The Quality of Mercy by Barry Unsworth

Unsworth, Barry - The Quality of Mercy


The quality of mercy is not strain’d,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

The Merchant of Venice, Act 4 Scene 1


At the time of writing I’m not long back from Stratford-upon-Avon and a wonderful production at the RSC so The Quality of Mercy seems an appropriate book to write about. I saw Coriolanus not The Merchant of Venice but tis all one to me. (Bonus points for spotting quotes from Shakespeare – answers below.)

This book was a present from hubby as he knows I’m a Barry Unsworth fan. That isn’t to say I like everything he’s written but there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.

It’s 1767.  Erasmus Kemp made his fortune in sugar, a trade dependent on slavery. He sees his future, though, as ‘roads…canals…factories and mines,’ and secures a twenty year lease on mine in Durham.  He sees his future also with Jane Ashton, a young woman who wants to improve the ‘welfare of the working people’.

But first Erasmus must tie up the loose ends of the past in the shape of the surviving crew of his father’s slaver the Liverpool Merchant, men who killed their captain and with the ‘cargo of Negroes’ for twelve years ‘lived free, black and white together’, men whose actions caused his father’s bankruptcy and suicide, men he tracked down at his own expense and swore would see tried and hanged.

However Jane’s brother, Frederick, a passionate abolitionist, takes up the sailors’ case and engages a counsel to defend them. The course of true love never did run smooth!

And as if to further prove that the path of life is strewn with cowpats from the devil’s own satanic herd the mine owner, Lord Spenton, grants a forty-year lease on a ‘plot of land by the stream side’ to young pit worker Michael Borden, land affording ‘a direct route to the sea’ that Kemp had earmarked for transporting coal, land that Kemp will now have to pay Borden ‘wayleave’ to cross.

It all that sounds rather, well, dull, it isn’t, at least not in Unsworth’s hands.  There are really three stories:  love story, slave-trade story, mine-industry story. Unsworth intertwines them expertly.

The Quality of Mercy is a sequel, of sorts, to Sacred Hunger, though if you haven’t read SH don’t be put off because TQM stands on its own. On the other hand SH is a great book, a Booker prize winner, so why not read both?

Rating: *** Highly recommended

And the quotes were:

Tis all one to me – Troilus and Cressida

There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so – Hamlet

The course of true love never did run smooth – A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The path of (my) life is strewn with cowpats from the devil’s own satanic herd – Ok, it’s not Shakespeare but Blackadder had some really good lines too, right?

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