On August 3, 1916, the British Crown hanged one of its own, a peer of the realm named Roger Casement. It is hard to imagine a more appealing or unlikely traitor. Mild and apparently selfless, tall and exceedingly handsome, Casement joined the British Foreign Service in 1892 and won international acclaim for exposing the horrors inflicted by European powers on the native peoples of the Congo (and later the Amazon). Of “the so-called heathen of Congo Free State,” Casement wrote in 1893, “imagine his own books and what they might tell us — imagine then how we might be forced to live with our disgraceful part in all of this.” The horrors that Casement witnessed, since documented in such histories as Adam Hochschild’s King Leopolod’s Ghost and Thomas Pakenham’s Scramble for Africa, were most famously evoked in Joseph Conrad’s novella “Heart of Darkness.” Indeed, Casement met Conrad in Africa: “Thinks, speaks well, most intelligent and very sympathetic,” Conrad noted in his diary in 1890. By 1913, however, Casement’s sympathies were wholly with the cause of Irish insurrection. (The son of an army officer, he was born outside Dublin in 1864 but grew up in County Antrim). In April 1916, Casement was arrested for his part in a bungled attempt to bring ashore German arms for the Irish rebels. Despite protests from prominent British and American intellectuals, he was found guilty of high treason. On the evidence of so-called “black diaries” obtained by the British government, he was also condemned as a homosexual.
Sabina Murray folds all of this and more — world war, slavery, art, economics, love, and betrayal — into her buoyant and meticulously researched new novel, Valiant Gentlemen, which spans three decades and several continents. At its heart is the friendship between Casement and the English sculptor Herbert Ward, a bond formed in Africa in 1886. “Casement and Ward are company men, once employees of the International Association of the Congo, now members of the Sanford Exploring Expedition. Both are relieved to no longer be employed by King Leopold of Belgium, but the complications of working for England in this Congo Free State — a plot marked out as one might a flower bed — now under Belgian rule, are many.” In such lucid sentences, Murray both compresses and lightens the bulky details of history and biography. An accomplished short story writer, (Casement first appeared in her 2011 story “Fish”), she can with similar grace evoke weather, landscape, or emotion in a single image. “Kingfishers hunt over the black surface of the river,” Murray writes of the Aruwimi, ” . . . then drop, dividing their reflections with a narrow splash.” And later, “The sun floods as the elephant tears the curtain of the jungle from the brilliant sky and Casement is momentarily blinded as if he is seeing not a beast but the face of God itself.” More prosaically, we learn that Casement “couldn’t sit through another tedious meeting with a company officer, still in his costume of European fat, rivulets of sweat pooling at his neckline.”
The novel’s first seventy pages are particularly taut. Covering little more than a year from 1886, they convey the sense of time stalled and of men losing their bearings. Ward, for example, tells a fellow explorer, ” ‘I had a curious dream . . . You purchased a girl for six handkerchiefs and presented her as a gift to cannibals so that you could watch her be eaten.’ ‘That was no dream,’ says Jameson.” Here monstrosity is revealed with epigrammatic coolness, or dismissed in clipped repartee — and this approach certainly moves things along. But Murray’s restraint also keeps abomination — and its victims — at arm’s length. She does not enter the consciousness of the colonized as Ilya Troyanov, for example, did in his 2006 novel The Collector of Worlds or immerse us in fetid brutality as Robert Edric did in his Congo novel The Book of the Heathen. And perhaps that’s just as well. Going deeper would have made Valiant Gentlemen a weightier book but a less entertaining epic. There is darkness here, certainly, in Casement’s brooding alienation and, to a lesser extent, in Ward’s atrophying marriage to the heiress Sarita Sanford. But the farther the novel strays from Africa the breezier it becomes, even as the First World War shatters the lives of the Ward family and propels Casement toward his doom. Later chapters contain unfortunate lapses in language and manners: characters “process” ideas, are “very much into” or “all about” this and that; they consider the “worst case scenario” and use words such as “toilet” and “hankie” that would never have passed such aristocratic lips. Which is a pity, because Murray at her best can give us this: “He’d recalled his father — who was not consistently gentle — splinting the wing of a blackbird and the derision this tenderness had earned him, although when his back was turned, from the man delivering the coal,” she writes of Casement rescuing a flogged servant. “But that was a bird and this was a man.”