“The moment the slave resolves that he will no longer be a slave, his fetters fall. Freedom and slavery are mental states.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
The award-winning Andrea Levy’s most recent novel, The Long Song follows the intertwined lives of slave, redeemed slave and freeborn black citizen, in an emotional narrative which follows both the last days of slavery as well as its fallout after the abolition of slavery laws. The protagonist of this novel, the sharp witted and frank July uses both her conversational tone and detailed memories to recount her tale, addressing the readers with her humorous and observation interjections, as well as weaving her memories with the events which unravel. Also mixed into her narrative are the lives of her mother, a slave measured purely by her function and value, and July’s own son, given away from birth to live a better life in London, albeit still a victim of prejudice and hardship. Yet this is not a depressing novel; and there is more to these character’s lives than their bondage to their owners. July and her family make it clear that they create their own narrative, and one that is worth remembering.
From the very beginning of the novel, there is a birth, one that is full of rumours, “ornate invention” and tales, and it is this which establishes the theme of storytelling and passing down –emphasising the importance of heritage. While July’s true origins and her birth are revealed as a struggle in a dingy hut in filthy conditions, and the treatment of her mother, Kitty, are no better, it is still clear to us that these are no passive characters. We see in the beginning of the novel the difficulty July has in telling her son her history and story – until she begins to write it down, further emphasising the importance of recording history ( “Your storyteller is a woman possessed of a forthright tongue and little ink” ) and the idea of telling her true story. A significant comparison to the proverbial bored “white missus” and her freedom to write about the “many tribulations of her life” and her incessant “puff and twaddle” further shows how the ‘wrong’ truths are focused on by the white slave owners (and by implication, the white coloniser). In this way, July’s own narrative corrects these views that have been peddled to the readers, carrying a strong postcolonial message of rewriting the image of the black slaves and their representation. It is ironic that July refuses to write her tale with all the unnecessary descriptions and complaints that she assigns to the white woman writer, as she too fills her scenes with distraction and details, as well as interruptions from her son as she writes her novel and minor events which occur, showing how she chooses to take control of her own version of storytelling, while emphasising its difference from previous writers.
July is repeatedly urged by her son to write about the events of history and slave emancipation – “the firing of plantations”, the “leader of the rebellion”, how the “regiments marched and the militias mustered” while the “bullets sparked like deadly fireflies; and bare black feet ran nimble though grass” – yet July knows nothing of this as she did not witness it. She does not wish to glorify her story with recorded facts and “pamphlets” but rather record her own history. So we are presented with the idea of truth and recording history accurately. She shows her own conflict in wanting to show the true events and also not wanting to let down or undermine the courageous actions of the freed black slaves who fought to put her in the position that she is now in. Yet July is also clear that each character has their own views and experience of slavery and prejudice, and it is this which cannot be forgotten also. The sad irony is that for July and her fellow slaves, they never really experience the war, it is built on rumours, talks and information from others. Her assertion that “You paint untruth” shows the danger of romanticising the truth, and using it to fit a certain agenda. So we see the idea of layers – of time, of stories, of narratives, personality and feelings, subtly woven through the novel, as July makes her own mark as slave, narrator, woman and a storyteller.
Accordingly, the concept of “free” becomes a big one in this novel, and one that is mulled over and chewed over by all the characters to mean different things and have different effects. We see how at first it is just a rumour, and seen as part of the normal gossip between the slaves, yet these are punctuated with powerful scenes which define the status of the slaves. The scene in which the end of slavery is symbolised by the coffin which is filled with shackles, chains and handcuffs by the slaves is an effective one, although it is voiced by July it does not show so much of her personal feelings and thoughts, than a collective memory by all the slaves in the residence. It is this which shows what ‘free’ means to them, and the importance of collective and individual identity.
There are still, some factors which undermine this freedom, however, and the irony lies in the ‘values’ of slaves. July’s realisation that the price of the slaves makes no difference to the “bewhiskered white men in England” shows how they must look to themselves for their own value instead of being defined by their value as slaves and what they can bring for their owners. Although July’s disappointment in her ‘freedom’ makes her feel as if she has no cause to celebrate (after all, “what change had free brought?”), it can be said that July’s disappointment lies in wanting things to be changed automatically with the word ‘free’, until she gradually begins to realise the importance of creating your own identity and taking it with your own hands. Another facet to the idea of value which also recurs is the representation of “mulattos” and mixed race slaves, and how they are perceived. In an unspoken hierarchy of colour, where light skin is seen as beautiful, characters just as the light-skinned Miss Clara, who aspires to marry a white man shows how they define themselves according to the values set by their white owners, and how this is something that they will never be able to meet.
