Valentine Grey-Sandi Toksvig
gender: F, queer
London 1897 and a young girl, Valentine Grey, arrives in England. She's been brought up in the remote and sunny climes of India and finds being forced into corsets and skirts in damp and cold country insufferable. The only bright spot: her exciting cousin, Reggie. Reggie, and his lover Frank seek out the adventure the clandestine bars and streets of London offer and are happy to include Valentine in their secret, showing her theatre, gardens - even teaching her how to ride a bicycle.
And then comes the Boer War and Reggie's father volunteers him; the empire must be defended. But it won't be Reggie who dons the Volunteer Regiment's garb. Valentine takes her chance, puts on her cousin's uniform, leaving Reggie behind and heads off to war. And for a long while it's glorious and liberating for both of the cousins, but war is not glorious and in Victorian London homosexuality is not liberating . . .
I rather enjoyed reading it but I didn't particularly want to write about it because I didn't particularly want to dwell on its flaws. That I enjoyed it was clear-I literally read this in a day, leaving aside other things I sort of wanted to do.
There's a slow burn to this novel as the characters of Reggie and Valentine are developed into clear characters that you'll probably like. The writing is evocative of the era with the nameless servants sweeping through the house and the crude soldiers at each other's backs and the theatre.The war is suitably horrible. The tragedy of Reggie and Frank is suitably horrible. This is a book about war. The overt one is the Boer War but it's also about how those attitudes embodied by the Boer War were everywhere held against women, people of color, people from the lower classes, gay people, and basically anyone who wasn't an upper-class hetero white male. But there is a lightness to the writing that makes this not a dark book though it deals with dark and heavy realities.
However, the flaw is...and unfortunately for me it's a bit of a big one. Valentine is too perfect. She's too self-aware in a 21st century kind of way. She's a feminist who wouldn't be out of place in today's feminist movement. A lot of the suffragists were not class-conscious. A lot of the communist writing of the time was somewhat homophobic. Valentine was all of these things-anti war, sexuality equality, feminist, economically radical, and authority criticizing. Her attitudes are bit unreal seeming for her time so that her courage was also somewhat unreal. I enjoyed the strong female lead but she's a strong woman who sounds like she could be from our time. It was almost fairy tale like and there was nothing included in the book to suggest that she was modeled after a real woman. So, I read this book as a sort of alt-universe kind of narrative...which is probably not Toksvig meant.