To avenge his father’s death, Erasmus Kemp has had the rebellious sailors of his father’s ship, including Sullivan, brought back to London to stand trial on charges of mutiny and piracy. But as the novel opens, a blithe Sullivan has escaped and is making his way on foot to the north of England, stealing and scamming as he goes.
His destination is the colliery village where his dead shipmate, Billy Blair, lived: he has pledged to tell the family how Billy met his end.
In this village, Thorpe in the East Durham coalfields, live Billy’s sister Nan and her miner husband, James Bordon. Their three sons are all destined to follow their father down the pit. The youngest, only 7, is enjoying his last summer above ground. The terrible conditions in which mineworkers laboured are vividly evoked, and Bordon has dreams of escaping the mine with his family.
Meanwhile in London a passionate anti-slavery campaigner, Frederick Ashton, gets involved in a second case relating to the lost ship. Erasmus Kemp is claiming financial compensation for the cargo of sick slaves who were thrown overboard to drown, and Ashton is representing the insurers who dispute his claim. Ashton triumphs in court, but not before his beautiful sister, Jane, has encountered Erasmus Kemp and found herself powerfully attracted to him despite their polarised views on slavery.
Opening: On finding himself thus accidently free, Sullivan’s only thought was to get as far as he could from Newgate Prison while it was still dark.
I had been thinking about this book all day since reading Station Eleven and truly wishing I was rather re-reading Unsworth’s Morality Play. So here I am, after a somewhat frenetic torchlight search of all the bookshelves, of which I have so many, and the electricity is out due to the BBC weather forecasters sending BIG THICK WHITE ARROWS over my island.
Are you still with me?
Anyways, this needs a drumroll because I am ever so, ever so fond of Barry Unsworth’s writing, a three star from him flays the hide off your average bestseller.
I am sure that I express the sentiments of the members of this court, and every citizen of the land, when I say that the blacks thrown overboard were property and nothing else, they were cargo, as bales of cotton might have been. No charge of murder can be brought against the crew, no charge even of cruelty in any degree whatever, their actions were not in any degree improper-“
Some Irish fiddle music to accompany the major players into the Durham coalfields for that showdown we all know is a-coming.
Tansy Pudding mentioned page 153
5* Sacred Hunger
4* The Quality of Mercy (Sacred Hunger, #2)
5* Morality Play
4* Stone Virgin
4* Pascali’s Island
3* The Hide