It’s 1767, and Erasmus Kemp has tracked down the crew members who absconded to Florida with his late father’s slave ship and has hauled them back to Newgate Prison. But the long-delayed satisfaction he hopes to exact from these sailors is being challenged on two legal fronts. First, the insurers are balking at paying for the 85 sick slaves thrown overboard by the captain 14 years earlier. Second, a wealthy abolitionist has taken up the crew members’ defense, arguing that when they killed their captain, they weren’t committing mutiny; they were protecting innocent Africans from drowning.
The most transporting aspect of the novel is that Unsworth obliges us to explore this conflict in the ethical and legal terms of its time, not ours. If the slaves are legal cargo, how can throwing them overboard be acts of murder?
In the country brilliantly re-created here, the Industrial Revolution is just getting in gear; new attitudes about the sanctity of personal property are grinding against new attitudes about the nature of humanity. Pulled by strident abolitionists on one side and craven sugar interests on the other, English law is in turmoil. The courts seem wary of issuing any broad ruling that might offend either the ideals of freedom or the demands of commerce.
The legal issues are sometimes arcane, and the risk of falling into the cadence of a lecture is high, but Unsworth never lets that happen. Instead, “The Quality of Mercy” fleshes out these contractual and ethical conflicts in precise, searching scenes. And even better, the book avoids easy caricatures that would have us feeling superior to those narrow-minded figures of the past whom we, surely, would not have been. Kemp has no qualms about buying and selling Africans and his worship of economic liberty blinds him to the murderous treatment of others, but he’s not villainous. We see him wounded with self-doubt, still grieving over the death of his father. For all his arrogance and irritability, honor and principle are important to him, and he’s capable of transformative acts of forgiveness, even when he regards it as a weakness, a dereliction of duty.
What’s more, Frederick Ashton, the wealthy abolitionist who serves as Kemp’s opponent, makes a wonderfully complicated hero. Despite his opposition to slavery and the flurry of legal challenges he’s willing to fund, he’s no cheerleader for multiculturalism: He wants the slaves freed so they can all go back to Africa where they belong. Unsworth clearly outlines the crucial role such people played in the fight against slavery, but as a novelist, he’s more interested in the unpredictable topography of human character. A teetotaler and prude, Ashton suffers from the stridency of his moral superiority; he feels intensely sympathetic but only in an abstract, self-elevating sense. His dear sister, in quiet moments of reflection, acknowledges “the spirit of dedication that made him what he was, and the sharply declining order of importance he gave to the sensibilities of others, and even their welfare, when they were not instrumental to his cause.”
Even as the cases wind through the courts in London, the novel spools out into another rich storyline involving a small coal-mining community in Durham, an early version of the town where the author grew up. It’s a place of crushing labor that sends children into the poisonous pits when they turn 7. But again Unsworth thwarts our easy judgments, eschewing generalities about the poor laboring masses for a lush portrayal that endows these people with individual lives, aspirations and moments of triumph.
To be sure, this is a smaller novel than “Sacred Hunger,” but it’s another engaging demonstration of the talent that’s made Unsworth one of the very few writers to appear on the Booker shortlist three times. His sentences recall the sharp detail, moral sensitivity and ready wit of Charles Dickens. But his sense of the lumbering, uneven gait of social progress is more sophisticated, more tempered, one might say, by history.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.