What constitutes honour?

2012-03-14 00:00

“IT is fundamental to democracy to have a free press,” says Gillian Slovo, currently chairperson of the English Pen, the founding centre of Pen International, a writers’ organisation promoting freedom of expression.

Slovo is in South Africa promoting her latest novel, An Honourable Man, but given her Pen presidency plus the fact her father was SACP/ANC veteran Joe Slovo, a minister in Nelson Mandela’s government, the pending Freedom of Information Bill was not to be ignored.

“It’s very worrying that a government that includes those who went through apartheid South Africa and know what constraints there were on information then, and the effects of those constraints, should promote a bill like this.”

The press play a key role in An Honourable Man in the person of pioneering journalist W. T. Stead. Quotations from his articles of the 1880s punctuate the text, providing a historical background to this otherwise mostly fictional tale, a tale set in motion by the departure of London doctor James Clarke as a member of the relief expedition sent to extricate General Charles Gordon from Khartoum, where he is defiantly holding out against the Mahdi.

Clarke’s marriage has reached something of an impasse that neither he, nor his wife Mary, know how to resolve. While Clarke ventures into the Sudan, back in London, Mary finds herself on a journey of her own, visiting the slums of the East End, a corner of a field as foreign as the Sudan to a member of her class. At the same time, an increasing addiction to laudanum sees her exploring the limits of her own character.

The Clarkes apart, the plot of An Honourable Man is peppered with real-life characters — Stead, Sir Garnet Wolseley, and prostitute Rebecca Jarrett, who later campaigned against child prostitution. But it is Gordon who initially sparked Slovo’s interest, and led her to write the novel. “Gordon was part of my education, part of my background, and I set out to find out more.

“He was quite crazy. An extreme evangelical Christian — he was a sect of one. But as I read and re-read his diaries, I gradually began to understand the man and I began to like him better. Here, he was on this mad imperial adventure. It was an example of the hubris of the period — the British at the time thought they could do anything. Rather like Tony Blair going into Iraq.”

Gordon was a maverick for all seasons. “He was a member of the establishment, yet he was very anti-social,” says Slovo. “On one occasion, he was invited to dinner by the Prince of Wales. You don’t say no to a royal invitation. But Gordon did. He said he couldn’t attend, as he would be going to bed early.”

The focal point of An Honourable Man is Gordon’s final months in Khartoum, when he was totally cut off from the rest of the world. The diaries he kept during this period were never recovered, thus allowing Slovo a creative gap, which she cleverly exploits. “Yes,” she laughs, “I could make it up.” But Slovo doesn’t play fast and loose with the historical record. Her only invention is young Will, an orphan rescued from the London’s dockland slums, who is with Gordon in Khartoum. “I needed Will to provide another view and another voice. To provide some relief from Gordon’s dysfunction.

“Gordon would find boys and give them a better life. Today, Gordon might have been regarded as gay. But he was celibate, and it appears he didn’t like women.”

As Gordon’s tragedy plays out to its inevitable end, so do the different trajectories of James and Mary. It would be tempting to see them as characters with modern sensibilities trapped in the 1880s, but Slovo says no, they are rooted in their time. “In the 1880s, we see the emergence of the modern. There is the beginnings of the suffragette movement, of radical politics. Here are two people in a marriage, both discontented, but in the society of the time they can’t find a way out.”

Slovo did not set out to put across a particular view of the past in An Honourable Man . “Novels are very complicated things,” she says. “When I begin, I don’t know what I want to say, but I know what I want to explore.”

So who is the “honourable man” of the title? “It’s Gordon, it’s Wolseley, it’s Clarke — all of them — the book is really about what honour is and to what extremes it can lead people.”

• An Honourable Man by Gillian Slovo is published by Virago.

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