03.09 A Respectable Trade

A Respectable Trade by Philippa Gregory
March 2009 Meeting

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  1. moirabbc

     /  March 30, 2009

    Michele, anyone would think we found this book thought-provoking! We undoubtedly have curiousity or even voyeurism but I feel there is no point in ‘visiting the dark side’ unless it enlightens us. Maybe some reality stuff manages to do this inadvertently?

  2. michelebbc

     /  March 26, 2009

    Hi Moira. I hate all the reality stuff too, it’s just cheap TV and very depressing, but I wonder if at some level all this is appealing to the same voyeuristic side of human nature that makes us avid readers? Aren’t we drawn to novels that give us an insight into someone else’s life and character?

  3. moirabbc

     /  March 24, 2009

    I hope so, Michele – if that means we have some critical faculties left. I say this with sadness rather than a sneer, but tabloids, reality TV and cheesy wotsits are all very popular, but hardly edifying examples of human discernment. Oh no, the mention of reality TV! I nearly confronted a woman at the supermarket checkout queue who was eagerly and unashamedly flicking to the Jade death-fest features in each of the ,’I can’t believe it’s not SH*T’ magazines on display there. This woman is probably the kind of person who crosses over the road to avoid an acquaintance with cancer. I am so inflamed by the whole subject, I couldn’t trust myself to speak to her in a measured manner, so had to make do with tutting and the filthiest of looks. Humans are social beings with an impulse for care and compassion but this has been perverted and debased by the gutter media (including the misery memoir).

  4. michelebbc

     /  March 24, 2009

    This has got me thinking. There have been 2 books that I can think of that most of us have disliked, this one and Black Dog by Stephen Booth. Both have nearly all good customer reviews on Amazon, the majority of readers think that they are great! I wonder why? Do reading groups attract a certain type of reader? Is it just our group? Are we book snobs?

  5. malcolmbbc

     /  March 21, 2009

    This was a terrible book to discuss, because everyone at the meeting was in agreement! Even with my somewhat contrary nature, I find it impossible to disagree with comments made by others, above.

    I strongly agree that the merging of the historical with the romance was not successful. Listening to the story (I had an audio tape version of the book), I found that my feelings kept changing as the book changed perspective. I was interested in the narrative relating to the slave trade, from the conditions on board ship to the descriptions of the shipping trade. I was unconvinced by the descriptons of Mehuru’s life in Africa and of his mystical powers – this could be read as stereotypical, even borderline racist.

    Worst of all though was when the story switched to its romantic thread. This just seemed like some pulp chick lit. I was quite incredulous about the scene where Frances rolls around in a bed of daffodils – I couldn’t believe how awfully hackneyed it was. (Does anyone actually like this kind of stuff)?

    Frances claims that she loved Mehuru from the first time she saw him … given that this is when he is dirty, manacled and in a dark cellar so she can only see his eyes, this seems unlikely. And if we cannot understand her desire for him, even stranger is his attraction to her. Admittedly, the author does try to bring out Mehuru’s conflicted feelings, but it is not apparent why his initial dislike of her suddenly changes into love.

    OK, there are a few nice touches in the plot. I thought the spa house was going to be predictable. “It’ll end in tears” I thought, every time the place was re-visited. But I hadn’t foreseen exactly how this would happen, and the sudden discovery of the treachery was a good way of bringing together a few strands.

    I don’t tend to read (non fictional) histories, so I do quite like a novel that reveals historical information. And I did feel that this novel did get across issues concerned with the slave trade. Perhaps not new facts as such, but I did feel that the uncaring attitudes of Joshua, Sarah and others, did help to bring out some of the background.

    Its a shame that the author couldn’t have used her research with a rather more plausible story line.

  6. Sarah

     /  March 20, 2009

    My recollection is that I did not enjoy this book. I find myself largely in agreement with Michele and Moira. However, I did read it all, and in a relatively short period of time.

