The Way of an Eagle

February 7, 2011

I’d been putting off reading Ethel M. Dell’s The Way of an Eagle since early 2006. Partly because it sounded kind of dull, I guess. Partly because I was worried that it would be full of rape fantasies like E.M. Hull’s The Sheik. And, sure, it’s not feminist literature or anything, but I found it charming, in a disturbing kind of way, and I’m sorry I put it off for so long. Yes, there’s a helpless, slightly dithery young woman, but she’s only helpless and dithery in fairly trying situations. Other times, she likes to play hockey. And yes, the hero is powerful and commanding and all that, but he also looks like a monkey and is slightly insane (Dell repeatedly describes him as looking like a monkey. The insanity I figured out on my own.) Also, the heroine is scared of the hero, which is not as sexy as many romance writers seem to think. But when you factor in Nick Ratcliffe’s slight case of insanity, it seems perfectly reasonable. Apparently there’s a new trend in treating Alzheimer’s where the doctors just let the patients do whatever weird thing they want to do, and that calms them down. This book is a little bit like that.

We’re first introduced to Muriel Roscoe and Lieutenant Nick Ratcliffe at a fort somewhere in India. She’s the daughter of the Brigadier-General commanding the fort, and he’s one of the other three white officers present. They’re under siege, they’re not going to be able to hold out much longer, and Muriel’s father is worried. Not so much about dying — he’s pretty much fine with that. Really what’s bothering him is the conviction that once the rebels invade the fort, Muriel will be raped. So he asks that one of his officers volunteer to protect her. All of them are willing to die for her, so that’s not an issue, but only Nick Ratcliffe is willing to kill her if necessary, so the Brigadier chooses him. This is, to say the least, a little bit crazy. But in the alternate universe in which Dell’s novel takes place, it means he loves her.

Muriel, meanwhile, has been locked into a room in the middle of the fort. This does keep her safe, but it also means that the only indication she has of what’s going on outside are the screams and the shooting, so mentally she’s not in great shape, and by the time her father entrusts her to Nick Ratcliffe, she’s gotten a bit addicted to opium. This actually has no bearing on the rest of the story — except, I suppose, in that it gives her a good excuse for being a nervous wreck — but it’s sort of entertaining.

Muriel is not particularly happy to entrusted to Nick — I mean, she’s not stupid, and Captain Blake Grange is a lot nicer, especially since it’s not yet evident that he’s a bit of a wimp — so Nick drugs her and carries her out of the fort on his back while Muriel’s father is on his deathbed. So: he looks like a monkey, he has a creepy grin, he’s kept Muriel from her dying father, he’s drugged and kidnapped her, and he’s sworn that he’s capable of killing her. And that’s all before he scares her half to death by murdering someone in front of her. Of course, the guy he murders was trying to kill (or rape) Muriel, but still. It’s hard to blame her for not liking him very much.

They’re only out there for a couple of days before they find a bigger chunk of the British Army to fall in with, and then they go to Simla to recover. Muriel is placed in the care of Lady Bassett, the extremely irritating wife of her guardian, while Nick, who has almost starved to death, stays in the hospital for a few weeks before resuming his usual activity of running around cackling to himself. I know I said he was just slightly insane, but forget that: he’s totally, totally nuts. I really like him. Anyway, as soon as he’s able, he calls on Muriel and asks her when she wants to get married. She’s a little startled at first, but when she’s not overcome by a nauseating wave of aversion, she mostly feels pretty friendly towards him, so she’s like, “Sure, why not?”  Lady Bassett is pleased because she feels that Nick saving Muriel’s life constitutes a compromising position, and Nick is pleased because he’s madly in love  with Muriel (and when I say “madly,” that’s not just for effect), and Muriel is pleased because once they’re engaged Nick introduces her to his friend Daisy Musgrave and she finally has someone to talk to. Unfortunately for, I suppose, everyone involved, Muriel overhears Lady Bassett and some of her friends talking about what a pity it is that he’s obliged to marry her just because they spent two nights camping out together, and Muriel has a fit of pride and breaks off the engagement. Nick has a fit of something, too — wrath, I suppose — and frightens her into being glad she’s done it.

Daisy has to return to England because the climate is bad for her and her infant son, so she brings Muriel with her and they settle down within shouting distance of Nick’s brother, who is a gruff but kindly doctor, with, I think, several children, although only teenaged Olga is ever mentioned by name. Muriel begins to regain strength and peace of mind, and, as I mentioned, joins the hockey team. Daisy doesn’t do so well. Her son keeps getting sick, for one thing, and she’s also got a romance of her own to thinking about. She’s married to Will Musgrave, who seems pretty great, but he’s in India, and her cousin Blake Grange — one of the guys who didn’t want to kill Muriel — is in England, and he’s the one she’s really in love with. They had wanted to get married when they were young, but their family had been a little grossed out by the fact that they’re first cousins, and hadn’t allowed it. And then the baby dies, and Daisy isn’t really all that fond of will, and Blake is just there, being all hulking and masculine, and even though he’s also a bit useless, Daisy knows and loves all of his faults in a way that’s a little bit tragic and a little bit maternal. And then Blake gets engaged to Muriel, because she wants someone to protect her from Nick, who is coming home minus an arm. Have I mentioned that this book is delightful?

After that, it’s all Nick telling Muriel that she’s in love with him and Muriel being alternately frightened and intrigued by him, and there’s one tragic death and two dangerous illnesses and then most of the cast is transported back to India so Daisy can try to patch things up with her husband and Nick can run around in disguise, because that’s the kind of sense of humor he has. And somewhere in there, Muriel finally gets a handle on how to handle Nick, and the whole thing ends pretty cheerfully. It’s endearing and hilarious in equal measure, as well as being, you know, deeply worrying. I recommend it unreservedly.


  1. Okay, I have always meant to read an Ethel M. Dell book and never got around to it. When I started reading your review I decided I definitely didn’t want to read this book, but by the end of the review I changed my mind. So I have started it (just the first chapter). So far it’s only said his EYES are like monkey eyes . . .

    • Soon you will find that his movements are like monkey movements and his wrinkled yellow face is like a monkey face.

  2. I once spent a melodramatic week reading all of her available stuff–mostly thoroughly annoying, but weirdly fun , Charles Rex was decent.
    Incidentally if you’re a Wodehouse fan a lot of his works hold references to her,like the soppy novelist-ROsie M. Banks

  3. So Charles Rex is the one you would most recommend? It’s hard to tell from just one book, but I think Dell’s ridiculousness is my favorite kind.

    I do remember Wodehouse’s stories with Rosie M. Banks — doesn’t she marry one of Bertie Wooster’s friends? — and I’m probably going to have to reread them now.

  4. Bingo Little..

  5. Read this but found it too confusing to have all the characters obstinately clinging to wildly different sets of social rules that existed only in their heads. I don’t understand the setup to begin with: why couldn’t Muriel shoot her own damn self? Is suicide somehow less ladylike than being shot by one of your father’s lieutenants?

    • Oh, they’re all nuts, for sure. The only rationalization I can think of for Muriel not being allowed to shoot herself is that she’d have to know why she was shooting herself, and she’s definitely too ladylike to have that explained to her.

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