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Barry Unsworth returns to the terrain of his Booker Prize-winning novel Sacred Hunger, this time following Sullivan, the Irish fiddler, and Erasmus Kemp, son of a Liverpool slave ship owner who hanged himself. It is the spring of 1767, and to avenge his father's death, Erasmus Kemp has had the rebellious sailors of his father's ship, including Sullivan, brought back to London to stand trial on charges of mutiny and piracy. But as the novel opens, a blithe Sullivan has escaped and is making his way on foot to the ...
Barry Unsworth returns to the terrain of his Booker Prize-winning novel Sacred Hunger, this time following Sullivan, the Irish fiddler, and Erasmus Kemp, son of a Liverpool slave ship owner who hanged himself. It is the spring of 1767, and to avenge his father's death, Erasmus Kemp has had the rebellious sailors of his father's ship, including Sullivan, brought back to London to stand trial on charges of mutiny and piracy. But as the novel opens, a blithe Sullivan has escaped and is making his way on foot to the north of England, stealing as he goes and sleeping where he can.
His destination is Thorpe in the East Durham coalfields, where his dead shipmate, Billy Blair, lived: he has pledged to tell the family how Billy met his end.
In this village, Billy's sister, Nan, and her miner husband, James Bordon, live with their three sons, all destined to follow their father down the pit. The youngest, only seven, is enjoying his last summer aboveground.
Meanwhile, in London, a passionate anti-slavery campaigner, Frederick Ashton, gets involved in a second case relating to the lost ship. Erasmus Kemp wants compensation for the cargo of sick slaves who were thrown overboard to drown, and Ashton is representing the insurers who dispute his claim. Despite their polarized views on slavery, Ashton's beautiful sister, Jane, encounters Erasmus Kemp and finds herself powerfully attracted to him.
Lord Spenton, who owns coal mines in East-Durham, has extravagant habits and is pressed for money. When he applies to the Kemp merchant bank for a loan, Erasmus sees a business opportunity of the kind he has long been hoping for, a way of gaining entry into Britain's rapidly developing and highly profitable coal and steel industries.
Thus he too makes his way north, to the very same village that Sullivan is heading for . . .
With historical sweep and deep pathos, Unsworth explores the struggles of the powerless and the captive against the rich and the powerful, and what weight mercy may throw on the scales of justice.
On finding himself thus accidentally free, Sullivan’s only thought was to get as far as he could from Newgate Prison while it was still dark. Fiddle and bow slung over his shoulder, he set off northward, keeping the river at his back. In Holborn he lost an hour, wandering in a maze of courts. Then an old washerwoman, waiting outside a door in the first light of day, set him right for Gray’s Inn Lane and the northern outskirts of the city.
Once sure of his way, he felt his spirits rise and he stepped out eagerly enough. Not that he had much, on the face of things, to be blithe about. These last days of March were bitterly cold and he had no coat, only the thin shirt and sleeveless waistcoat and cotton trousers issued to him on the ship returning from Florida. His shoes had been made for a man with feet of a different caliber; on him they contrived to be too loose at the heel and too tight across the toes. The weeks of prison food had weakened him. He was a fugitive, he was penniless, he was assailed by periodic shudders in this rawness of the early morning.
All the same, Sullivan counted his blessings as he walked along. He had his health still; there was nothing amiss with him that a bite to eat wouldn’t put right. He would find shelter in Durham if he could get there. And there was a grace on him, he had been singled out. It was not given to many just to stroll out of prison like that. Strolling through the gates . . . His teeth chattered. “Without so much as a kiss-my-arse,” he said aloud. In Florida he had developed a habit of talking to himself, as had most of the people of the settlement. No, he thought, it was a stroke of luck beyond the mortal, the Blessed Virgin had opened the gates to him. A sixpenny candle if I get through this. Best tallow . . . He thought of the holy flame of it and tried in his mind to make the flame warm him.
