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)