Feb 20 2012 11:00am

Mehuru, the Romance Hero Who Could Have Been

A Respectable Trade by Philippa GregoryMehuru from Philippa Gregory’s A Respectable Trade isn’t a romance hero, but he should have been. Though he lacks the happy ending guaranteed every hero in the romance genre, he’s got everything else. Intelligent? Check. Influential? Check. Educated? Check. Wealthy? Check. Tall, dark and handsome? Check, check and check. A priest of the Yoruba tribe in eighteenth century Africa, a position that combines the duties of spiritual leader and politician, Mehuru has it all, but loses it all in very short order. His own trusted servant betrays him to slavers who strip Mehuru of everything, including his name. Tortured past? Check, big time, only in this book, Mehuru lives a tortured present.

Renamed Moses, Mehuru finds himself thrown in with other African captives on a ship bound for distant, chilly England. Though his companions succumb to despair, Mehuru refuses to lose his dignity, even when his white captors doubt his ability to learn the most basic concepts.

He meets his match in Frances, wife of his new owner, Josiah, who has been given the task of educating select slaves to appeal to England’s upper crust, thus commanding higher prices and saving her husband’s business. Though Frances begins her work as a duty, there’s a spark that neither she nor Mehuru can deny and the two embark upon a forbidden love affair.

The BBC adaptation of this novel includes a delicious scene where Frances attempts to teach Mehuru how many paces he must walk behind his betters, which turns into an exercise in blatant yet delicate flirtation. In book as well as movie, Frances and Mehuru soon find themselves at a point of no return. Frances begins to address Mehuru by his true name rather than his slave name when they are alone, and their intimacy heightens in both the emotional and physical sense.

Mehuru, Frances soon learns, is every bit her equal, and were they in Africa instead of England, he would be considered her superior. His wealth and education would vastly exceed her, as would the number of languages he speaks. Mehuru, as well, learns that Frances is as enslaved by her arrangement with Josiah as Mehuru is himself, and this knowledge bonds them all the tighter.     

Reality intrudes when Frances discovers she is pregnant. The clock ticks down the time the forbidden lovers have left. Should they flee? Should they brazen it out and hope the baby is or can be passed off as Josiah’s? In a romance, the lovers would have made a break for it, Mehuru finding his way home to Africa, perhaps, or maybe find a new home in France or Germany. This, however, is historical fiction, so we get Frances and son, fresh from childbed, racing out of the house as Josiah’s sister shrilly spills the beans. As would most likely happen in a novel written in 1788, Frances succumbs to complications from the birth, knowing only precious minutes as a family with her love and their child.

Though Mehuru would not see an end to slavery within his lifetime, thanks to the efforts of abolitionists such as William Wilberforce, his son would one day live as a free man. While every decent parent wants a better life for their child, and this outcome fits the historical sphere of the story, Mehuru and Frances rank high on my list of fictional couples who should have had their happily ever after.


Anna C. Bowling considers writing historical romance the best way to travel through time and make the voices in her head pay rent. She welcomes visitors to her blog, Typing With Wet Nails and to follow her at Twitter.

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1. Janet_Mullany
I've no idea what happened to my previous comment but thanks so much for this post. This is one of my favorite books and certainly the only one by Philippa Gregory I can tolerate. One of the amazing things about this book is that Gregory actually made me start rooting for Josiah, hoping his uninsured ships would make it home, and cringing for him as he's insulted and cheated by the clique of successful Bristol merchants.

I think, though, that the ending you refer to is that of the TV adaptation, not that of the book. I liked the TV version (particularly the stepping stones scene!) but I think it lacked the moral complexity of the book.
Heather Waters
2. hnwaters
@Janet Mullany -- Hi, Janet, I'm so sorry about that. I know I saw your comment here too; not sure what happened, but I'll have IT look into it.
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