The Floating Theatre by Martha Conway

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  Last week was Autism Awareness/Acceptance Week, and this is an interesting and unusual historical novel with an autistic protagonist, working on a floating theatre – think Show Boat, but on the Ohio rather than the Mississippi, and in the 1830s rather than the 1880s.  The part of the Ohio which they’re on is effectively an extension of the Mason-Dixon line, with slaveholding Kentucky to the south and the free states of Ohio and Indiana to the north, and our girl May inadvertently becomes involved in helping slaves to escape.  So it’s a fascinating combination of themes – May’s “social awkwardness”, life on a showboat, and the Underground Railroad.  It’s just a shame that it’s so short, just under 350 pages long: I think there was the potential to develop the story much more than the book actually did.

May isn’t an actress or a singer: she makes costumes.  She’s always worked alongside her cousin, but, when roles begin to dry up, the cousin accepts a job giving speeches for a wealthy Abolitionist.  There’s no place for May, but the woman gives her some money – but then, when she gets a job on a showboat, demands that she repay her by smuggling slaves to freedom on the opposite bank.

So, really, it’s all a bit cynical.  Neither cousin becomes involved out of conviction.  Both oppose slavery, but, like a lot of us with a lot of things, they haven’t actually been doing anything active about it, because they’re too busy working and getting on with their daily lives.  The boyfriend of one of the actresses is a doctor who moonlights as a slave-catcher, not because he’s got any strong feelings about slavery but because it’s a good way of making a fast buck.  Most of the other people in the theatre company just want to keep their heads down: expressing any strong views on a controversial subject risks stopping people from coming to see them.

And that’s the way most things go, isn’t it?   People don’t get involved.  But May does, because she can’t pay this woman back any other way.  And, obviously, it’s very dangerous.  This is before the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, but May is still breaking the law under the terms of the 1793 Act, and putting herself in physical danger as well.  The horrors of slavery are really brought home to her when she meets a young girl who’s recently given birth after being raped by her master’s son, and is desperate to get both herself and her baby to a free state.

It’s really getting interesting at this point … but then the book’s cut short.  The showboat goes up in flames after a curtain catches fire, and one of the men on it, Leo, himself the son of an escaped slave, is tragically killed.  May and the leader of the company, after several earlier hints of romance, get together, and plan to get a new boat and continue helping slaves to escape – this time, out of genuine conviction, rather than to pay off a debt.  So, apart from the death of poor Leo, it’s a positive ending, but I wish that the book had been longer.

May is “high functioning autistic”, for lack of a better expression, and I’ve an idea that she’s based on the author’s sister.  The book isn’t about autism: the protagonist just happens to be autistic, although obviously autism had not been recognised in the 1830s so the term “autism” is not used.  She worked brilliantly as a character.  The portrayal of life on the showboat worked well too.  May and her cousin getting involved in antislavery activities purely for financial reasons wasn’t really what I’d expected, but it wasn’t unconvincing.  This isn’t the best book I’ve ever read, but it’s worth a go because of the combination of three interesting themes.

 

Poldark and Abolitionism – Poldark (series 5), BBC 1

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There seems to be an increasing trend for period dramas to address the social and political issues of the time in which they’re set. OK, Victoria didn’t do it very accurately; but it’s still extremely welcome.  Ballrooms and bedrooms are great to an extent, but getting some big historical talking points in there’s even better. And, in the first episode of the new – and, very sadly, last – series of Poldark, we saw several major characters attending an Abolitionist meeting.

Abolitionism was probably the first great popular movement. “Am I not a man and a brother?” – the famous Wedgwood image might not work today, but the sentiment does: certain people might do well to remind themselves of it. As the 19th century went on, there were so many more reform movements, and most of them did succeed. Some of them centred around just one brave person – think Elizabeth Fry and prison reform, or Josephine Butler and the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts. Some were mass movements, notably the campaigns for universal suffrage. Some were organised by groups of leading figures with particular interests. Workers’ rights, children’s rights, women’s rights, health, education, housing, sanitation, the removal of religion bars …

A lot of the language and images may seem patronising now – the Wedgwood image is very much of its time, don’t get me started on the Earl of Shaftesbury’s attitude towards the industrial north, and I don’t think the temperance advocates understood the real reasons why so many people drank too much – but people tried. To paraphrase Dirty Dancing (rather incongruously, I know), they thought they could make the world better.

