In her latest and longest work to date, the much-acclaimed author Sabina Murray set out to write a “500-page meditation on colonialism.” The result is both half as intelligent and half as interesting as the phrase suggests. “Valiant Gentlemen” attempts to immerse its reader in histories both personal and political to explore relationships and revolutions in the rapidly changing world of the 19th century. Spanning several continents and decades, the storyline of “Valiant Gentlemen” has the potential to develop into a gripping literary narrative and discussion of colonialism and conquest in Africa and South America; instead, Murray delivers a light, readable novel that—while occasionally entertaining—stops short of becoming something truly powerful. Murray’s style lets down the potential of her content; despite her strong ability to develop memorable characters, her narrative often falls victim to an overabundance of context, a cloying sentimentality, and an underdeveloped prose style.
Set in 1886, “Valiant Gentlemen” is a fictionalized retelling of the 30-year friendship between Herbert Ward, an English explorer and artist, and Roger Casement, an Irish-born diplomat and humanitarian activist. The two met as young men in 1884 while working for the Sanford Exploring Company in what was then known as the Congo Free State (the Belgian-controlled forerunner of today’s Democratic Republic of Congo). A teenage runaway, Ward had held a variety of oddball jobs even before his stint in Africa—coal and gold miner, stock-rider, and circus performer—after which he went on to marry Argentinian heiress Sarita Sanford and have a successful career as an artist in Europe. Casement came from a poor family in Ireland but managed to carve out a career in diplomacy as an agent of the English government after working for commercial interests in the Congo. After years in the diplomatic service, he compiled reports on the Belgian abuse of natives in the Congo and the rubber enslavement of Peruvian Indians, which had wide-reaching impacts on the cultural dialogue surrounding imperialism in the United Kingdom (and were later immortalized in James Joyce’s “Ulysses”). Despite his early work for the British, Casement later became a fervent Irish nationalist and spent much of his later life working to further the goal of Irish home rule.
The book’s redeeming quality is Murray’s charismatic sketches of these historical figures. Murray develops these larger-than-life characters into believable, likeable people—a technique that is essential in a story that progresses over several hundred pages. The only way to draw a reader into a book as long as this one is to create characters power enough to drive a complex plot; there is no room for weak or ineffectual characters because their personalities are sustaining the work. It also is no small feat to convince a reader to sympathize with men and women whose motivations are linked to long-dead political causes and a world long since past. Few writers are able to make a modern reader feel connected to the interior life of a minor figure of the Irish Home Rule movement or interested in the politics of the Belgian Congo.
Her style, however, has an irritating quirk—it seems to analyze the action of the plot as it unfolds. It does not simply present its ideas and characters to the reader but also, annoyingly, tells the reader what to think about them: “Ward is going to have to get used to it, because marriage is all about the person in the other room, or the other person in the same room, the other, who, like a volcano, can threaten to explode across one’s landscape.” Making this comparison outright is not an awful way to get the point across; but a more sophisticated approach would be to write the novel well enough that the parallel between volcanoes and marriages comes to the reader without outright suggestion.
Another problem in “Valiant Gentlemen” is Murray’s orientation of the reader to somewhat obscure elements of European history. One of the drawbacks to telling a story as deeply rooted in history as this one is that the plot requires an enormous amount of context. The background information inserted into otherwise complete paragraphs of prose reads awkwardly; it throws off the flow of the narrative when a phrase explaining the factional violence in Africa suddenly makes an appearance within a description of a spring day. Maybe this slightly sloppy technique is a necessary evil for keeping the narrative rolling when the author aims to discuss so much; Murray covers an extensive amount of historical material as the story follows colonization attempts in Africa and South America, as well as the swift unraveling of Europe as World War I approaches.
Despite its length, the plot of “Valiant Gentlemen” possesses an exciting momentum from the beginning: From one moment to the next, Ward’s and Casement’s adventures become transporting as Ward and Casement hunt elephants, escape cannibals, and negotiate with world powers. But the story wanders away from the adventurous into the overly sentimental from time to time. Murray’s writing is the weakest in the narrative’s most emotional moments. At an early emotional climax in the book, Ward finally realizes the depth of his attachment to Sarita Sanford. The realization comes to him as he watches her play with her young nephew in the park, skipping and pretending to be a horse: “Ward hadn’t been in love with her. He had appreciated her, like a well-sighted rifle or an excellent wine. Maybe it was seeing her gallop down the street, unconcerned.” As this excerpt makes clear, this novel hits its high points when it tries to deliver action and adventure; when Murray wanders into the realm of the emotional, things quickly become maudlin.
The worst thing one can say about this book is that it is somewhat mediocre, both in terms of style and content. Nothing in it is daring enough or of a high enough quality to earn it the title of being “literary”—it is essentially a really long beach read. There is nothing wrong with a novel being accessible or fun; however, the concept of beach reading is simply incompatible with the length of this work. The time invested in this novel demands a greater reward than it delivers. “Valiant Gentlemen” is no masterpiece, and maybe writing a masterpiece wasn’t the author’s intention. But all one can get out of it is an adventure yarn, no more and no less.