Book Review by Frances S: The Flight of the Heron is an adventure set in Scotland during the Jacobite rising of 1745-46 when Charles Edward Stuart tried to assert his claim to the throne of the United Kingdom by force of arms.
Broster’s central characters are fictitious, but the real events and people with whom they interact were painstakingly researched. A prominent ‘author’s note’ at the beginning of the book tells us that ‘for the purposes of this story a certain amount of licence has been taken with the character of the Earl of Loudoun in Part IV, Chapter V.’ This is presumably the only liberty Broster has taken with her historical facts.
The story follows the fortunes of two brave young men created by Broster: Ewen Cameron is a handsome Scottish chieftain, a passionate supporter of the Stuart cause. He is engaged to the bright and beautiful Alison; Captain Keith Windham is a professional soldier in the British army, deployed to crush the Jacobites. He is keen to advance his career and put behind him his unhappy childhood and betrayal by a woman he loved. The paths of the two men cross and intertwine as the fortunes of their respective forces ebb and flow.
According to a quotation (chosen by Broster for her title page) from As You See It, a 1922 collection of writings by ‘V’ (Mrs J L Garvin), ‘the heron’s flight is that of a celestial messenger bearing important, if not happy, tidings to an expectant people.’ Cameron and his people subscribe to this superstition; an old man with second sight has foretold that a heron will be involved in the first of five meetings between Cameron and ‘a man whose destiny would in some unknown way be bound up with mine’. Thus we have the framework for a carefully constructed novel.
When a flying Heron startles Windham’s horse, Windham is thrown to the ground and injured. Cameron comes upon the scene, and the seer’s prediction begins to come true. According to the prophecy, the stranger will do Cameron a great service, yet cause him bitter grief. And so it unfolds, as the two men – and the reader – tick off their meetings one by one. Each man has a strong sense of loyalty. But where should that loyalty lie? Cameron and Windham each save the other’s life in defiance of their military obligations. Each finds his sense of duty challenged by the appalling brutality of the conflict in which they are engaged.
Interestingly, the main military action takes place ‘off stage’, as in a Greek tragedy. We hear about the run up to, and the aftermath of, Culloden, but there is no description of the battle itself, allowing Broster to concentrate on her protagonists. According to an online appreciation by Belinda Copson, Broster wrote in a draft article that:
The clash of character is far more vital than the clash of swords; but there is no reason why one should not, so to speak, have both between the covers of a historical novel. I have always at least aimed at the conjunction of the two.
In this aim, Broster hits the mark. She also portrays the Scottish people and landscape so evocatively that it is a surprise to learn that she was born in Lancashire and educated at Cheltenham Ladies College before studying history at St Hilda’s, Oxford. This apparently came as a shock to Scottish admirers of the novel, many of whom assumed that The Flight of the Heron must have been written by a male Scot, rather than a middle-aged English woman inspired by a rainy holiday in the Western Highlands. I even came across a BBC clip from a documentary about Scottish television that featured a production of The Flight of the Heron with a narration implying that it was from the pen of either Scott or Stevenson! One hopes that this was merely a result of the way the clip was edited; the full documentary is not available to check.
Some of Broster’s strivings for authenticity can be confusing. It took me a while to get to grips with names and places. Ewen Cameron of Ardroy is variously referred to as Eoghain (when he is being addressed by a Gaelic speaker), Ardroy, Ewen and Cameron. There are liberal scatterings of Gaelic words, and ‘phonetic’ spellings of English words to indicate Highland accents; these may add to the atmosphere but can be a strain.
Cameron is the epitome of a dashing romantic hero. Broster dwells on this ‘magnificent specimen of young manhood’ in scenes that could have come straight from an Andrew Davis screenplay. We first meet him emerging naked from a swim across the loch, ‘young and broad-shouldered and glistening against the bright water and the trees of the island behind him ….. he was some inches over six feet and splendidly made’.
Windham, in contrast, with his ‘dark, rather harsh features’ is a more complex and, for me, interesting character: a flawed, disillusioned man, bored by his job, ready to argue with his superiors but conscientious in the execution of his duty until his meetings with Cameron force him to reappraise his life.
Given the historical context (and the omen of the heron), the story was never going to be heading for an all-round happy ending. Yet the tragic killing of one of our heroes saves him from what might have been for either man the worst fate, that of having to make the ultimate choice between friendship and duty. The final parting of the two men and the grief of bereavement, are movingly described.
Some readers now claim The Flight of the Heron as a gay romance. Certainly, the love story between Cameron and Alison is never centre stage. But the important element of the relationship between the two men is the way each is forced to examine his own conscience and abandon simplistic interpretations of ‘honour’. It doesn’t much matter whether their friendship is platonic, homosexual, or fraternal.
I found The Flight of the Heron enjoyable and absorbing, both for its exploration of conscience and as a historical adventure. The book is the first in a trilogy; I am not especially drawn to read on, my favourite character having, sadly, already been killed off.