He did not think of the future otherwise, except as a hope of survival. There was an element missing from his nature that all wise persons are agreed is essential for the successful self-governance of the individual within society, and that is the ability to make provision, to plan ahead. This, however, is the doctrine of the privileged. The destitute and dispossessed are lucky if they can turn their thoughts from a future unlikely to offer them benefit. Sullivan knew in some part of his mind that evading recapture would put him at risk of death in this weather, with no money and no refuge. But he was at large, he was on the move, the threat of the noose was not so close. It was enough.
An hour’s walking brought him to the rural edges of London, among the market gardens and brick kilns north of Gray’s Inn Fields. And it was now that he had his second great stroke of luck. As he was making his way through narrow lanes with occasional low shacks on either side where the smallholders and cow keepers slept during the summer months, at a sudden turning he came upon a man lying full length on his back across the road.
He stopped at some paces off. It was a blind bend, and an early cart could come round it at any moment. “This is not the place to stretch out,” he said. “You will get your limbs destroyed.” But he did not go nearer for the moment, because he had remembered a trick like that: you bend over in emulation of the Good Samaritan, and you get a crack on the head. “I am not worth robbin’,” he said.
A half-choked breath was the only answer. The man’s face had a purplish, mottled look; his mouth hung open and his eyes were closed. Across the space of freezing air between them an effluvium of rum punch came to Sullivan’s nostrils. “I see well that you have been overtook by drink,” he said. “The air is dancin’ with the breath of it over your head. We will have to shift you off the road.”
He took the man under the armpits and half lifted, half dragged him round so that he was lying along the bank side, out of the way of the wheel ruts. While this was taking place, the man grunted twice, uttered some sounds of startlement and made a deep snoring noise. His body was heavy and inert, quite helpless either to assist or obstruct the process of his realignment.
“Well, my friend,” Sullivan said, “you have taken a good tubful, you have.” The exertion had warmed him a little. He hesitated for a moment, then laid bow and fiddle against the bank side and sat down close to the recumbent man. From this vantage point he looked around him. A thin plume of smoke was rising from somewhere among the frosted fields beyond the shacks. There was no other sign of life anywhere, no human stirring. A faint sun swam among low clouds; there was no warmth in it, but the touch was enough to wake a bird to singing somewhere—he could hear it but not see it. “There is stories everywhere, but we often get only the middle parts,” he said. The man was well dressed, in worsted trousers, stout leggings and boots and a square-cut, bottle-green coat with brass buttons. “Those are fine buttons,” Sullivan said. “I wonder if you could make me iver a loan now? I am hard-pressed just at present, speakin’ frankly, man to man.”
The man made no answer to this, but when Sullivan began to go through his pockets, he sighed and choked a little and made a motion with his left arm as if warding off some incubus. His purse contained eighteen shillings and ninepence—Sullivan had to count the money twice before he could believe it. Eight weeks’ pay aboard ship! He extracted coins to the value of nine shillings and returned the purse to its pocket. “I leave you the greater half,” he said.
Again, at this intimacy of touch, the man stirred, and this time his eyes opened briefly. They were bloodshot and vague and sad. He had lost his hat in the fall; it lay on the road beyond him. His goat’s-hair wig had slipped sideways; it glistened with wet, and the sparse, gingerish wisps of his own hair curled out damply below it.
“I have nothin’ to write with an’ neither have you,” Sullivan said, “an’ we have niver a scrap of paper between us, or I would leave you a note of hand for the money.” He had never learned to write, but knew this for the proper form. “Or yet again,” he said, “if you were in a more volatile state you could furnish me with your place of residence. As things are, we will just have to leave it unsatisfactory.”
The man’s face had returned to sleep. Sullivan nodded at it in valediction and set off again along the lane. He had not gone far, however, when it came to him that he had been the savior of this man and that nine shillings was hardly an adequate reward for such a service. To rate a man’s life at only nine shillings was offensive and belittling to that man. Any human creature possessed of a minimum of self-respect would set a higher value on himself than that. Even he, Sullivan, who had no fixed abode and no coat to his back, would consider nine shillings too little. If this man’s faculties were not so much ravaged and under the weather, he would be bound to agree that eighteen shillings met the case better.
