BRIAN BRINDLEY enjoys reading about a Victorian scandal
A Question of Honour: The Life of Lieutenant General Valentine Baker Pasha, by Anne Baker. Pen and Sword Paperback, £12.95 DEAD SCANDALS, according to Byron, "form fit subjects for dissection." The nineteenth century was richly repaid for its prudery some would say hypocrisy in sexual matters by a series of causes cilthres that laid bare the sordid underside of polite society. There was the arrest in 1815 of General Sir Eyre Coote for his grotesque behaviour at Christ's Hospital school; the deprivation in 1820 of the (Anglican) Bishop of Clogher after an unseemly incident above a tavern in St James's; the trial of the fashionable transvestites Boulton and Park; the probable murder of Charles Bravo, which brought to light the professional misconduct of Dr Gully; the strange case of Lord Henry Somerset who according to his wife, "invented a sin not in the Bible"; the goings-on in Cleveland Street, peripherally involving a member of the Royal Family; various sensational divorce cases; the cohorts of landowners and literary men who, according to their obituarists, "had to live permanently abroad", culminating as the century
drew to a close in the case of Wilde v. Queensberry, with its unhappy aftermath.
The downfall of Colonel Baker is described on the cover of this book as "the scandal that rocked Victorian society," and so it did; the incident itself was a comparatively trivial one, its consequences drastic.
The first thing we need to know about Valentine Baker is that he was a brilliant and innovative cavalry officer, who gave great assistance to the British Army in getting itself back in order after the disasters of the Crimea. The second thing to know is that he spent the last ten years of his life as "Baker Pasha", in the service of the Ottoman Empire, dying in Egypt and being buried with full military honours in Cairo.
The third thing explains the disjunction between the beginning and the end of his career: on a sunny afternoon in August 1875 Colonel Baker boarded a train at Liphook, getting into the same compartment as Miss
Rebecca Dickinson; somewhere between Woking and Esher Miss Dickinson opened the door of the compartment (there was no corridor) and appeared, calling for help, on the running-board. She accused the colonel of repeatedly trying to kiss her; he found himself charged with attempted rape, indecent assault, and common assault. He was found Not Guilty of the first charge, Guilty of the other two, and served 12 months' imprison ment.
century was impossible to know exactly what happened that day: Baker, while insisting on his innocence, honourably forbade his Counsel to cross-examine Miss Dickinson. It is not unlikely that Baker misunderstood her response to his gallantries and oared a kiss, and that one thing led to another. For her it was, to be sure, an alarming experience; for him it was an utter disaster. The facts have a familiar ring to those who have studied the newspapers over the richly repaid for its prudery by a series of causes celebres that
laid bare the sordid underside of polite society
last few years. Anne Baker dedicates her book to the memory of her "dear husband Valentine Edward Baker" so she is presumably a connection by marriage of the Pasha; she writes as an enthusiast, her enthusiasm being for the honour (not inconsiderable) of the Baker family. She has read extensively, and done original research, in preparation for writing this book; but she does not cumber her text or trouble her readers with exact references; she adopts a chatty style, with many surmises and references to family tradition.
Terence Rattigan used to say that he wrote his plays to please an imaginary "Aunt Edna" and no harm in that, say I. Mrs Baker writes for what I venture to call "the ideal Mrs Baker", an educated woman, that is, perhaps the daughter or wife of a military man, who wishes to be well-informed about the British Army, mid-Victorian society, and middle-eastern military history, but who is primarily keen to have "a good read" and is impatient of too many footnotes. The publishers have got someone (uncredited) to draw really useful and beautiful maps. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, and learned a lot from it all that I need to know on the subject.