed as a beggar] is having difficulty trying to foil an assassination attempt and Muriel impulsively rushes to his assistance. In so doing she abandons the ‘beaten track’ and her reserve [given the form of marble steps leading from a Palace where a Ball is taking place] for Nick’s struggle [in the dust and shadows]. Through instinctively seeking to protect Nick she becomes liberated and whole. The conflict is over. The denouement takes the traditional form of living happily ever after. Thus Muriel embraces the change of attitude needed if she is to find fulfilment.

Within this initial framework, pace is heightened by short chapters, frequently with ‘cliff-hanger’ endings. This is reminiscent of the American serial films produced for Saturday matinees in the 1950’s as well as of traditional storytelling. Yet, at the risk of taking this approach to writing more seriously than the Saturday matinees, the momentum the book seeks to generate is undercut by an unnecessary drift in the narrative. For instance, the central romantic relationship seems askew. Though Muriel’s father knew and approved of Nick’s love for Muriel, she had no idea. Nor did Nick ever make his intentions clear in this respect, in spite of the days and nights they spent together on the mountains. When he does make his sudden proposal of marriage, it is at a time when Muriel is feeling particularly isolated, vulnerable and grief stricken [over the death of her Father]. Is this the alpha male approach? A possibly more effective or even humane approach to ‘wooing’ would have first sought to promote some common ground from which to advance a proposal. But would that be escapist fiction of the kind wanted by Dell’s readers?

Later, after having finally uncovered that it was the realm of savage passion that had precipitated Muriel’s withdrawal from Nick, Dell then has Nick declare that such fear relates to a woman’s inability to reverse out of cheating! Presumably Dell is suggesting here that ‘reserve’ or ‘reticence’ is a form of emotional dishonesty. In other words, Muriel’s denial of her own depth of emotion is being demonstrated by her resistance to being carried off by Nick. Subsequent dismissive responses by Nick to Muriel’s attempts at a docile rapprochement and his continual clarifications of her motivations lay the groundwork for her ultimate submission. Thus the orientation of the change Muriel needs to embrace emerges: Masterful complex male swoops on fluttery fearful female who initially resists, before fear gives way to passionate submission. Is this the underlying fantasy that is fuelling the fiction?

Such an approach to romance is compounded by a susceptibility to lurid overwriting and an overblown style. For instance, when Muriel’s Brigadier-Father asks his Officers who would be prepared to shoot his daughter rather than let her fall into the hands of the enemy,

‘The question quivered through the quiet room as if wrung from the twitching lips by sheer torture. It went out in silence – a dreadful, lasting silence in which the souls of men, stripped naked of human convention, stood confronting the first primeval instinct of human chivalry’ [6]

Emotions in general throughout the book emerge in lurid technicolour. Thus Muriel’s ultimate declaration of her love for Nick takes the following climactic form:

 ‘The tumult of her emotions swelled to sudden uproar, thunderous, all-possessing, over-whelming, so that she gasped and gasped again for breath. And then all in a  moment she knew the conflict was over. She was as a diver, hurling with headlong velocity from dizzy height into deep waters, and she rejoiced – she exulted – in that mad rush into depth’ [354]

This kind of colouring leaves no room for irony and self-consciousness. Characterisation remains stereotyped with no development. The underlying theme appears to be the promotion of love and monogamy, though based on a relationship characterised by passion and fear. A supplementary theme emerges when Nick declares the value of ‘resolve’…of never giving up.

‘The harder the going it is, the more likely you are to win through if you stick to it. But directly you slack, you lose ground…It’s sheer pluck that counts…to go on fighting  even when you know perfectly well you’re beaten…if you want it bad enough…it becomes the great essential…And you get it for that very reason’ [169-170]

Again one has to wonder at the apparent redundancy of two person relationship building in such literature. Even the aesthetic of consensual ‘swinging’ or partner swopping seems ‘grey’ in comparison with this notion of love and marriage.

Such operatic glamour may well have compensated for drab domestic monotony and paralysing work routines. David Selznick’s film ‘Duel in the Sun’ [1946] , a similarly florid melodrama, was hated by the critics and popular with the public. Both book and film met an appetite for a type of escapist fiction that continues to this day. Though as vulnerable to camp affection as to literary criticism in terms of its ‘over the top’ approach, what ultimately appears to ensure its enduring appeal is both its story structure and the sincerity with which it was produced.

Though I doubt if I   would read another one of Dell’s books I found it exerted a ‘Ken Dodd’ effect on me. Thus the relentless and fevered onslaught of ‘excess’ eventually broke down my reserve, leaving me smiling at its ‘Disney’ ending, onside with Dell [momentarily].

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