Full of these thoughts, he retraced his steps. The man appeared to have made some brief struggle in the interval, though motionless again now. His wig had fallen off completely and lay bedraggled on the bank side like a bird’s nest torn from the bare hedge and flung down there. His hair was thin; pinkish scalp showed through the flat crown. His breath made a slight bubbling sound.
“I do not want you to go through life feelin’ convicted of ingratitude,” Sullivan said. “You may take the view that death was problematical, but that I rescued you from the hazard of mutilation you are bound to agree on.” The purse was of good leather. Sullivan kept hold of it, having first restored the ninepence to the man’s waistcoat pocket. “In takin’ these shillin’s I am doublin’ your value,” he said. He was silent for some moments, listening intently. He thought he had heard the rattle of wheels. He went to the bend and surveyed the long curve of the road: no sign of anything. His eyes watered and he was again racked with cold. He clutched at himself and slapped his arms and sides in an effort to get some warmth into them. Still striking at himself, he returned to the victim of his kindness. “I had a coat once with fine brass buttons on it,” he said. “But the coat was stole off me back aboard ship on the false grounds that it was verminous, an’ the bosun kept me buttons though they brought him no luck. One I found again after twelve years through a blessin’ that was on me, but I gave that to a man who was dyin’. It is only justice that you should reinstate me buttons, havin’ saved you from injury or worse. If I had a knife about me I could snip them off, but lookin’ at it another way I am not the man to desecrate a fine coat . . . Here, hold steady.” Feeling the coat being eased off him, the man struggled up to a sitting position, glared before him for some moments, then fell back against the bank.
The coat was rather too big at the shoulders for Sullivan, a fact that surprised and puzzled him, conflicting with his sense that this encounter by the wayside was perfect in all its details of mutual benefit. “You will be a local man,” he said. “You will not have far to go. I am bound for the County of Durham, an’ that is a tidy step.” He had been unlacing the boots as he spoke. Now he raised the man’s legs to pull them off, first right, then left. The thick legs fell heavily to earth again when released. The man’s eyes were open, but they were not looking at anything. The boots fit Sullivan perfectly. He slipped his shoes on the other’s feet. “Each man will keep to his own trousers,” he said magnanimously. In fact, he had grown hasty in the lacing of his new boots, and was eager to be off. He straightened up, took his bow and fiddle and moved away into the middle of the lane. “The morning is not so cold now,” he said. “I have been your benefactor and will remember you as mine.”
No sound at all came from the man. He had slumped back against the bank. His head had fallen forward and slightly sideways, toward his left shoulder. He had the look of total meekness that the hanged possess, and perhaps it was this that brought a sudden tightness to Sullivan’s throat and made him delay some moments longer.
“At another time I would have saved your life free of charge,” he said. “You are gettin’ me off to a good start an’ I am grateful.” Still he paused, however. He had no natural propensity to theft, and there was the important question of justice. Because of him this man’s waking would be unhappy. He was owed some further explanation. “I had a shipmate,” he said. “A Durham man, name of Billy Blair. Him an’ me were close. We were pressed aboard ship together in Liverpool. She was a slaver, bound for the Guinea Coast. We took the negroes on but we niver got to Jamaica with them, we came to grief on the coast of Florida. Them that were left lived on there, black and white together. We had reasons for stayin’ where we were, but I will not occupy your time with them, as bein’ irrelevant to the point at issue. Billy sometimes talked about the place where he was born an’ about his family. He ran away to sea when he was a lad of fourteen, to get away from minin’ the coal, so he said. He was always intendin’ to go back someday, but he niver did. An’ now he niver will. I made a vow that if iver I got free of me chains an’ had power over me own feet again, I would find Billy’s folks and tell them what befell him. An’ now I am bound to it, d’ye see, I can’t go back on it because me vow was heard, the gates were opened to me.”
The hat was still lying there. He picked it up and set it firmly on the man’s lowered head. “I have spoke to you in confidence, man to man,” he said. “I am trustin’ you not to promulgate me words to any third party. An’ now I will bid you farewell.”
He walked for an hour or so in the sullen light of morning. Nothing passed him on the road and he met no one. At a junction of lanes there was a huddle of houses and a small inn. He was hungry, but he did not dare to stop. One way led to Watford, the other to St. Albans. He took a shilling from his new purse and tossed it. It came down heads. St. Albans, then.
