Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A Respectable Trade

I love to have a Philippa Gregory book to read when I'm going anywhere. They're easy to get through and I don't mind leaving them behind if necessary. So I was glad to pick up A Respectable Trade in the bookshop for €4, but almost put it down again straight away, because it seemed, um, exploitative.

The story concerns a lady of the upper classes who is penniless and unmarried. She ends up marrying a Bristol slave trader, who has this idea to bring slaves into England, have her train them as fancy house servants, and sell them on at a vast profit. Unfortunately for him, his wife develops an, um, relationship with one of the men (which is, of course, the bit I found a bit yeesh) and his business more or less collapses and he goes a bit mental.

On the whole, the book is simplistic and a bit slavery-is-bad-DO-YOU-SEE? But there are some lovely touches in it. Gregory reminds her readers, for one thing, that the kind of investment and trading behaviours she talks about in this book (and has, as is typical of her, meticulously researched) are the kind of behaviours that the men in Jane Austen's books would have been engaging in when not flitting around the countryside saving ladies from consumption. The ridiculous social climbing and the horror of debt that seemed to be a feature of the merchant class in the late 1700s are also well sketched. Overall, I'd have to say her intentions are good, her detail is excellent, but her plot and characterization are weak. The book wasn't quite as cringey as I expected, though.

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