For most contemporary Britons, slavery happened long ago and very far away. But in the 18th and 19th centuries it was present and immediate; a fact of everyday life. There were black faces in many British homes, such as Judge Mansfield's London household at Kenwood, which included his mixed-race niece, Dido. Jane Austen's letters to her friends in Barbados, and Nelson's to his sugar heiress wife, both demonstrate the constant traffic to and from "the plantations".
Yet with notable exceptions, like Jean Rhys's classic Wide Sargasso Sea, fiction has under-explored the shadows cast by slavery over British life. So Strange Music is more than welcome. Spanning the years 1837 to 1840, it focuses on the family of the poet Elizabeth Barrett, both in England and at the family plantation in Jamaica, Cinnamon Hill. The book introduces us to a triumvirate of women. Elizabeth has been despatched to Torquay where, confined to bed and subjected to esoteric "cures", she distracts herself by writing poems, corresponding with friends and fretting about her family. Meanwhile, on the Barrett sugar estate, slavery has been abolished and the "apprenticeship" system put in its place. The black population realise that the new system is just the old one with a new name; masters and overseers can still abuse and exploit them at will.
Here two women are trying to cope with this terrible period of transition. Sheba mourns her lost lover, while Kaydia is struggling to protect her vulnerable daughter from the sexual attentions of her rapacious master.
The language, too, alternates between two worlds. In England, Fish blends letters excavated from the Barrett archives with diary-style musings about Elizabeth's feelings and observations. In the Jamaican section, the story is written in island dialect. This device effectively reveals the sensibilities of two worlds.
As blacks in the colonies continue to suffer, for example, Barrett's father laments the end of slavery and the deleterious impact it has had on the family's material fortunes. Elizabeth, on the other hand, writes as an abolitionist from a family of slave-owners. Describing hers as a "polluted family", she wonders, "what are the implications of my family's wealth having been derived from other's suffering?"
The moral degradation that slavery induces in the slave owner is explored in Fish's portrayal of Barrett's brother Sam, who presides over Cinnamon Hill. A violent, rum-sodden sexual predator who cheats his workers out of their already miniscule wages and abuses them for his own amusement, Sam has degenerated into a "selfish, brutal, indulged man". Barrett argues this corruption cannot be ignored. "Instinctively I feel we must be open to a new age, not turn our backs on this grimness that we as a family have sustained. Walls of silence have been erected", which "must be knocked down. I shall either write against the tide or drown." The book is not without its problems. At times Barrett's minute itemising of her ailments feels indulgent when compared with the suffering of her family's apprentices.
As she says herself: "I am not a slave, and my pain cannot be compared to that of the poor Negroes." Even for someone familiar with Jamaican patois, the dialect takes a bit of effort, and sometimes characterisation gets lost in the lush language, so that the book is something of a slow-burn experience. But once Strange Music grips you, you won't be able to put it down.
Andrea Stuart's biography 'Josephine: the rose of Martinique' is published by PanReuse content