A Respectable Trade

Written by Philippa Gregory
Review by C.W. Gortner

Fans of Gregory’s phenomenally successful Tudor novels will encounter a more somber, pensive writer in A Respectable Trade. Re-issued by Touchstone, this novel set in 18th century Bristol offers a painful glimpse into the flourishing slave trade of the era, which enabled the majority of England’s enterprising merchants and the nation at large to amass fortunes at the cost of unimaginable human suffering. Rather than opt for comfortable characters and pat storylines, Ms Gregory has crafted a quiet, powerful meditation on the nature of mankind’s inhumanity toward our fellow man, and the compromises we make to excuse and obscure our choices.

Through the view points of three main characters—Frances Scott, a fragile spinster who marries beneath her rank because of penury and finds herself caught between two worlds, neither of which she fully belongs to; her husband Josiah Cole, an ambitious, morally ambivalent and gullible merchant determined to succeed no matter the cost; and Mehuru, a sage African priest who is kidnapped and brought to England in chains by the Coles—we are lured into a time of pretense and grim contradiction, where silk wallpaper and elegant ascendancy conceal the poison of avarice and near-insurmountable barriers of class, all of which have become dependent on commerce with human beings. While Josiah throws everything he has on the line for the sake of advancement in a society that despises his kind, Frances plunges into a fantastical and ultimately destructive love affair with Mehuru, whose elegant stoicism illuminates the devastation that slavery has wrought upon Africa. Threaded throughout the novel is the character of England itself—satiated on the so-called respectable trade it has perpetuated, violently divided over the torment it has caused, and poised on the edge of irrevocable change.