A mile farther on he came up with a wagon setting off north with a load of shoring posts. A threepenny piece got him a place up beside the driver. As the wagon jolted along, he thought of his luck again and of poor Billy Blair and of the meekness of the hanged. After a while he slept.
1. Barry Unsworth takes his title from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice—the scene in which Portia tells the vengeful moneylender Shylock: “The quality of mercy is not strained / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven / Upon the place beneath. / It is twice blessed: / It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” Why would Unsworth reference Shakespeare’s play in his title? At what key moments in the novel does mercy prevail over vengeance? Why, for example, does Kemp decide not to apprehend Sullivan?
2. What is the effect of telling the story through multiple points-of-view—of getting inside the minds of all the main characters rather than having one perspective dominate?
3. The novel opens with Sullivan dragging a drunken man out of harm’s way, then robbing him of most of his money. He begins to walk away, but decides that he should rob the man of all his money, his boots and his coat, so that the lucky fellow will not “go through life feelin’ convicted of ingratitude” for Sullivan’s good deed. In what ways does this very humorous scene set up some of the novel’s major themes? What other characters contrive to mask their own self-interest as generosity?
4. What makes Sullivan such an engaging character? How does he interpret his sudden changes in fortune, both good and bad? Why is he so trusting?
5. What role do vows play in the novel? What motivates both Sullivan and Kemp to keep their vows? Is Jane right in saying that Kemp fulfilled his vow to his father simply by sharing it with her? How does sharing that vow affect him?
6. Sullivan says of James Bordon that he was the only one, of all those who heard the story of Billy Blair, that “had the power of sharin’. The sister was grateful an’ the others took an interest, but he was other only one could touch it in his mind.... And the reason for that, the reason for that sharin’, lies in the power of imagining’ a thing that you have niver lived through. It is the power of imaginin’ that makes a man stand out, an’ it is rarer than you might think. It is similar to the power of music” (p. 262). In what important ways is the novel about the power of sharing and imaginative empathy? How is sharing similar to music? Does Kemp acquire this power by the novel’s end?
7. Why are the former slaves and the mutinous crew of the laplander able to live more or less as equals after their shipwreck in Florida?
8. In what ways does Kemp change over the course of the novel? How does his character grow more complex as more of his motivations and his family history is revealed? What do the surprising decisions does he makes, regarding Sullivan and Michael Bordon, say about him?
9. How are the wealthy—Lord Spenton and Erasmus Kemp particularly—depicted in the novel? How do they regard those beneath them in the social order? How do they view each other?
10. Both Jane and her brother Frederick Ashton want to effect real change in the world, to abolish slavery and improve the lives of the oppressed. How do they differ in terms of their motives and strategies?
11. In a series of cynical observations about how he manipulated the jury through their fear of mob rule, the lawyer Pike thinks of Kemp: “Propriety and property, those were his guiding lights” (p. 204). How are property and propriety related? What does Lord Spenton do with the common lands once they become his property? In what different ways do Kemp and Bordon view the property of the Dene? What are the legal and moral ramifications of regarding slaves as merely another form of property?
12. What arguments do Ashton’s lawyers use to abolish the legal grounds for slavery? Why are they ultimately successful?
13. When Jane tells Kemp that she hopes Michael Bordon will keep the land Lord Spenton has given him and cultivate it as his father would have done, Kemp responds with a “smile of indulgence for sentiments that only ignorance of the world could account for”—a smile which Jane had seen on other men’s faces when she had expressed her enthusiasm for what were considered eccentric causes (p. 293). What does this subtle exchange reveal about how women were regarded in 18th century England?
14. Even though she is powerfully attracted to Kemp, Jane hesitates and considers his marriage proposal very carefully. What are her concerns? What ultimately sways her?
15. The Quality of Mercy is very much about a specific time and place, England in 1767. What is most surprising about the portrait Unsworth paints of this particular historical moment? In what ways does the novel hold a mirror up to our own times?
Posted April 25, 2012