In two of her previous historical novels, Sabina Murray used the “I” point of view to examine different eras from a personal vantage, inhabiting a character to assess shifting political attitudes from up close. In Valiant Gentlemen, she drops the “I” in favor of three distinct perspectives: Irish patriot Roger Casement, his close friend Herbert Ward, and Ward’s wife, the heiress Sarita Sanford. Using these three lives, Murray examines the last burning years of the 1800s and how they influenced the First World War, painting a broad picture of gender and sexual politics at the turn of the last century, and leaving us to ponder how we got to now.
The novel begins with Casement and Ward in the Congo, reminiscing about how they met. From the opening line—“The first time Casement sees him, Ward is turned away, working on a sketch”—Murray lays the scene for what will come to be an unrequited love between the two. On the first real adventure of their lives, the young men couldn’t be any more different. Ward is handsome and silly, with an explosive combination of pathos and charm. Casement, in contrast, is self-serious, quiet, and lacking any sexual bravado. It isn’t until later that Casement realizes, or at least acknowledges, his own homosexuality, which is sparked by a visit to a hidden club in New York and an intense encounter in an alleyway. For the next thirty years, Casement and Ward will find something to cling to in each other, even as Ward breaks Casement’s heart by refusing to return the mix of lust and love that he feels deeply, but leaves unsaid out of fear.
Valiant Gentlemen goes a long way toward examining current issues of white male privilege, sexuality, and class. Ward, a charismatic, heteronormative male, is able to traverse the world with ease, even as his eccentricities present red flags for his future wife. In one memorable scene, Ward arrives at Sarita’s house to try and win the approval of her parents. After gleefully running down a list of odd jobs he’s held and money he’s failed to find, Ward demonstrates an unusual ability to walk on his hands, a trick he learned from his days in the circus. While his prospects are dubious at best, Ward’s ability to charm allows him to access a better life with the monied Sarita. Ward is able to gorge himself on the privileges of whiteness—writing, sculpting, illustrating, travel, and the beauty of Sarita. Since he doesn’t have to shirk his artistic dreams for something more practical or financially beneficial, Ward is able to live in a bubble, apart from the clamor of the world. At a time when artists use black workers as day laborers and war threatens to blow down the doors of European homes, Ward sidesteps those realities by embracing his identity as an artist.
Murray speaks to the darker side of this privilege when Ward and Casement are in the Congo. While Casement frets over the treatment of local people, Ward indulges in the more unseemly aspects of the culture, taking advantage of the natives and purchasing a concubine. He doesn’t cage her, as the other men do, but he does assert his authority over her sexually. “Although he does not forget that she has a name, he doesn’t use it—just directs her in small ways—as if calling her by name would be a violation. He will just say please come here, and, turn this way.” By buying and raping these women, these white explorers are engaging with dark, hidden aspects of lust that they know to be wrong, but feel comfortable acting out in secret, among their own kind. “This other Ward, a slippery creature, a man who assembles his moral code around his desires, he will leave in Yambuya with whatever pitiless appetites he wishes to sate. And who’s to know?”
Ward loves Sarita, but he vacillates between needing Sarita to be close and wanting nothing to do with her. The characteristics Ward admires in his bride—stubbornness, independence, wit—are also the things that he feels give him permission to be absent, adrift, and aloof. While he may not believe, as other men on the Congo trip do, that wives just want children, and that children can make up for emotional distance and lost time, Ward is firm believer in himself and his masculinity. His constant excursions and business meetings pain Sarita, who finds herself searching for Ward and ruminating on the decisions she’s made. In Sarita we come to see the plight of early-twentieth century women. She’s not only disappointed in herself for believing that Ward would be different from other husbands she knows; she also lacks the ability to discuss it with him in an honest way. Here, Murray smartly twists the knife, as Sarita opts to keep Ward in the dark about Casement’s homosexuality so the two can remain friends. In the final pages of the novel, after Casement is outed and hanged, Sarita defends her decision, saying:
I welcomed him, even when he made me uncomfortable, because no one made you happier. No one. Not me. Not the children. And that gentle man, who got nothing out of life and just gave and gave and gave was happy enough with that, pleased enough to see that he made you smile.
If there is tragedy in the book, it’s that Casement’s sexuality overshadows his warmth and loyalty. While Ward’s double life as a public husband and private womanizer is easily accepted in his lifetime, Casement’s trysts are not. With no option but to remain closeted, Casement bears the weight of his secret, the shame it brings him, and the scar of each heartbreak that he wishes could be Ward’s doing. Ward’s bravery, braggadocio, and confidence—his masculinity—aren’t just attractive as general attributes—Casement regards them as gifts that men use to navigate the world. He loves Ward, but more than anything he wishes he could be him. When Casement runs into Joseph Conrad, Conrad looks around for a wife and children before asking, “No family?” Small, uncomfortable moments like this make Casement’s life difficult, and his Christian faith only compounds that difficulty. Although he believes in God until his last breath, Casement wishes for a God that would grant him the same courage and acceptance as a straight man. “Not all Christians are hypocrites,” he says, and yet he lives in a world full of them.
As a humanitarian, Casement rights the wrongs that are overlooked, hidden, or otherwise ignored by society. He seeks to expose cannibalism in the Congo and the flogging of Indians in Peru. He attempts to broker a deal with Germany in order to protect Ireland in the war. Despite his best efforts, Casement’s moral center doesn’t lend itself well to political maneuvering, and eventually decisions are made that implicate him in both treason and espionage against the Crown.
In dealing with Casement’s downfall and subsequent hanging, Murray raises an interesting question: Was it Casement’s politics or his sensationalized private acts that turned Europe against him? It’s conceivable that his private life added an extra level of dislike for the public, but Murray invites a certain amount of speculation as to the engine of his undoing. Ward, for example, has a falling-out with Casement over his views on England, but it isn’t until the allegations of his homosexuality come to light that Ward aggressively disavows him. The good work Casement does is overshadowed by his sexual orientation. Hero or not, he’s still an other.
Valiant Gentlemen is a novel about class, entitlement, and the secret rules that govern life. Roger Casement carouses with brutal, arguably evil men, and yet the consensual sex he has in private is viewed as being more sinful. In the closing chapter, Murray shows how much of an impact he made. Sarita, speaking with her daughter Cricket after Ward’s burial, saying, “Your father should have stuck by Casement, especially after the diaries were exposed. He should have said they were forged, but when he was called to verify them, he said it was Casement’s writing, both hand and style.” Years after his execution, Sarita still values Casement and remembers him as the man he wanted to be. One person is able to recognize him for who he was and accept it. Sarita never tries to keep Ward and Casement apart. On the contrary, she sees how much they mean to one another—how much love there is.
Eric Farwell is an adjunct professor of English at Monmouth University and Brookdale Community College in New Jersey. His writing has appeared in print or online for The Writer’s Chronicle, Esquire, Salon, The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, The Village Voice, Vanity Fair, Vice (forthcoming), and The Los Angeles Review of Books (forthcoming).