GDG- A monster in The Age of Abolition
jlawrence at kc.rr.com
Mon Jan 23 13:49:38 CST 2012
THE QUALITY OF MERCY
By Barry Unsworth
319 pp. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. $26.95.
"Old-fashioned" may be misleading. Unsworth knows very well that novels are not about "reality" but about "realities," competing versions of the real. The difference between the sort of novels he writes and, say, those of David Foster Wallace, is that Wallace internalizes those competing versions in the form of paranoid self-consciousness, which paralyzes behavior, whereas Unsworth holds his characters' actions up to inherited moral templates and examines the slippage.
Moral templates change. In "Sacred Hunger," the abolition of slavery isn't even an issue, and the treatment of human beings as property is all the more disturbing for being taken for granted. Now Unsworth has written a sequel, "The Quality of Mercy," in which that treatment is contested. The new novel picks up where "Sacred Hunger" left off. Erasmus Kemp, the son of a Liverpool merchant whose slave ship was presumed lost in the Atlantic, has returned to England, having captured the surviving members of its crew: for 12 years they had been living with the slaves from that same ship, "free and equal in a state of nature," on the coast of Florida. Now it is 1767, and they are imprisoned in Newgate awaiting trial for mutiny and piracy. But resistance to the slave trade has grown in England, and Kemp is being opposed by Frederick Ashton, a zealous abolitionist. Meanwhile, one of the crew, the Irish fiddler Michael Sullivan, has escaped from Newgate and is on his way north to County Durham to inform a fellow crew member's family, the Bordons, of his death. The novel braids three stories: the clash between Kemp and Ashton in London; Sullivan's journey to Durham; and the fortunes there of the Bordon family, who are miners. The stories converge when Kemp decides to purchase the lease of the mine.
As in "Sacred Hunger," Kemp is both arrogant and single-minded. He's also extremely wealthy from the sugar plantations that rely on the slave trade. Yet this cruel commerce is not the novel's central concern. The abolitionist Ashton has a sister, Jane, to whom Kemp becomes drawn, and as Sullivan takes to the road and the Bordons prepare their 7-year-old son to assume his first shift underground, Jane and Kemp slowly fall in love. Alas, this romance is the novel's least convincing plot line. At moments during random encounters, Kemp and Jane glance at each other with obvious attraction, but it all seems pro forma - a series of portents of the story's chief complication, a chaste version of sleeping with the enemy. When they finally speak, Kemp's efforts to impress Jane feel more like the author's attempts to soften his villain's hard edges.
Unsworth's other two stories are far more assured, especially the chapters devoted to Sullivan. In the novel's superb opening sequence, the fiddler drags an unconscious drunk off a road, robs him of half his money and walks away, then returns and robs him of all but ninepence (telling himself that this actually raises his victim's value), then returns again and takes the man's coat and boots. Later, Kemp attends a water show at Vauxhall Gardens that's a tour de force of fantastic arcana.
Unsworth is one of the best historical novelists on either side of the Atlantic, and in both "Sacred Hunger" and "The Quality of Mercy" his vast knowledge of 18th-century social and material conditions creates a rich and strange rendering of daily life that's utterly persuasive. We learn about manufacture and commerce during the Industrial Revolution; about civil, criminal and nautical law; about banking and mining, diet and dress, the management of parish workhouses, even the rules of Irish handball. Unsworth's details are often vivid and distinct, as in this description of a broker visiting Kemp in his office: "He felt an itch at the side of his neck, some insect crawling there. Conditions, however uncomfortable, will generally be favorable to life of some sort, and the windless days and early heat had produced a plague of small black beetles that flew about blindly, getting tangled in wigs and snared in the corners of eyes, copulating and dying, leaving a scurf of corpses."
But then there's that love affair. The real drama in "The Quality of Mercy" is, I suspect, the difficult struggle of its author to redeem his central character through love. Erasmus Kemp is one of the great repugnant figures of recent fiction. By the conclusion of "Sacred Hunger" and the beginning of "The Quality of Mercy," he has become an Ahab-like fanatic. His grimly overbearing behavior is ascribed to an event in his childhood when his cousin Matthew Paris "mortally offended him," and although this offense isn't described in the sequel, it haunts both novels.
In "Sacred Hunger" we learn that when Kemp was a boy he built a dam of driftwood and stones, attempting to hold back the sea on the Norfolk coast, and his cousin had to lift him bodily away from this compulsive task, which had bloodied his fingers. Years later, that same cousin, now the doctor on the slave ship whose crew winds up in Florida, becomes the principal object of Kemp's relentless pursuit. Yet the origin of his hatred is a childhood trifle; and the two novels share this foundation. Does that weaken them? On the contrary - it's a stroke of genius. Resentments are deeply irrational; they plow furrows in the heart, not in reason. For the venomous Kemp, whose unrelenting doggedness earns him a fortune, this little abrasion in his nascent self-respect becomes a festering wound primarily because he can't leave it alone, the way children can't stop probing a loose tooth. In fiction, it's usually not so much an event but its resonance that counts.
Redeeming someone like Kemp, whose power lies in his blind obstinance, is like trying to bring the dead to life. Readers will have to decide for themselves whether Unsworth succeeds or if he merely animates the man's limbs with a few galvanic shocks. In "The Quality of Mercy," Unsworth appears determined to avoid the trap of Victorian mawkishness Elizabeth Gaskell fell into in her 1855 novel, "North and South," whose story bears a resemblance to his. There Gaskell's champion of social justice eventually marries the mill owner, a union clearly the result of sentiment employed as a solvent for moral and political conflicts. Unsworth is too smart to indulge in such easy wish fulfillment, and he does manage to make Kemp somewhat ambiguous at the end, neither wholly evil nor quite reformed. Still, this reader wishes Unsworth had left him alone. In his way, Kemp was perfect - a tortured monster of obsessiveness.
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