Reading Group Guide
The devastating consequences of the slave trade in 18th-century Bristol, England, are explored through the powerful but FORBIDDEN attraction of well-born Frances Scott and her Yoruban slave, Mehuru. Bristol in 1787 is booming, from its shipping docks to its elegant new houses. Josiah Cole, a small dockside trader, is prepared to gamble everything to join the big players of the city. But he needs ready cash and a well-connected wife.
An arranged marriage to Frances Scott is a mutually convenient solution. Trading her social contacts for Josiah's protection, Frances enters the world of Bristol merchants and finds her life and fortune depend on the respectable trade of sugar, rum, and slaves.
Into her new world comes Mehuru, once a priest in the ancient African kingdom of Yoruba. From the opposite ends of the earth, despite the enmity of slavery, Mehuru and Frances confront each other and their needs for love and liberty.
1. What is Mehuru's role in his African tribe? To what extent do his gift of prophecy and his linguistic abilities enable him to endure the hardships of the middle passage and his enslavement in England?
2. "We can never leave the Trade. It is the only thing we know." How do Sarah Cole's attitudes about the trade and the risk involved in her family's shipping business compare with those of her brother, Josiah? To what extent do Sarah's views prevent her from welcoming her sister-in-law, Frances, into the family?
3. Before Frances meets the slaves she is to instruct in English, she says: "I have taught children, but they were human children. I wouldn't know how to teach niggers." Based on the statements made by slaves, their owners, and abolitionists, describe the range of racial views held by the inhabitants of 18th-century Bristol.
4. Why do Frances and Josiah allow Sir Charles Fairley's to rape one of the female slaves? What do they have to lose by refusing his request? What do they have to gain by looking the other way while he commits his sexual assault?
5. Why does Josiah wish to ally himself with the Scott family through his arranged marriage to Frances? What does such an alliance represent to the society figures of Bristol? To what extent are Josiah's naïveté and unchecked ambition responsible for his being cheated by fellow members of the Merchant Venturers?
6. Why does Mehuru's involvement in the abolitionist movement threaten Frances? To what extent does Mehuru qualify as a radical in his efforts to gain his freedom from his owners? Why didn't he try to escape during one of his nighttime expeditions to the coffee house?
7. "Only a free man can give his friendship. If you wish us to be friends I have to be free. Anything else is slavish devotion -- it means nothing." Why does Frances wait until her death to set Mehuru free? What would his freedom represent to her in her lifetime?
8. "Maybe one day there will be a world where a man and a woman like us might love each other, d'you think?" Is the romance that develops between Mehuru and Frances challenged more by their different social stations as slave and owner or their different racial backgrounds? To what extent is the "forbidden fruit" aspect of their love responsible for the undeniable intensity?
9. Why does Frances Cole conceal her pregnancy from Mehuru and choose to reveal the baby's paternity to her physician and her slave, Elizabeth? Why do you think Philippa Gregory chose to end the novel at such a dramatic moment?
10. To what extent do you see the end of A Respectable Trade as a tragedy? In what ways does it represent a victory for Mehuru? How did this ending affect your appreciation of the story as a whole, and what kind of future do you envision for the interracial son born to Frances and Mehuru?