Under laws of primogeniture, lords and ladies of 19th-century Britain passed expanses of wealth exclusively to first-born sons while others received little financial support. But as adults, silver-spoon-fed children were encouraged to uphold the image of privilege anyhow, guided by the relentless whisper of a gentleman’s conscience that ensured no one was ever free to conduct oneself in any natural or different way than tradition would present, essentially boiling down to a nation’s belief of inherent class superiority and entitlement in all things. Often the second-born’s search for an occupation took him to fairer shores. This leads to the subject of Anthony C. Winkler’s fabulous entertaining satire: the British occupation of Jamaica.
"THE FAMILY MANSION is an intensely charming book that is truly laugh-out-loud funny from cover to cover. It is both smart and witty, full of sophisticated surprises, great insights and very unique historical perspectives."
The setting is Jamaica’s sugar plantations, and the protagonist is a twentysomething named Hartley Fudges, a laughable fellow who might even be likable if he weren’t inherently selfish. His creed being “all for one” and being the second-born, Hartley must depend on his own resources and cleverness for any future. Lacking real-life skills or work ethic, he feels completely entitled to seduce or connive his way into any future that will provide money, so his first move is to seduce a wealthy widow. That failing, he moves quickly to his next inspired idea: to murder his brother using the gentleman’s ideal against himself, the code that a wealthy man must defend his honor in the case of any sleight by a fellow gentleman. When the assassination fails, Hartley is miserably ejected from England, his brother demanding his removal, which necessitates Hartley’s voyage to Jamaica. This is the place that becomes his home.
The Fudges family name is enough to gain Hartley considerable power in managing a sugar plantation, and he lands a job almost immediately aboard the Mermaid, a vessel that carries passengers along with slaves from various cultures. Upon reaching the island and beginning his work as an overseer, Hartley finds that it is an entirely new learning experience. But Hartley is still Hartley, and the gentleman directs his own thoughts and philosophies. Befriending another overseer of the Mount Pleasant Plantation, Hartley becomes an average slavedriver, a position of ultimate power over hundreds of slaves, leading to false securities about power; the overseers are outnumbered by the slaves on the island by more than 10 to 1.
A friend of Hartley’s by the name of Meredith warns him very early on that their job is a “cruel, brutal business,” to be carried out thoughtlessly for the sole goals of profit and maximum efficiency. Prophetically, Meredith also tells him a few facts about the island, including predictions about some of the cultures and their behavior. He is warned that “your skin color may be the same as another man’s but it doesn’t automatically make him your ally.” And Meredith urges Hartley to “try to show respect to everyone you meet…especially to the slaves” because pride is all they have. But real respect is something Hartley doesn’t understand. In a matter of months, he becomes a slave owner of a very proud young slave who has taken an interest in forming his own character, and also finds a lover who he happens to genuinely fall in love with, a very simple, devoted and painfully honest slave woman named Phibba who is very genuinely in love with Hartley, though she knows little of the character of the English gentleman.
As an island native himself, Winkler does a fabulous job of recreating Jamaica at it was while showing the roots of today’s island culture. His depictions of the English aristocrat vary greatly from the images we are familiar with; the gentleman here is clearly nothing more than a mindless bully, overly convinced of his superiority, lacking insight into himself or others, savagely willing to take advantage whenever presented the opportunity --- even to the point of rape --- of cultures he deems beneath him. This is a man who is naïve to his own nature. Winkler asserts that the coveted “family mansion” was never anything but a “breeder of claim-jumpers, invaders, and glib usurpers,” and that England’s labor pains were due to its ego issues and the consequences of primogeniture --- a law that much of Europe had done away with by the early 1800s, but Britain seemed unwilling to let go of.
THE FAMILY MANSION is an intensely charming book that is truly laugh-out-loud funny from cover to cover. It is both smart and witty, full of sophisticated surprises, great insights and very unique historical perspectives. It delves heavily into philosophy and really entertains. This is not the type of novel with which you will easily get bored. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys wonderful writing, great humor, or human interest stories.
Reviewed by Melanie Smith on May 24, 2013