The Quality of Mercy, by Barry Unsworth

This fascinating novel is a powerful sequel to Sacred Hunger, which had earlier won the Booker Prize. It is not necessary to have read that earlier novel to appreciate this 2011 novel, but it does help one to understand the depths of this work if one has done so.

And by that I mean the depths of the main character, Erasmus Kemp, who was the single-minded villain of that first novel, as he pursued and saw killed his first cousin, Matthew Paris, for what he considered acts of piracy and mutiny, but which his cousin and the reader saw as acts of mercy. Namely, taking over a slave ship owned by Kemp’s father, a ship whose captain had ordered sick slaves to be thrown overboard to their death.

I had objected to the portrayal of Kemp at the end of Sacred Hunger, for it evoked a note of self-awareness in this cruel villain that I felt the author had not prepared me for. But now I believe this self-awareness was always there, because Unsworth has made Kemp not only the main character of this novel but also even more aware of what he, Kemp, might term as shortcomings but which the reader sees as a reluctant identification with these men he considers his inferiors.

This sensitivity arises when he confronts Michael Sullivan, one of the crewmen from Sacred Hunger, who was involved in what Kemp called mutiny and piracy; and again, when a poor youth, the miner Michael Borden, sees through what Kemp calls a generous offer for a piece of land the youth owns. Indeed, even the woman Kemp loves, Jane Ashton, detects a latent compassion in him that she believes she can develop if she marries him.

Kemp thus develops into a complex figure. He wants to play a major role in developing British industry—to his own advantage, of course, but also, he claims, to that of the workers and his country. And his single-mindedness remains, meaning he will do this by fair means or foul. Even love-fixed Jane is transfixed by this determination, while less fixed on the means he will use.

It would seem that the author wishes his title, The Quality of Mercy, to apply to Kemp. For it is mercy he shows to both Sullivan and Borden, when he unexpectedly acknowledges their needs. And this response, I suggest, shows that Unsworth wants his reader to extend such mercy to Kemp as well. In fact, he also may be suggesting that this kind of determined but compassionate industrial leader is what this small island relied on to reach its greatness.

On the other hand, and I nearly missed this, the greatest quality of mercy Unsworth seems to show here is toward the slaves themselves. But to me that is less interesting. Because it is so obious. Whereas to apply it to Kemp adds a complexity to his character that enriches this work as literature. I would note that John Vernon in his New York Times review preferred that the author had kept Kemp’s character more simple. He writes, “Kemp was perfect—a tortured monster of obsessiveness.” I obviously disagree.

There are really four stories here at the start of the novel, each one so interesting that we move quite willingly from one to the other. Indeed, I was so confident in the author’s professionalism that I knew eventually these four stories would come together. The first story is that of Sullivan, the crew member who joined in the mutiny, was caught and transported back to England in chains, and then fortuitously escapes from prison and becomes determined to travel north into Durham coal country in order to inform the family of a shipboard colleague that their son has died.

The second story is that of the Borden family in Durham. John the father and his three sons, especially Michael, are fated to work in the mines but dream of escaping that harsh world. The third story is that of Frederick Ashton and his sister Jane, the brother being an active abolitionist determined to abolish slavery in all of England. And the final story, of course, is that of Erasmus Kemp, who brings these stories together, first by suing to receive compensation for the drowned slaves on his father’s lost ship, and then by both his pursuit of Jane and his effort to purchase and modernize the coal mine up north in which the Borden family works.

The reader easily identifies with Sullivan, Michael Borden, and Frederick and Jane Ashton. These are all good people. And Kemp’s interaction with each of them earns him the reader’s respect for a certain integrity, even if not their full sympathy. Indeed, one can detect both sympathy and fascination on the part of the author for this character he has created, so much so that one can foresee still another sequel, this one based on the tension that has been set up between Kemp and Jane Ashton, as she tries to instill in him a greater awareness of the needs of the working poor.

Despite it’s title, the underlying theme of this novel is the rights of property. First, are slaves property? That is what Sacred Hunger was about, and that is what Frederick Ashton is all about. That they are not. And it is also about the workers in the Durham mines. Are they, in effect, the property of the mine owners, since they have no say in the terms of their duties, their wages, their working conditions, or their future lives.

On the other hand, one critic says this is a novel about justice. And this is valid, for the administration of justice revolves around two key trials that are depicted toward the end. But these trials do depend on property rights, and this is the immediate theme that drives Unsworth’ novel, under the overall literary theme of justice.

Unsworth manages to resolve these property issues to a large degree, enough to bring a legitimate resolution to this novel, even if some of its ramifications are left open-ended. Which, as I said, does leave the door open to another sequel. Not that I would require one, but I would certainly read it, for Unsworh has the enviable talent of being able to explore moral and social issues from a richly created past. In the meantime, I will happily search out his other highly praised novels. (January, 2015)

Sacred Hunger, by Barry Unsworth

Again, a book sat on the shelf for a long time, and I kept avoiding it. Because it is about the terrors of a slave ship, the horror of kidnapping the blacks of Africa and transporting them for profit to the West Indies. Who wants to read that? Who wants to know the details of that brutal voyage?

