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Alfred Edward Woodley Mason (1865–1948)
Born in 1865 into a middle-class family, Alfred Edward Woodley Mason was destined to an unusual fate: becoming one of the most popular authors in life and being almost forgotten soon after his death (in 1948).
He was educated at Oxford and, after a few years spent acting in touring companies, he settled in London to become a playwright. Even though he wrote several plays, it was his prose which brought him real success: his second novel, The Courtship of Morrice Buckler (1896), was hailed by critics as a “classic of the decade” and the following, Lawrence Clavering (1897), was one of the bestsellers of the year.
The novel, however, which still grants him a place in the English canon is The Four Feathers, published in 1902. Mason became thus one of the greatest names of the British literary scene: his production amounts to 31 novels – including the popular detective series of Inspector Hanaud and other masterpieces like Fire Over England (1936) and Königsmark (1942) – several plays, non-fiction books, more than 20 films based on his novels and even more numerous adaptations for the stage.
Mason’s life was untiringly eventful: he was a mountaineer and a traveller and was deeply committed in the social life of his country. In 1906 he ran for parliament and was elected MP for the constituency of Coventry where he served for a term and at the beginning of the First World War he was involved in writing for propaganda together with his friend J. M. Barrie and other popular authors. But “Mason was not content to sit down and write pamphlets”: he enrolled and served first in the Manchester Regiment as infantry officer and then was sent to the Spanish coast as an undercover agent for the newly formed Secret Service.
As can be expected, this experience deeply affected the writing of Fire over England just like his exploration of Sudan in 1901 and his personal awareness of the fine line between fear and courage had been portrayed in The Four Feathers. These two novels, thanks to their popularity and their treatment of the themes of heroism and patriotism, were considered precious propaganda material and were adapted for the cinema just before the Second World War broke out.