Novelists who write about slavery seldom shy away from depicting the immense cruelty and inhumanity of this system.
They pull at the heartstrings with historically accurate scenes of brutality and deprivation and characters forced to experience injustice and degradation.
Few authors dare to introduce any element of comedy into their work.
Few that is except for Andrea Levy in The Long Song.
A Different Form of Slavery
This is the story of Miss July, a child conceived as a result of the rape of Kitty, a field slave on the Amity sugar plantation in the early 19th century. She is destined for a hard, and likely short life, toiling in the fields with her mother.
But the plantation owner’s sister, recently arrived from England to live at Amity, spots the child. On a whim she decides this cute child will become her maid. So at the age of eight, July is separated from her mother and moved to the great house.
It’s an improvement on working in the fields. But she’s still a slave and not even allowed to keep her own name. She’s set to work sewing and waiting hand and foot upon this fat and temperamental woman.
The Long Song is set in the turbulent years before the abolition of slavery in Jamaica.
July experiences the violent retribution enacted by white settlers upon their slave populations in the aftermath of uprisings in 1831. She lives through years when rumours of freedom run through the plantations. But when freedom does happen in 1838, it doesn’t bring an end to hostile relationships between the slaves and their former masters.
Not much scope for levity you’d think.
But surprisingly, without ever trivialising her subject, Andrea Levy manages to inject a fair degree of humour into this narrative. She clearly has a gift for finding the comedy in the most unlikely of situations.
Light Amid The Darkness
July is a mischievous figure, happy in the midst of chaos. One scene has her ruin her mistress’s Christmas lunch by using an old bed sheet instead of an Irish linen table cloth. Another sees her hiding under her master’s bed, desperately trying to control her bladder while he paces the room.
Switching between third-person past and first-person present, Andrea Levy mixes the earthy Jamaican patois of the young girl with the more sophisticated and reflective voice of the older woman.
The Long Song is told in the form of July’s memoirs. Her son Thomas, a wealthy printer, intends to publish the book in an attractively bound edition with sugarcane on the cover.
But he and his octogenarian mother comically don’t see eye to eye on how this book should be written. Thomas remonstrates with his mother when he thinks she is misleading readers or leaving out significant episodes. But to Miss July, its all “fuss-fuss.“
July is, as she has always been, a shrewd, independent-minded woman. This is her story and no-one is going to tell her how is should be told, not even her son.
She will not, she tells us, dawdle over descriptions of trees and grass. Nor will she fill her memoir with the “puff and twaddle ” found in books to satisfy “some white lady’s mind”.
… your storyteller is a woman possessed of a forthright tongue and little ink. Waxing upon the nature of trees when all know they are green and lush upon this island, or birds which are plainly plentiful and raucous, or taking good words to whine upon the cruelly hot sun, is neither prudent nor my fancy. Let me confess this without delay so you might consider whether my tale is one in which you can find an interest. If not, then be on your way, for there are plenty books to satisfy if words flowing free as the droppings that fall from the backside of a mule is your desire
A Reliable Witness?
Can we rely upon her as a narrator? Only in part….
She describes one milestone event – the symbolic funeral that marked the end of slavery on 31 July 1838 – only to later admit she was in the house with her mistress at the time.
July cheekily challenges any reader who disputes her version of events, to do their own research. She, herself, will not be weighed down by any burden of proof. But she warns these readers: if you find yourself in agreement with the views expressed in one publication Conflict and change. A view from the great house of slaves, slavery and the British Empire, “then away with you – for I no longer wish you as my reader.”
July is a fantastic character; vulnerable yet proud. “Me be a mulatto, not a negro,” she insists when trying to get admission into a Friday night dance. She’s more successful at gaining entry into the bed of her mistress’s new husband, Robert Goodwin, a pretty-faced, naïve new overseer. But his belief in abolition is thrown out of the window – and July out of his bed – when the newly freed slaves refuse to obey his commands to work. They’d rather be tending to their own crops than bringing in his harvest.
Andrea Levy shows the reality of plantation life: the extreme physical hardship and the brutality meted out casually to the slaves. Women are raped, slaves are flogged and hanged or locked into a rat infested prison. But she never descends into crude sensationalism or allows the narrative to be weighed down by obvious messages. The novel is all the better for that.
The Long Song: Fast Facts
- The Long Song was published in 2010 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize the same year.
- It was the recipient of the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction in 2011.
- Andrea Levy was born in London to Jamaican parents in 1956. Levy began her career as a costume assistant, working part-time in the costume departments of the BBC and the Royal Opera House. She began writing in her mid-30s after her father died.
- She struggled to gain acceptance initially but achieved critical success with her fourth novel, Small Island , which deals with the immediate outcomes of World War II and migration on the Windrush generation. It was subsequently adapted for television and stage.
- A three-part adaptation of The Long Song was broadcast by the BBC in December 2016.
- Andrea Levy died in February 2019. The Long Song was her final novel.