Ro­mance on the high seas

The Herald - Arts - - PAPERBACK - Sara Sheri­dan Black & White, £8.99 ALAS­TAIR MABBOTT

AS a his­tor­i­cal ro­mance or a Ge­or­gian-era smug­gling thriller, On Starlit Seas is the kind of page-turner it’s pleas­ant to curl up with, a steam­ing mug of hot choco­late at the ready. Look a lit­tle deeper and this novel re­veals it­self to be a tena­cious ex­plo­ration into how peo­ple are kept in their place, and of­ten com­pelled to rise above it, by the rigid codes of class.

Its hero­ine is the real-life 19th-century writer Maria Gra­ham, a woman well ahead of her time. “A keen ob­server of life abroad”, with a se­ri­ous, an­a­lyt­i­cal mind and an ap­ti­tude for sci­ence, her books were pub­lished by John Mur­ray, whose ros­ter in­cluded Jane Austen, Lord By­ron and Sir Wal­ter Scott. We join her af­ter the death of her hus­band in Brazil, where civil war has bro­ken out and the only way to get to Lon­don and sub­mit her lat­est manuscripts is to book pas­sage with the rogu­ish but es­sen­tially de­cent (and en­tirely fic­tional) trader Cap­tain John Hen­der­son and his cargo of ca­cao.

As a child in Lon­don, Hen­der­son an­tic­i­pated be­com­ing a re­spectable gentle­man but, when he moved to South Amer­ica to be with his fa­ther, found that his old man was not the pros­per­ous colo­nial busi­ness­man his let­ters home claimed. John grew up in­stead to be­come the skip­per of an an­ti­quated trad­ing bar­que with a side­line in smug­gling. Re­turn­ing to Lon­don is al­most like re­claim­ing a birthright: the city rep­re­sents ev­ery­thing he wanted to be.

The class that Cap­tain Hen­der­son as­pires to join, how­ever, is sti­fling Maria. All that we find ad­mirable about her – her in­de­pen­dence, her sta­tus as a writer, her will­ing­ness to fight her way through jun­gles – is ab­hor­rent to her fam­ily, who want to bring the way­ward woman to heel and turn her into a proper so­ci­ety lady.

Hen­der­son awak­ens a pas­sion in Maria that she never felt for her late hus­band. But she’s well aware that mar­ry­ing some­one so un­suit­able would ruin ev­ery­thing she’s achieved.

As it hap­pens, there are far greater dan­gers brew­ing. Hen­der­son has al­lowed him­self to be re­cruited into a ca­cao-smug­gling op­er­a­tion run by a sin­is­ter trio of Lon­don “gen­tle­men”. Men have al­ready died, and the cap­tain will need all his wits and ex­pe­ri­ence to ne­go­ti­ate his way through this one. It’s an ex­cit­ing enough plot, but the story is el­e­vated by the way Sheri­dan fore­fronts her char­ac­ters’ class-con­scious­ness.

The Lon­don in­vestors use their so­cial sta­tus as a weapon against their lowlier em­ploy­ees. Richard Fry, scion of the Fry’s Choco­late dy­nasty, seeks to prove he’s more than a pam­pered rich kid by dress­ing down and tak­ing walks on the wild side. Even the ven­er­a­ble John Mur­ray gets a dress­ing-down when he dares to challenge the Es­tab­lish­ment.

Sheri­dan binds to­gether so­cial com­ment, ro­mance on the high seas, pur­suit by ex­cise­men, knife-wield­ing to­er­ags in the stench of 19th-century Lon­don and the con­sump­tion of so much hot choco­late that the pages seem im­preg­nated with its heady aroma.

It all makes On Starlit Seas a plea­sure to con­sume, and not even a guilty one.

Sara Sheri­dan binds to­gether so­cial com­ment, ro­mance on the high seas, and the stench of 19th-century Lon­don

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