First of all, I love the title of this book. It is taken from Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” and is one of my favorite speeches of all time. It also has a special resonance in this book which, as the sequel to Sacred Hunger (which I reviewed earlier this year), is a worthy read in its own right but made especially powerful for knowing the back story. Unsworth’s The Quality of Mercy takes place in England, 1767, where banker Erasmus Kemp has finally brought back in chains the handful of surviving crew members who had mutinied on his father’s slaveship 14 years earlier and who he had relentlessly pursued to their hidden colony in Florida. Back in London, Kemp wins their conviction on piracy charges and their execution, but achieving his revenge for his father’s indebtedness, bankruptcy and suicide does not fill the emptiness of his soul.
Unsworth moves the bulk of this story to the battle over abolition of the slave trade inside England, and to another form of slavery, that of the coal miners in northern England trapped in an endless grind of child labor, poverty, and an early grave. Kemp recognizes that the advent of the industrial age makes coal a lucrative investment for his bank, and sets his sights on the coal mines of Durham which happens to be where one of the escaped crew members from his father’s ship is headed. At the same time, Kemp hopes to fill the void in his life by courting Jane Ashton, sister to the fervent abolitionist lawyer who is leading the fight against slavery in England. Despite their dramatically different viewpoints, Jane and Kemp are drawn together but Jane is disturbed by Kemp’s fierce rigidity. It takes Jane’s cautious but loving admonitions, as well as coming face to face with the escaped crew member and experiencing the emotional strength of a coalminer’s son who has just lost his dad in the mines, for Kemp to finally get in touch with his own humanity.
Unsworth portrays the entitled lives of British aristocrats and the enslaved existence of the British coalminers with equally exquisite attention to detail, and his courtroom scenes are brilliant. The reader suffers with the condemned men on their way to execution and with the 7-year-old about to put away childhood and enter the mines with his father and brothers. Unsworth recreates the drama of the period, while taking the time to paint portraits of his main characters who are in truth flawed, but also susceptible to change. Therein lies the magic of his book’s title, and of his talent.