Yet the century kicked off with a virtual reign of terror, amid Establishment paranoia about revolution. Trying both to fight this, on behalf of his pal Ned Despard – who did really exist, and was very well-known at the time although he’s largely been forgotten now – and to help to promote the campaign for Abolition, we have, of course, got Ross Poldark. Debbie Horsfield from Eccles has come up with all this, because the books don’t cover this period, and I’m rather enjoying it! Come on, what a hero! Mr Darcy may have been a good landlord, but he never made impassioned speeches in Parliament or saved the king from assassination attempts, did he? Mr Rochester locked up his wife and tried to commit bigamy! Now, Ross – what a hero. Tricorne hat and all!  And, hopefully, he’s making us think.

It looks as if a fair bit of this series is going to revolve around Ross’s friendship with Ned Despard, who, as I’ve said above, was a real life figure. Ned, like Ross, fought in the British army during the American War of Independence. He was then appointed superintendent of the Bay of Honduras (Belize), which was technically under Spanish sovereignty but had come under the control of British settlers – who were cutting and exporting mahogany, using slave labour. Poldark’s nemesis, George Warleggan the baddie, is getting involved in the mahogany trade. Ned clashed with the wealthy landowners, partly because, when new settlers arrived, some of them white and some of them (former slaves) black, he gave equal rights to them all. He also married a black or mixed race woman, possibly a former slave, Catherine (Kitty).

Despard was recalled to London, spent some time in a debtors’ prison, and then got involved in radical politics. Exactly what went on isn’t entirely clear, but he was arrested and imprisoned on suspicion of involvement in the 1798 Irish Rebellion, before eventually being freed without charge, and then, in 1802, accused of leading the “Despard Plot”, an alleged conspiracy to assassinate the king and launch an uprising. Lord Nelson spoke on his behalf. But he was sentenced to death, and hanged and beheaded alongside six others – in front of a huge crowd.

Both he and Kitty, who’d mounted a very determined campaign for his release during his first period in jail and again in 1802, had become very well-known. Kitty had, additionally, spoken out about the appalling conditions in which prisoners were being kept – a cause taken up by the MP Francis Burdett. And this programme also showed her speaking at an Abolitionist meeting.

Was Despard guilty? If so, what exactly was he guilty of? Was he, after being a thorn in the Establishment’s side for years, framed? If he was guilty – and he almost certainly was guilty, of some sort of plotting – then did the way he’d been treated excuse him in any way? We kept getting that trailer with the voiceover about “when your own country betrays you”. What does the fact that he enjoyed a lot of popularity amongst the working-classes say about popular feeling?

Something to remember. Ned’s actions in the Bay of Honduras were correct in law. There was no discrimination on grounds of race in British law in the 1790s, any more than there is now. And there has never been any legal barrier in British(/English/Scottish) law against interracial marriage. That’s just worth remembering.

And something to think about. Reform not revolution, yes … but these were very, very difficult times. I think it’s meant to be 1800, so we’re 19 years before the Peterloo Massacre, which I know I tend to harp on about but which is getting a huge amount of local attention at the moment because we’re so close to the 200th anniversary. If you’ve got a state which will do that, where peaceful protesters will be mown down and stabbed by the cavalry … as the voiceover for the trailer kept saying, “to whom do you then owe loyalty”?

This is great stuff. Period dramas don’t always make you think. They should do! As I’ve said, ballrooms and bedrooms are fine, but let’s get everyone talking about big historical issues – and they don’t come much bigger than Abolitionism. Let’s not make it all about politics, obviously. We want the soapy stuff too. Oh, and if Ross could do the bare-chested scything thing again, it would be much appreciated. But let’s think, as well.

Maybe it was easier in the late 18th and the19th centuries. People, or at least middle-class people, involved in the reform movements had so much more time. However strongly you might feel about something, it’s difficult to do much when you’re stuck in work all day and then you’ve got housework and family responsibilities as well. I wonder about this sometimes. People who go around setting up camp outside fracking sites, or whatever – have they not got jobs? I’m not knocking anyone: I just genuinely don’t get it.

But, that aside, the point is that people like Elizabeth Fry, Josephine Butler and the others saw injustices and they tried to do something about them. At the moment, there just seems to be so much anger and hatred. Some of it’s utter rubbish about the most bizarre things, like claiming that the Wimbledon draw was fixed as part of a conspiracy by the British Establishment to give an advantage to a particular player (I am not making this up!!). Some of it is extremely serious – people yelling and screaming outside primary schools and threatening teachers, because schools have introduced “No Outsiders” programmes which explain to children that everyone deserves to be treated fairly and equally.  Then there are all the people who hurl abuse at you and accuse you of every manner of prejudices just because you happen to disagree with them about something.  And politicians hurl insults at each other instead of trying to get anything sorted.

Less yelling, more contemplating, more “am I not a man and a brother”, more thinking you can make the world better? It’s a nice thought …