The character of Caroline, July’s mistress, represents the typical white woman’s attitude towards the Caribbean. At first seeing Jamaica as novel and exotic, Caroline is eager to try everything and revel in the idea of being in a new place. Yet this is abruptly contrasted in the stark contrast to the way she views the “negroes”, and both her fear and repulsion for them. It is this which stops her from ever seeing them as her equals, and even as humans, and her coping device is simply to ‘master’ the slaves. The ease in which she takes way July from her mother to be brought “up in the house” as her maid is just one example of many in how Caroline expects her whims to be met. Over the years, her character is no less spoilt, and she becomes more and more the archetypal white slave owner; lazy, cruel and blind to her own faults. Her assertion that “I am forgot” in the midst of change epitomises how she is indeed left behind in her own narcissism, and too caught up in her own needs to help herself.
Always running through the novel is also the various languages and expressions, revealing a mix of cultures. The combination of Caribbean dialect spoken by the slaves with the proper English as spoken by their owners serve as manifestations of their differences, yet it is also these will allow the slaves to create their own dialect between themselves and control their own words. Even July’s narrative becomes emotional when recounting her memories, and her ‘native’ dialect surfaces during painful scenes ( “Him wan’ me suffer every likkle t’ing!” ) showing perhaps, the age old psychological theory that we revert to our childhood when dealing with our pasts. While the narratives of the white characters are maintained by their English tone and dignity, the contrast in the detailed, almost vulgar descriptions of the lives of the slaves and their troubles further emphasises the liveliness and vitality of the society of slaves and their day-to-day lives. While we see how the slaves are beaten and punished, Levy also presents a comical side to lighten the tone, describing elaborate lies thought up by slaves to avoid trouble and the mischief they get up to. This is not don’t to undermine or hide July’s pain, such as missing her mother and counting down the days since she last saw her, but rather shows her refusal to just submit and become an object, keeping her personality alive with quiet acts of mischief and rebellion. Perhaps for July, the real war is fought on the domestic front, and certainly this is her experience. Her gradual defiance of her mistress and her appropriation of her mistress’ status – such as her secret relationship with Caroline’s husband, and her ability to bear children where Caroline cannot – shows how July takes control of her own identity and her own value.
There are several stories which run parallel in this novel, July’s life, her mother Kitty’s history, and July and her own son’s relationship, which continuously shows the importance of mother-child bond. Yet there are also other narratives running alongside this, such as Caroline’s story herself, showing a facet of the ‘poor white girl’ and her own loneliness. While there is always there is an emphasis on the difference between the black slaves and the white society, July’s story also shows that just as emancipation is importance, so is their history as slaves. The fact that the slaves appear to be always living a second-hand lifestyle, living off their owners, scavenging from their food, drink and clothes and ultimately trying to imitate them is also something which makes up their survival techniques, and not something which is their lasting identity. July shows that just as ‘free’ and ‘change’ are important concepts to aspire to; there are also responsibilities that come with these, as well as the importance in coming to terms with themselves. It must be noted, however, that this is a not a heavily political novel, nor is it one that focuses entirely on suffering of the slaves. By no means does it tear down the reader’s spirit by making us feel helpful and angry at the treatment of slaves, and July, as well as the author, makes it clear that they do not wish to define their lives by the suffering they have endured, and the hardships as both slave and ‘free’. We as readers are encouraged to opt for the happier ending, rather than the “fuss-fuss” which also occurs. Yet ultimately, we applaud as the spirited July makes her own mischief, smile as she finds love in various forms, and cheer as our heroine asserts herself and her identity, always insisting that she has her own history to tell and to be remembered. July is a victim of her circumstances, but in no way does she behave as one, and it is this which remains with us through the novel.
Andrea Levy, The Long Song (Headline Review: London 2010) pp.312 £18.99