cHarles Ignatius Sancho was an 18th-century composer and activist, and one of the first registered black voters in Britain. Actor and playwright Patterson JosephA debut novel charts the life of this remarkable man through fictional entries, letters and commentary. It’s a high-risk approach, but the diary’s voice sounds exactly like Sancho in his real letters – perfect on the pitch not only for the period, but also for the man.
The story takes us from Sancho’s birth to his middle age. He began his life on a slave ship, but soon moved to London, where he was given to the “sisters” who cut him off by his strange name. He finds luck with a Duke, learns to read and perform Shakespeare, escapes, suffers, loves, prospers, and eventually manages to acquire enough possessions to vote. The work is compelling, but the way he tells Joseph makes this book so much fun.
Joseph Sancho is full of great humour, from his fervent feelings about cake—”Francis Williams was sitting in the library one Thursday morning, eating Mine Cakes”—to his description of his three mistresses as ‘Coven’. Like Tristram Shandy, he has a consistent philosophical approach to bad luck. Even at his lowest point, on a cold street after betting on most of his clothes, he has a strong sense of absurdity, and because this comedic inclination is not far away “Never, Joseph can include terrible things without making the story too punishing. There’s no turning away from real history: Sancho’s life isn’t all cake in the Duke’s library. But in his intelligent, realist, endlessly gentle voice, it’s rarely hard to read.”
Only once does the novel become truly horrific, when a young girl is raped on a farm. It contrasts so much with the rest of the book, that it reads as if someone else wrote it. There are some things that even Sancho can’t light up.
Sancho may be a great comedian but he’s also haunted. He feels very guilty for being relatively safe. The sisters are evil, but he painfully realizes that he’s never worked in a field or making molasses. As a little kid, he has the care of a duke who serves all those important cakes; He meets historical figures such as Dr. Johnson, Thomas Gainsborough, Lawrence Stern, and even the King. His realization that this is not the life people like him can expect through the entire novel, as well as his fear that his children won’t always be able to keep them safe.
Like most stories that follow a true biography, the novel moves sporadically. At first it runs very quickly and surely, when Sancho is a kid; There are periods of lull, and then sporadic bursts of activity again. Some of the moments Sancho is best known for – meeting the king, composing music, sitting down for a photo of Gainsborough – are treated very succinctly. This is a nice trick though for him, it just isn’t important. He’s distracted by his growing family and increasingly troublesome gout.
In his introduction to the novel, Joseph says, perhaps with a bit of theatrical grandeur that he injects so well into Sancho’s character, that his aim is to portray the presence of blacks in British history “in the way you met Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and Jane Eyre”. It is a difficult task for the writer to define himself, but interest and research shine through in every chapter. This is a first-class tragic comedy, not to be missed.