Walter Scott Prize: The Quality of Mercy

Richard Lee, Felice, Mij Woodward


Barry Unsworth’s The Quality of Mercy: when the Historical Novel tackles the ‘big issue’

Barry Unsworth has been shortlisted for the Booker prize three times, and won it once (in 1992, with Sacred Hunger – shared with Ondaatje’s The English Patient). Two of his novels have been filmed – Pascali’s Island and Morality Play (the movie title of Morality Play was The Reckoning, and it stars Paul Bettany and Willem Dafoe).

The historical novel isn’t shy of big subjects. There is a sense in which we revisit the past to try to come to terms with its alienness. So, for example, Unsworth is purposely revisiting a time of slavery, of child labour, of brutal poverty and trying to recreate the mindset. What characters do in these times is monstrous to us, but the characters are not monsters – at least, not to themselves – and their world does not treat them as monsters. This kind of novel often centres on remarkable people. Robert Graves’ I Claudius tries to understand just how the most powerful Romans could be so brutal within their own families. Conn Iggulden’s Conqueror series asks how one man, Genghis Khan, could destroy a world. Equally it can centre on remarkable events. Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders takes the year that the plague came to Eyam, and asks how the parish and particularly its priest can ever believe in God’s mercy again. Ken Follett also writes in this vein. Pillars of the Earth asks how a simple community in the throes of civil war can build such a beautiful cathedral; or in A Dangerous Fortune, what is the fall-out when a bank goes bust?

This time, because of time constraints, we had no staff writers able to look at The Quality of Mercy in the particular light of literary historical fiction. I therefore looked around the web and read a huge number of reviews of the book. The two I chose to feature I chose because of their infectious enthusiasm. I have long admired Unsworth’s work (and chose Stone Virgin as a top ten title back in 1997) – but he is usually deemed complex and somewhat forbidding. These reviews praise the story-telling, and I like that.

This is the sixth in a series of 8 articles featuring the Walter Scott Prize. You can read the first here: What is Literary Historical Fiction? – and follow links to the rest.


Felice most admires Unsworth’s nuanced story-telling

The Quality of Mercy is set in 1767, two years after the end of Sacred Hunger. In Sacred Hunger Unsworth designed his brilliant turmoil around the deadly slave triangle of England, Africa and the New World. The central plot in The Quality of Mercy centers on a court case resulting from the mutiny of the slave ship in Sacred Hunger. Erasmus Kemp is looking for financial compensation for slaves lost on his Father’s ship. His legal nemesis is the abolitionist Frederick Ashton. Ashton’s passion for ending slavery extends as far as freeing the slaves and sending them back to their homeland but not as far accepting them as equals.

On other fronts mutinous members of the crew are still on the loose and need to be rounded up for prosecution and as witnesses. Kemp is looking to purchase a mine. This particular mine is desirable because it is worked by children and therefore more of a money maker than most mines. This subplot highlights the many forms of slavery that existed across races and countries. The mine workers were as hopelessly tied to mines as the African slaves were to the plantations.

Barry Unsworth is the historical novelist that all other novelists daydream about being. He writes from a position of authority. He has every social and historical detail in place, every conversation is pitch perfect, every thought or action ascribed to a character is in keeping with the historical period and with that character’s personality. All that is amazing but what is truly astonishing is the nuanced way in which Unsworth carries all this research and plotting into what we all want the most– captivating and rewarding storytelling.

Felice also blogs her book reviews at No Cup Cakes For You.


Mij Woodward admires the completeness of Unsworth’s vision

One of my favorite books ever.

The reason for that is because it was such a high to have my eyes opened, not only about the slave trade, the landed gentry, coal mining and more in England during the 1760’s, but also about how it is that people do the things they do sometimes.

Toward the end, I COULD NOT PUT THIS BOOK DOWN!!!! I forced my husband to wait for any conversation at our morning coffee yesterday until I had finally reached the last page, and then I forced him to listen to me go on and on about the book, why I loved it so, and how I could hardly wait for him to read it so I could tell him more (not wanting to spoil his discovery of the plot, etc.)

The two things I loved the most about this book: (1) I loved the way the various streams of stories all came together at the end, how the various characters all interacted with each other toward the end; and (2) I loved learning about how things were “back then” in England, all brought to life for me, transporting me back there.

One of my ancestors worked in coal mines in Scotland, as a child and young man, in the latter part of the 1800’s, a century after the time period set for the mining town of Durham in The Quality of Mercy. By the 1800’s, things probably had improved for coal miners and their families, but likely much of the horrors of this labor remained the same. Details were given me by Barry Unsworth that no history book could relay. I needed to identify with the characters he gave me in Durham, who worked in the mines, including the children, to get a picture of the whole thing. And that beautiful stretch of land called the Dene the workers walked through on the way to and from work. I pictured it all.

With all this praise for the book, I will admit that it actually took me until half way through to become engrossed. What kept me glued was the history I was learning. And then, during the second half of the book, I became more glued because I then cared about what was going to happen to each of these characters.

It’s been about 24 hours since I finished reading The Quality of Mercy, and I am still on cloud nine.

Read about other books that enthuse Mij on her Goodreads page.

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