Daily Archives: February 7, 2014

Review of Valentine Grey by Sandi Toksvig


When Himself waved this under my nose, I rolled my eyes and muttered about yet another third-class offering by some celeb. But he insisted that it wasn’t anything of the sort – said it was about the Boer War and deserved my attention.

London 1897 and a young girl, Valentine Grey, arrives in England from India. She finds the damp and cold country insufferable and the only bright spot is her exciting cousin, Reggie. He and his lover, Frank, seek out adventure in the clandestine bars and streets of London, and are happy to include Valentine in their secret. And then comes the Boer War. But it won’t be Reggie who dons the Volunteer Regiment’s garb. Valentine takes her chance, puts on her cousin’s uniform, and heads off to war…

The blurb sets the initial backstory and while enjoying Toksvig’s smooth, readable prose, I had sort of settled down for an account of derring-do by our gutsy heroine. To be pleasantly surprised – the book is a whole lot more interesting than that. Toksvig has clearly done her homework on the sheer, brutal pointlessness of the Boer War campaign. Typically, the Brits had gone into the conflict with the wrong equipment for the climate and the haziest notion of exactly what they were hoping to accomplish tactically (sound familiar, anyone?) and the full impact of the whole mess fell onto the hapless recruits and the wretched civilians who happened to be in their path. Hopefully no one will think we’re into Spoiler territory if I just mention that it doesn’t end well…

valentineToksvig’s account of Valentine’s military adventures are gripping, occasionally farcical to the point of humour – and graphic in their depiction of the wretched conditions endured. In addition to following our protagonist, we also get an insight into the fortunes and fates of her messmates – Toksvig is effective at penning appealing, realistic characters who bounce off the page and into the imagination. The other main plotline follows the fortunes of the charismatic Reggie and his lover Frank. Again, I hope that I’m not giving too much away if I let slip that this doesn’t end well, either…

Toksvig’s examination of how Victorian society handles minorities, such as women, homosexuals and blacks is drearily familiar. I’d like to be able to report that it came as a complete shock – but it didn’t, chiefly because many of those attitudes are still all too prevalent. What I did find impressive and unexpected, was her acknowledgement of the role of women within the home and the extent of the ‘soft power’ exerted at that time. Valentine lives with her aunt and uncle in an efficient, if rigidly controlled household – until her aunt dies in a tragic accident. The household immediately falls apart – much of the subsequent damage to the family continues because Valentine’s uncle is unable to step into his wife’s shoes and take over, with several of his subsequent decisions being disastrous.

This is often the elephant in the room when gender issues are raised – and I am all for women taking their place alongside men in the public domain and regard myself as a feminist. But what happens to the domestic sphere when women’s energies and attention are directed elsewhere? Toksvig doesn’t provide any answers – to be honest, I haven’t seen anyone satisfactorily do so… But at least she is courageous and honest enough in her writing to pose the issue. In fact, it is this quality of honesty that shines through this particular novel – it would have been so easy to have put a gloss on several of the issues she raised. It is, after all, fiction. But the fact that she didn’t means that this book packs a punch well above the average historical novel – and despite her celebrity status, I will be looking out for other books by her. Toksvig may be well known for her other achievements, but she is also an accomplished, interesting novelist.