The Truants by A. E. W. Mason (Alfred Edward Woodley Mason). 379 pages. October 1904. Harper and Brothers Publishers.
I’ve mentioned this book, The Truants, several times on this blog–mainly in noting it’s very early appearance (1904) in popular literature about the Foreign Legion. I’ve never really given it a proper review. The Truants was first serialized in twelve installments in the Cornhill Magazine from January to December of 1904 and the book was released October of that year. It has seven illustrations by American artist and illustrator William Hurd Lawrence (1866-1938). It’s British author, A. E. W. Mason, is better known for his 1902 masterpiece The Four Feathers which takes place in The Sudan during the Mahdist War (or what the British call The Sudan Campaign 1881-1889) and was made into several popular movie adaptations.
I cannot say much for large parts of this book. I read it a couple of years ago and when I skimmed through it this week I can remember why I was so tempted then to skip whole pages and move past some of it’s entangled romantic plot. It’s truly one of those turgid, breathy moralistic popular novels common to very early 1900’s. You have to read through several chapters to get to the Foreign Legion parts (page 165 to be exact). If you hang in there however, you WILL be rewarded with a great description of the Foreign Legion, Sidi Bel Abbes, and several of the Legion’s odd and compelling characters. I thought Mason did a great job hitting the right notes on the Legion’s “ethos” and it made sense why the main character, Tony Stretton, joined up. There is also some well done action sequences depicting the marauding Tuareg fighting the Legion. There is also a scene where, as it becomes clear one of the secondary characters with a mysterious past will die of fever and mental illness, Mason has the Legion Commandant, Colonel Tavernay, say “We have no reproaches, no accusations for what Barbier did before Barbier got out of the train at Sidi Bel-Abbes. That is not our affair. For us the soldier of the Legion is only born on the day when he enlists.”
I’m not very good relating complex plots in my reviews so I won’t. Overall The Truants was a decent book once you got past some of the opening chapters to where the action picks up which should be enough to entice you to read to the end. The story was apparently popular, as was the author, but the contemporary reviews of The Truants were not so good. Here are is an example from the 22 October 1904 issue of The Academy and Literature:
Mr. Mason can do better work than he has given us in “The Truants.” “The Four Feathers,” of which the present novel somewhat reminds us, was an infinitely better story. In both books we are given a man’s struggles and determination to regain his his reputation, to right himself and play the man in the eyes of the woman he loves. Both journey afar, for it seems there is nothing heroic to do in old England. Tony Stretton joins the French Foreign Legion in Algeria, and in the chapters which describe his life there Mr. Mason is at his best. “The Foreign Legion certainly did not show at its best in cantonment. Amongst that motley assemblage–twelve thousand men, distinct in nationality as in character, flung together pell-mell, negroes and whites, criminals, adventurers, silent, unknown men, haunted by memories of other days–a garrison town with its monotony and its absinthe played havoc.” But Tony Stretton had left in London his weak-willed, impressionable wife, to become the prey of an adventurer, for such we suppose was Callon, although we are not made to realise him. Mr. Mason has not handled his story to the best advantage. There was the germ of an interesting tale in the two truants who slunk out quietly every night to snatch an hour of gaiety, and the development of their characters under rigorous repression. But this story is put in the mouth of another woman, with
whose life the Strettons’ fortunes intermingle. The action of the story should have begun earlier, when the reader’s sympathies could easily have been enlisted for the gay young
couple so suddenly flung into difficulties. As it is we are not particularly interested in anyone; the characters move through the pages and say their lines automatically. Decidedly “The Truants” does not do Mr. Mason justice.
A copy of The Truants is posted below in .pdf format. It came from Google Books but I cleaned it up and added a copy of the original book cover. (Looks great on a tablet)
Your blog continues to be fascinating – full marks for turning up so much varied material. You do realise that you have all the makings of an excellent book on the popular culture of the Legion ? I’d buy a copy!
Thanks Steve, Your comments are most welcome. Compiling a book has come across my mind. Stay tuned.
Thanks for your preview (& other critics’ previews) of THE TRUANTS. It certainly puts me off reading it. I recently read THE FOUR FEATHERS which I searched for for a long time. (The fairly recent movie of it made a great impression on me, but the book was pathetic sentimentality.) It is strange that the hero is not really the central character, and the writer doesn’t bring the taking back of the white feathers to a successful, neat conclusion. His living in the desert undetected among the Moslems as a poor beggar (while still drawing on his father’s allowance!!!) is too incredible. If that press review says THE TRUANTS is not up to FOUR FEATHERS standard, then I don’t want to reead it. UNDER TWO FLAGS was similarly disappointing with too much accent (unbelievable) on the “Englishman doing the proper thing” (taking the blame and all that “honourable” sort of thing. Mind you, it was written in about 1865 when maybe that sort of sentiment was prevalent.
I would recommend downloading the .pdf and skipping to page 165 where the scene changes to Sidi Bel Abbes. It’s not too bad from there if you only want to read how the Mason integrated the Foreign Legion into his novel.
One book written about the same time as The Truants that I thought was very well done was the book A Soldier of the Legion by C. N. & A. M Williamson (1914). I reviewed this back in Feb 2011. There is a world of difference between the two novels as the Williamson work was fast paced and quite often funny and had amazingly captivating characters. (One of the legionnaires taunting the newly arrived bleus was known as “cuatro ojos” or “four eyes” not because he wore glasses but because he had two eyes tattooed to his forehead. (He turned out to be an Englishman of course).
I’ve read hundreds of vintage books and stories over the years and many (but definitely not all) of them do have that old-time moralistic, class conscious, “women are holy objects” and quite often racist/stereotypical depictions of ethnic groups. Even the old time westerns from the very early 1900’s were written in ways similar to The Truants and The White Feather. They were written in a different time for our great grandparents who expected books to be morally uplifting tales depicting men of honor and women of chastity fighting for goodness over evil, Christianity over paganism and Western civilization over barbarity (so to speak). Buried beneath these stilted layers might be a great story that captures your imagination or more often than not something that you can’t finish and leaves you shaking your head and wondering “how in the world did people live back then”?