    My main problem would be with the historical romance genre. It may be merely my grouchy nature, but from my perspective history is unremittingly grim; not a natural bedfellow for romance. And how much less so to partner romance with the slave trade. Euuuugh!

    Forgive me; what I meant to say was that I found the concept a trifle distasteful.

    The relationship between Mehuru and Frances was historically and psychologically implausible. Not to mention the horrible and nauseating cliches. This is a minor offence compared with the unfortunate tendency of said relationship to ameliorate what should have been the horrifying plight of the abducted Africans.

    I thought the author redeemed herself slightly with a strong position on the justification of the trade; namely that there was, and is, none whatsoever. Whilst the characters purport to have dehumanised the African abductees, references to “babes in arms” and the “homes” of their victims, indicate that this is done for effect and not from conviction. Dehumanisation is shown as a very knowing self-justification, not the reason and much less an excuse.

    What did I like? Well, I was charmed by the descriptions of my home town. My childhood memories of Bristol are vague, but happy, and it was pleasant to hear familiar names, and recognise locations; particularly the Frome, remembered chiefly for early morning expeditions in search of kingfishers.

    I am now better informed regarding the culpability of the whole country, and not just my forebears, in promoting the evil of slavery. Not planning to take any further flak regarding my allegedly slave-trading ancestry…

    There was an apparent theme in this book which made me feel uneasy. There was a sense that women were constrained by men, that men lived in servitude to the strictures of trade… A sense that all the characters of the book lived in servility to some extent. I hope I misunderstood, because although the lot of women, and the lower echelons of society, was undoubtedly a hard one, there is no comparison which can justly be made with the horror of slavery.

    One moment of pure comedy (possibly intended as drama?) Towards the end of the book, the obligatory bodice ripping scene, but in a relatively respectable context. A satire on the expectations of the genre? In this, perhaps, we might give the author the benefit of the doubt? Or not.

    On the whole an easy read; somewhat unlikely to seek out more of the same.

  7. richardbbc

     /  March 19, 2009

    With our discussion on Tuesday evening still fresh in my mind I am driving home listening to Open Book and suddenly The Reading Clinic is fielding an inquiry from a listener who likes furthering her historical education by reading historical novels and would like some recommendations. The programme obliged with four contenders all of which sounded well worth reading. There was also a little bit of analysis as to why people prefer reading historical novels rather than history books – a subject we touched on in our discussion.


  8. moirabbc

     /  March 18, 2009

    I had a similar feeling about this book, feeling irritated by the exploitation of the subject of slavery by injecting a ludicrous love story. I did not care anything about Frances after she delivered the woman to be raped by that suppurating old bloater. She DID have some power over her husband as he needed her superior social position to advance his own prospects. To expect readers to believe that Mehuru would love this woman is, as Michele says, absurd.
    I did not learn anything I didn’t already know about slavery, social history or Bristol. It seems she set out merely to demonstrate her competent, popular, writerly craft and she delivered a serviceable product. This is just not appropriate to the subject matter – sorry to be sniffy. I was even irritated by the worthy wells for Africa appeal at the end of the novel. Being dreadfully cynical(!), I suspect this was done to head-off accusations of profiting from the slave trade, albeit 200 years after its abolition.

  9. michelebbc

     /  March 18, 2009

    I felt a strong dislike for this book without always being able to understand why. It seemed to be full of its own cliches, stereotypes and prejudices whilst purporting to tell a serious story about slavery.

    I found the authors recurring theme of the comparison of Francis’s lack of choices in her life through fear of losing her place in society to the horrors that the slaves went through to be quite insulting and the idea that Mahuru could fall in love with with a woman he had seen take one of his companions to be raped and then gagged absurd.

    The author has recently had another novel turned into a film and it was mentioned in the meeting that high sales of A Respectable Trade could bring the story of slavery to an audience with little previous knowledge which I suppose is a good thing, particularly as the first part of the story seemed to be quite well researched.


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