Friday, May 19, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho by Paterson Joseph

 I received this audiobook for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho by Paterson Joseph is a historical novel that imagines the life of the subject of Thomas Gainsborough’s 1768 painting, The Portrait of Ignatius Sancho. The first Black man to vote in a British general election (in 1774), Sancho’s history is pieced together by the author based on Sancho’s own letters and writings and on contemporary accounts. There are great gaps in the historical record, but the author fills them in with rich, imaginative, and credible details.

Born on a slave ship and brought to England as a toddler, Sancho is reared in slavery (until the age of ~20) by three unmarried sisters who treat him as a pet rather than a person. Finding a path to education in secret with the influential Duke of Montagu, who is sympathetic to the antislavery cause, Sancho becomes a learned man as well as an excellent musician and composer. He eventually escapes the sisters (who he refers to as ‘the coven’) and, with difficulty, scrapes together a living. But he must always keep one eye out for his nemesis, a brutal slave catcher. It’s a lonely existence. He is seen as an oddity by the White community and cannot find a place for himself within the free Black community in London. 

After the death of Montagu, Sancho’s position becomes more precarious, and for a short time, his situation is desperate enough that he is ready to end his own life. Fortunately, he reconnects with the duke’s widow, who gives him a small pension and, in due course, a job.

Sancho’s life changes focus when he meets a Black footman, John Osborne, who introduces him to his daughter Anne. 

A large part of the middle of the novel consists of correspondence between Sancho, in London, and Anne, who has gone to the West Indies to nurse a sick aunt, who is a slave there. She remains in the West Indies for years, writing home of the horrors of the plantations. Eventually, she returns home where she and Sancho are reunited and marry. Anne is clever and kind, and supports Sancho unconditionally.

The novel is constructed as an autobiography written by the elderly and ill Sancho for his son, Billy. Sancho utilizes his old diaries to help reconstruct the tale. It is a fascinating look at the hidden lives of Black men and women in eighteenth century London, although Sancho is considerably more fortunate than most.

The audiobook is narrated by the author, who smoothly navigates the transitions in time and the various speech patterns of the characters, telling a compelling story that rings true as being told in Sancho’s own words.

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