Lost cause, lost friendship: Sabina Murray of Amherst pens historical novel, ‘Valiant Gentlemen’   

  • Herbert Ward, left, and Roger Casement, circa 1890. source: Wikipedia

  • Sabina Murray, who teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has based her new novel on the Irish humanitarian and martyr Roger Casement, who was executed 100 years ago. Kathleen Hennessy

Staff Writer
Thursday, December 22, 2016


The Easter Rebellion, the Irish uprising in Dublin in April 1916, was a bloody affair that left close to 500 people dead and another 2,600 wounded. It also ensnared some surprising figures like Sir Roger Casement, a longtime British diplomat, former African explorer and revered humanitarian who was executed for his role in the failed independence movement.

Casement, born in 1864 in Dublin to an Anglo-Irish family, had won widespread acclaim in 1904 as the author of a report documenting horrific human rights abuses in what was then the Congo Free State, controlled by Belgium’s King Leopold II. In 1911, Casement was knighted in England for his work exposing similar atrocities committed against Amazonian Indians by a British-based rubber company.

But entranced with the cause of Irish nationalism, Casement tried to enlist German support during World War I for an Irish uprising and was arrested — and British officials made public his diaries, which documented his secret life as a homosexual, to discredit him further before he was hanged for treason.

The tragic arc of Casement’s life is at the heart of Sabina Murray’s new novel, “Valiant Gentlemen,” published by Grove Press. But as the title implies, Murray’s tale is a broader one: It’s also the story of Casement’s long friendship with the Englishman Herbert Ward, a fellow African explorer and an artist who eventually fell out with Casement over his friend’s consorting with Germany.

And Murray, who teaches in the MFA program for writers and poets at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, creates a vivid third character in Sarita Sanford, an Argentinian-American heiress who marries and has a family with Ward. A smart, clear-eyed and forthright person hamstrung by the limitations women faced in that era, Sarita can see her husband’s and Casement’s relationship in ways neither of the men can.

“No one made you happier,” she says to Ward after her husband has turned against Casement. “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.”

A meaty read 

Spanning more than 30 years, and moving between Africa, Europe, the United States and South America, “Valiant Gentlemen” is a big, meaty read in the best sense, examining not just the intricacies and misunderstandings of love and friendship but a dramatic sweep of history, from the horrors of the turn-of-the-century rubber trade to the upheaval of WWI, which breaks people at home as well as on the battlefield.

It’s an historical novel but not a conventional one. There are no expository passages to outline complicated stories like the Congolese rubber trade (the subject of Adam Hochschild’s 1998 bestseller “King Leopold’s Ghost”) or the 1916 Irish Rebellion. And though several other historical figures — Joseph Conrad, King Leopold II, Irish nationalists such as Joseph Plunkett — make cameos in the book, Murray, a 2002 Pen/Faulkner Award winner, keeps the focus on her main characters and their lives.

The story begins in 1886 in the Congo when Casement and Ward, both in their early 20s, are part of an exploration expedition. Both are horrified by the brutalities they see inflicted on the natives by Belgian overseers and African mercenaries in pursuit of rubber, and they’re also drawn to one another by their interest in art; Casement is an aspiring poet, Ward an illustrator (and later a painter, sculptor and writer).

Murray also posits that Casement, from the start, feels more than friendship for the blonde-haired Ward: “Casement’s love for his friend, well, maybe it’s better that Ward should leave before Casement has to acknowledge it’s something else.” It’s a feeling that Ward will remain unaware of — or perhaps willingly blind to — all his life.

Some of the novel’s most memorable passages come from the descriptions of Africa.

“The day enters with its usual blanket of heat. Casement might welcome rain, but that would transform the path into a river, which would, in turn, give way to a mud track. And the brief relief from the insect population … [from] these torrential downpours would only offer up the intense humidity that mosquitoes love so well. One discomfort is merely exchanged for another ...”

Later, while cataloging atrocities against the native people at “some destination, some suppurating ulcer on the wall of this intestine that is the Congo,” Casement will find himself reeling from the evidence: men and women, their backs and buttocks ribboned with bloody welts from the chicotte, a whip made from hippopotamus hide; a young boy, both his hands chopped off.

Even as they remain close friends, Casement and Ward begin to follow diverging paths as the story enters the 1890s and early 1900s. Ward meets and marries Sarita, whose father is a wealthy businessman; he writes a best-selling book about his African adventures and with his newfound family money can devote himself to his art. Casement soldiers on in various overseas posts with the British diplomatic service, seeking anonymous trysts with men along the way.

There’s a certain wistfulness to both of them. Ward enjoys his creature comforts and family but envies his friend’s continued adventures and freedom. Casement is always welcomed when he visits Ward, Sarita and their children (who know him as Uncle Roddie) at their home in England, and then in France — yet those visits also heighten his loneliness, growing fatigue and sense of isolation as he tries to hide his support for Irish nationalism from his friends.

Hopeless causes

Casement is indeed a conflicted figure, in part because of his background “as one who is Irish when he’s not being British, British when he’s not being Irish, and sometimes both simultaneously.” He’s long resented the English for their arrogance, their smug put-downs of the Irish as irrational romantics who lose themselves in poetry, song and drink. Yet he’s forced to admit he’s become something of that himself — “the champion of hopeless causes,” as he puts it.

No cause proves more hopeless then his mission to Germany after WWI begins, when he tries to convince the Kaiser’s regime to support an independent Ireland by landing troops there, or at least to give him a decent supply of rifles to ship home. His health steadily waning, Casement also attempts — and fails — to recruit Irish prisoners of war to form a brigade for the uprising, and he is betrayed to the English, possibly by his current lover, Adler Christensen.

Ward, secure in his belief that the sun never sets on the Union Jack, insists on joining, at age 52, a frontline ambulance corps in France, much to his wife’s fury. Sarita is already terrified at the prospect of losing two of her sons on the battlefield; now when she considers what she sees as her husband’s adolescent need to play the hero, “all her tolerance of him ... turn(s) to acid.” Something is broken beyond repair in their marriage.

In a story that advances inexorably to a bitter conclusion — Ward would outlive his former friend by only three years, and he and his wife would lose their oldest son to the war — Murray leavens her narrative with some dry humor. Consider her description of Casement’s stop in Oslo en route to Germany in 1914 where “the Norwegians … seem propelled on their various trajectories with the express intention of not contacting another person.” A burst of laughter in a quiet restaurant, meanwhile, goes unremarked because all the diners “seem to be involved in a grim Scandinavian meditation.”

“Valiant Gentlemen” brings a past era vibrantly alive, while exploring the age-old mysteries of how people can enrich each other’s lives — and break each other’s hearts.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.