Local Customs

Written by Audrey Thomas
Review by Marina Maxwell

In 1838, successful English writer L.E.L. (Letitia Landon) makes a surprise marriage to George Maclean, chief administrator of Cape Coast, and travels with him to West Africa.

Right at the outset Letitia tells the reader that within two months of her arrival she will be dead, and thus her voice is written as from beyond the grave. But this is not a supernatural tale as such. It is constructed more like a play, with the intersecting dialogue enhanced with the thought processes of Letitia, George, the Methodist missionary Thomas Freeman, housekeeper Mrs Bailey, and Letitia’s friend and admirer, Brodie Cruikshank. Letitia gives them all the impression of thriving in her new environment with her writing to occupy her, but she misses her intellectual life in London and is becoming increasingly susceptible to a malign presence lurking in the shadows.

The unusual writing style works well for the most part, but Letitia is a difficult character to grasp, as she vacillates between intense love and disdain for her husband. She has secrets in her past that may account for some of her erratic behavior, plus she suffers from some “medical problem” that can only be guessed at. George is typically stoic and gruff. Freeman is a conflicted man who disturbs Letitia’s equilibrium on religion and slavery and Brodie’s true feelings are ambivalent.

The dramatic death of L.E.L in an exotic and remote place – seemingly by her own hand with prussic acid – became a cause célèbre in its day, and various theories have been expounded on it ever since. The novel’s ending is not overt but gives enough clues as to who, or what, might have been responsible, and it may inspire readers to research the real story for themselves. Recommended for its mystery and fascinating historical setting.