Pop Culture Princess

Pop Culture Princess
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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

A Respectable Trade makes a remarkable read

Sometimes,when you're in abit of a reading slump,it helps to just grab the first book off one of your To Be Read piles and plunge right in. I just did that and am still riveted to the pages of Philippa Gregory's A Respectable Trade,which tells the story of Frances Scott,a fallen on hard times lady of the gentry who makes a marriage of convience with ambitious Bristol trader,Josiah Cole. Josiah met Frances while interviewing for a governess who was meant to train newly arrived slaves from Africa the English language and manners in order to sell them as specially trained household servants. One of the captives,Mehuru(who was a government envoy and priest back home in Yoruba)is already proficent in several languages and becomes the inpromptu leader of the group. Eventually,he and Frances fall in love.

There are other complications;Josiah is banking on his wife's family connections to help him become more established with the upper class merchants to increase his business which frightens his sister Sarah,who was once his business confident and head of the household. Mehuru eventually joins with a group of Abolitionists who are seeking to have slavery banned in England but the chances of defeating the influence of the monied tradesmen and noblity seems slim. Frances' health is delicate and with her life at risk by not moving to a better climate,Mehuru's feelings towards her become apparent to many of those around him.

Before you start thinking that is some Mandingo type of story,hold on there. Gregory's books are well thought out historical novels,rich with character depth and never resorting to sleaze. She's not one to quickly demonize her characters either-Josiah,for example,is a likable fellow who truly cares for his wife and has the right idea about making his business grow but unfortunately doesn't have the savvy or the street smarts to know when he's in over his head. Frances wishes to follow her heart but is not used to expressing her true feelings as well as getting over the many prejudices she has acquired from her limited knowledge of the world.

The brutal nature of both the treatment of slaves and life in 1787 Bristol are not downplayed at all. Gregory went to Gambia as part of her research for the book and sponsors a charity group called Gardens For the Gambia that is dedicated to building wells and providing agriculture for rural schools(if you wish to know more,just click the title link to reach Philippa Gregory's website). She was born in Kenya and came to England when she was two where she grew up in Bristol,so you can see this novel has quite abit of her own personal interests invested in it.

A Respectable Trade came out in 1996 and was made into a BBC miniseries(which I'd love to see but might wait for DVD release). It's not as well known in the US as Gregory's series about English noblewoman such as The Other Boleyn Girl,Queen's Fool and most recently,The Constant Princess,but it should be. I hope that with more and more of her books getting reprints and reissues(such as the Wideacre books),that RT can make a comeback. You can buy used copies or get a UK edition like I did but it would be nice to have it readily available to hand to a good friend and say"Hey,you gotta read this-you'll love it,I swear!" The next best thing I can do here is to give
A Respectable Trade a big ol'blogger push into the spotlight.


Anonymous said...

I love Philippa Gregory's books. I haven't read "A Respectable Trade" yet, I'm getting to that. I was reading "The Boleyn Inheritance" and from the point of view of someone who doesn't know much about the ladies involved in the story, found it quite difficult to keep track of who's who.

I was also wondering if you happen to know the name of the artist of the cover for "A Respectable Trade", the one you have pictured?

lady t said...

Hi,Edith-turns out the cover I have displayed for A Respectable Trade is the UK paperback edition,which I happen to own:)

According to the back cover credits,the front of the book artwork was taken from photographs by Jeff Cottenden of artwork from a private collection at the Bridgeman Art Library. Hope that helps!