What is a summary of A Respectable Trade by Philippa Gregory?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Philippa Gregory's historical novel A Respectable Trade is set in Bristol, England, during the slave-trading days of the 1780s. The story is one of impossible love shared between white governess Frances Scott and slave Mehuru.

Orphan Frances Scott works as a governess and is also provided for by Lord and Lady Scott, her aunt and uncle. One day, Frances reads an advertisement written by slave merchant Josiah Cole asking for a governess. What is unusual about his ad is she knows Josiah does not have children of his own. Curious, she promptly answers the ad and goes to be interviewed by Josiah. However, as soon as he learns Frances is the niece of the powerful Lord and Lady Scott, he promptly closes the interview. He next writes her a letter of apology saying, "I was Delighted to meet you at my Warehouse when you applied for the Post of governess, but your Family Connexions and own Demeanor convinced me that I could Never think of You as an Employee of mine" (p. 3). Instead, he asks her to marry him.

At the age of 34, Frances knows it is the last offer of marriage she is likely to receive so feels inclined to accept and does so. But she is still curious to know why Josiah advertised for a governess in the first place and soon learns he wants the governess to teach his captured slaves, newly arrived from Africa.

The first group of slaves she is responsible for teaching consists of 13 people, including Mehuru, who had been a priest in Africa and an adviser to his tribe's king. He learns English quickly and is soon able to act as interpreter between others and their owners.

Frances spends most of her time with Mehuru, and they feel an instant attraction towards each other. Yet Frances sees the clear dichotomy between them: Mehuru remains a proud and strong man despite having been enslaved, while she herself is weak and feels oppressed by society, especially by her high social standing. She is terrified of leaving her husband Josiah for Mehuru because she knows she would become a social outcast and can't bear the thought of no longer having the Scott family to support her. Mehuru, on the other hand, is devoted to finding a way to obtain his freedom and to spend his life in freedom with Frances.

Regardless, Frances soon dies in childbirth. Mehuru is by her side the moment her son is born and up to the moment of her last dying breath. Before dying, she tells him where to find her will, a will in which she grants Mehuru and the rest of her husband's slaves their freedom.

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