A Respectable Trade
Part of Gregory’s Historical Novels
By: Philippa Gregory
Narrated by: Adjoa Andoh
Length: 17 hrs and 26 mins
Release date: 07-30-19
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
The devastating consequences of the slave trade in 18th century Bristol are explored through the powerful but impossible attraction of well-born Frances and her Yoruban slave, Mehuru.
Bristol in 1787 is booming, from its stinking docks to its elegant new houses. Josiah Cole, a small dockside trader, is prepared to gamble everything to join the big players of the city. But he needs ready cash and a well-connected wife. An arranged marriage to Frances Scott is a mutually convenient solution.
Trading her social contacts for Josiah’s protection, Frances enters the world of the Bristol merchants and finds her life and fortune dependent on the respectable trade of sugar, rum and slaves.
Once again Philippa Gregory brings her unique combination of a vivid sense of history and inimitable storytelling skills to illuminate a complex period of our past. Powerful, haunting, intensely disturbing, this is a novel of desire and shame, of individuals, of a society, and of a whole continent devastated by the greed of others. https://www.philippagregory.com/books/a-respectable-trade
I voluntarily reviewed an advance reader’s copy of this book. No remuneration was exchanged and all opinions presented herein are my own except as noted.
This novel, originally published in 1995, is important, painstakingly researched and narrated with, I believe beautiful African accents. To be fair, I don;t know what a West Country, Bristolian accent is supposed to be, but I found it hard on my ears and thought it made the characters sound unintelligent. Perhaps, Gregory means for these characters to be unintelligent; they certainly do really dumb things like overextend their finances, borrow against other investments that are unsure, have little knowledge and understanding of the high-roller, social-climbing, business into which they are trying to enter.
And, perhaps the stupidest, and meanest thing they ever do is engage in the slave trade. They have an idea that involves marrying into the aristocracy by way of the daughter of a second son, and using her to build their social cachet. They are going to use her in a way that brings her in to close contact with a group of slaves brought into England.
To be sure, Bristol was a huge center for shipping and trade between England. I think this novel is about assumptions, about believing things you’ve been told. It’s okay to sell African slaves – Francis is told they are not human, they are savages, uncivilized. What we learn about the life of Mehuru, the best-developed character of the Africans we meet, shows they are equally, at least, as civilized. The slavers deal with them as livestock — tossing them overboard if they become inconvenient or sick. They rape them for sport.
I think it is so strange that a person, even in the 18th century, could deny the facts immediately before him/her. If one believed someone to be less than human and then had sex with them, was that person then not engaging in bestiality? I am not sure when bestiality became taboo, but to have sex with a woman, either by rape or consent, and even impregnate her and then deny that person’s humanity seems less than intelligent. Also, missionaries converted slaves; if they were not human, how could they be converted?
I would like to think what happens to the white people in this book is karma. But the other people who are just as bad prosper. These people have committed a most heinous crime, they were social climbers. They were to the people above them as animal as they considered slaves. And, married, white women were nearly enslaved: they were as property to their families and husbands.
This is also a peculiar love story where the love is totally insensible: how could a man, love the woman who owned him? And, at first, he despises everything about her. I think Mehuru realizes that Frances is not free. It is not to the same degree, but, a woman in that time and place was property of a sort bound by social norms and law.
It’s a sad book, and important. It is also ponderous, and the plot, though not as important as the history and lesson, was mostly predictable. But, in the end, I thought it was a good read, wherein I learned more about the history of Africa than I had before.