Friday, December 3, 2010

Book 38, US Virgin Islands: "The Governor-General's Lady" by Jean Heyn

I'm a little tired, so I'll give this book a speedy review. It's a lightweight historical romance novel by an obscure American author; not really the kind of thing I'd have picked up if I'd understood what it was properly before reserving it at NLB, nor the kind of thing I'd have checked out if there'd been any better options.

Still, it is informative: it's based on the life of real-life 19th century Virgin Islander icon Anna Heegaard, a descendant of slaves and Danish colonists who passed through the hands of many men before ending up with a comfortable fortune of property and the love of Governor-General Peter von Scholten (of course he had a wife and kids back in Copenhagen, though, so he couldn't actually marry her).

Scholten also ended up emancipating the slaves of the entire island, providing the thrust of the story after Anna's well set up for herself. I'd had no idea of how tricky the business of freeing the unfree was: the different stages in history as slaves began to buy (or whore) themselves out of bondage, some reaching middle-class status on par with the whites, while being forced to carry letters proving their free status for generations in case they were stopped in the street; first a ban on the import of new slaves, then a proclamation that all those newly born to slaves would be free, and the institution of slavery falling in neighbouring island after island, with petition after petition by the Governor to the Danish crown before the proper rebellion broke out, birthing the declaration of freedom.

It's pretty entertaining, too: some bodice-ripping sex scenes, even as Anna and Scholten age into their fifties, and lush descriptions of architecture and clothing, jalousies and coral earrings, and a bit of native dialect too. But it's not truly well written - there's amateurish adverbs and excessively painstaking narration of historical fact in between the saintly portrayal of Ms Heegaard herself as a paragon of history.

Ambitious stuff, nonetheless. Pulp isn't necessarily easy to do. Would that I could write something as sensational.

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Representative quote: His voice suddenly grew soft and sinister. "These are perilous times, Madam, when accidents easily occur. I swear to you that one way or another, if he sides with the blacks, you will find yourself alone on your hilltop, your home in ruins. And what will you be then? I ask you. Not the respected widow of a Virgin Islands governor. No indeed. You'll be nothing but an elderly black whore! I suggest you use your influence."

Anna clenched her fists in outrage. Her voice was icy cold and carefully controlled as she answered him. "You were quite right, Mr Grimes, when you said your visit need not be long. I suggest you leave at once. Good day, Sir." She turned her back on him. With head held high she walked toward her villa. Not once did she deign to look back.

Next book: Caryl Phillips's Cambridge, from St Kitts and Nevis.

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