Valiant Gentleman (2016) by Sabina Murray: Roger Casement’s unrequited love

A penetrating, memorable contemplation of relationships, loyalty and betrayal

The statue of Roger Casement in Dún Laoghaire. Photograph: Peter Cavanagh

The statue of Roger Casement in Dún Laoghaire. Photograph: Peter Cavanagh

 

Roger Casement is a major figure in modern Irish history. But before his ultimate sacrifice for his country in 1916, he had established an international reputation as a humanitarian for his exposure of human-rights abuses in the Congo and in South America. It’s not surprising that he’s inspired a number of novels, among the best of which is Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Dream of the Celt, but that is largely closely based on the facts of Casement’s life, with fictitious elements added on. 

Sabina Murray’s treatment is very different and explores the relationship between Casement, the British sculptor Herbert Ward – who was Casement’s closest friend from his Congo period – and Ward’s wife, the Argentinian- American heiress Sarita Sanford. The story takes us through Casement and Ward’s misadventurous young manhood in the Congo, Ward’s courtship of and marriage to Sanford and their happy married life in France, and Casement’s covert homosexuality and nomadic lifestyle, involving his work in the Congo and South America and his involvement in Irish nationalist activities. 

Murray makes Ward the great unrequited love of Casement’s life; Ward is oblivious of such feelings but, intriguingly, Sanford becomes aware of and accepts them. She develops a deep understanding of Casement and hers is the moral, imaginative, empathetic and sympathetic perspective through which we see the novel’s main events.

The friendship lasts almost three decades but is destroyed when Ward and Casement find themselves on opposite sides during the first World War. Casement “is built of a tough exterior and a tender middle, his constitution only remarkable by the extent to which his inner life is kept secret”. His inner life involves homosexuality and an allegiance to Ireland that bewilders Ward, who arrogantly belittles Casement’s Irishness as “some degraded form of Englishness”. 

The break-up of the friendship is tragic for all involved (Ward named his youngest son Roger Casement Ward but changed it to Rodney Sanford Ward after Casement’s execution), and the excellent narrative keeps us riveted to the very end.

A few anachronisms jar, but this is a penetrating and memorable contemplation of relationships, loyalty and betrayal.

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