But, surprise, surprise, that is not what this 1992 novel is about. It is about greed, the drive for profit, the sacred hunger of the title. Yes, there are the details of the brutality on board a slave ship, but it comprises only a quarter to a third of this book. The rest is about two cousins, Erasmus Kemp and Matthew Paris. Erasmus hates Matthew because when a boy Matthew picked him up and carried him away from a miniature dam he was building. Erasmus didn’t understand that Matthew was saving him from being swamped by a surge of water, just as he does not understand others as a grown man—beginning with Sarah, to whom he proposes and imperiously assumes her consent.

As the real story starts, Matthew has been unjustly disgraced; he has written “blasphemies,” such as supporting Darwin. And he has lost his wife, for whose death he blames himself. So, to escape a sense of guilt, he signs on to a slave ship, Liverpool Merchant, leaving England, a ship that is owned by his uncle, Erasmus’ father. The captain of the ship, Thurso, is a brutal taskmaster and a vital character in his every scene. Resenting Matthew’s relation to the owner, he makes his shipboard life doubly hard.

The heart of this book is the contrasting portraits of Erasmus and Matthew. Erasmus is full of himself, distorts every motivation to his own benefit, and is blind to reality. The reader recognizes this from his early dealings with Sarah. But while she sees through him, others do not. And Matthew, who has not dealt with him for years, does not realize that Erasmus still remembers their affair on the beach, and is intent on revenge. And, indeed, Erasmus sees the perfect opportunity when he learns of the fate of the slave ship Liverpool Merchant; he will see that Matthew is hanged for mutiny and murder.

Meanwhile, we have followed Matthew aboard the ship. As a doctor, he cares equally for the crew and the slaves below deck. Through his journal, we come to understand he is a just man, not worthy of Erasmus’ resentment. This pursuit of justice culminates with a small community he helps build on the shore at Florida following the sinking of the slave ship. It is a community of equals, whether white survivors from the crew or the black slaves. Together, they live under a fair administration of justice, including the sharing of women by the men who far outnumber them. It is a community that lasts a decade, with no awareness of Erasmus and the English justice waiting in the wings.

These are the story details, but more significant is this portrait of mercantile life in the 1750s and 1760s. The priorities, the selfish motivations, the duel between fairness vs. justice, the cutthroat dealings, the physical brutality, the greed, the role of influence, etc.—all enrich that portrait. And on a more practical level, this novel puts the reader in bars and whorehouses as a crew is “recruited” by force, then on the deck of a rolling ship in the Atlantic as cruelties abound in the name of discipline, then below in the filthy hold with the slaves, and, finally, prowling the jungles of Africa and, later, Florida.

Unsworth himself commented on the choice of his theme in a 1992 interview. “It was impossible to live in the [19] Eighties without being affected by the sanctification of greed. My image of the slave ship was based on the desire to find the perfect symbol for that entrepreneurial spirit. The arguments used to justify it [then] are the same used now to justify the closure of these pits and the throwing out of work of all these miners. I used the term ‘wealth creation’ deliberately. I knew it was anachronistic.”

And not to be overlooked is the large cast of believable characters that populated that life of greed, ranging from English capitalists to angry sailors to despairing slaves. Some live for the moment, some for the long term. Some think only of themselves, some of others. Some are brave and confident, some afraid. Some relate to others and learn how to survive, some do not. Some seek to dominate, some to get along, and some to help the unfortunate. Each one is distinctive, and alive on these pages.

The finale of the novel is written to be inevitable, given the violence of those distant times. And the final confrontation between Erasmus and Matthew does work. But the fate of Matthew, for me, does not. It reflects too much an author’s choice, an author’s denial of the justice he has created, an author’s attempt to create for the reader a “justice” he can be comfortable with. In addition, Unsworth shows Erasmus reaching a self-understanding at the end that seems too brief, too tidy. and is barely credible.

A review in the Manchester Guardian sums up the novel’s qualities.  “It’s a cracking adventure story. It isn’t pleasant – slavery is a disgusting business – but there are rewards. The story moves at a smart pace, the cast is huge and colorful, and there’s enough detail to make us feel we are breathing in the salt air, the scent of the ship’s timbers and the claustrophobic stink of the slave’s quarters – but not so much that it smells of the lamp. Above all, there is fine writing. As with the period details, Unsworth’s prose has enough 18th-century inflections to create the right mood, but not so many that it feels laboured.”

This work has to be the highlight of Unsworth’s literary career. It has breadth, it has power, and it has strong emotions. One marvels at the research into that era’s shipboard life, the inhuman treatment of the enslaved, the primitive level of medicine, and the daily environment of that distant era.

I need to catch up on more of Unsworth’s work. It has the broad vision I seek, and yet a concern for individual souls. There is a philosophy of life, a sense of humanity, that underlies the surface action. (April, 2013)