Audrey Thomas has an impressive body of work, more than 16 books, several set in Africa. Some have provocative narrators, but none is as intriguing as Letitia Elizabeth Landon, known as Letty, who narrates her own story from beyond the grave in Local Customs, Thomas’s latest book. “I can speak freely now that I am dead,” she tells us.
Thomas uses some wonderfully augmented facts from the life of the real Letitia Landon, a 19th-century English poet and writer. Other characters in Local Customs are also drawn from history: Captain George Maclean, governor of Cape Coast Castle, on the Guinea Coast; Brodie Cruickshank, another Scotsman in Africa, who becomes Letty’s “cavalier,” and Thomas Birch Freeman, a Wesleyan missionary of mixed race.
In her afterword Thomas tells us that the genesis of the book came in the mid 1960s when she visited the Gold Coast and saw the graves of George and Letitia Maclean. Thomas’s guide said she was “a famous English lady who wrote books,” and that “a mystery still surrounded her death.”
Letty narrates her story in a thin voice—compared to some of Thomas’s past narrators like the more robust Mrs. Blood (from the novel of the same name)—but ideal for a revenant. She tells us that her mother was emotionally distant and her father feckless, a romantic adventurer who rapidly ran through the family money. After his death, the 18-year-old girl falls under the influence of William Jerdan, editor of the Literary Gazette. In becoming the sole support of her family by means of her pen, she learns self-discipline: “I didn’t have time for sympathy. I needed to write and write and write. If I didn’t write I should die.”
After nearly two decades of toil punctuated by brief but satisfying bouts of admiration, Letty faces reality: She is 34, unmarried, her verse is falling out of fashion. She despairs of finding a husband and attributes this problem to a shady past including a love affair with Jerdan and an abandoned child.
She is thus predisposed to fall in love with George Maclean, on leave in England after putting down an insurrection in Africa: “There were words [in his report] which sent my blood racing: danger; price on my head; stood firm; the royal umbrellas; the heat; success; Africa.”
Maclean represents security spiced by danger and Letty fixes upon him as a potential husband. Yet she has subconscious misgivings in the form of a nightmare, in which she sees the candle on her work desk, and her “wax doppelgänger” at Madame Tussauds melting into a lump of wax.
George recognizes that Letty is “a hot-house bloom,” decorative and impractical, who will not last on the plague-ridden coast. Yet, swayed by pressure from Letty and her clergyman brother, he asks her to marry him. In so doing he rattles the skeleton in his own closet—his “country wife,” Ekosua, then awaiting his return in Africa. The marriage sets the inevitable tragedy in motion. The couple leave England in July 1838 and arrive on the Gold Coast in August. But Letty is dead within two months. The questions are why and how. For answers Thomas directs us to local customs.
The backdrop to the story of George and Letty is the political and social panorama of Africa during the first third of the 19th century: British colonization, the slave trade, the role of the Wesleyans in Abolition. Maclean is representative of the new British traders who attempt to make up lost slave-trade profits with African gold and palm oil. As governor he wants to bring justice to the Gold Coast, yet his company is still surreptitiously supplying rogue slavers. In the foreground, the clash of British Christianity and African juju is embodied by Thomas Birch Freeman, the Wesleyan missionary, and the shadowy but menacing presence of Ekosua. The attractions of such a young woman (she once saved George’s life when he was suffering from a fever) are beautifully delineated by Thomas.
When adjudicating court claims George frequently deals with situations involving rivals where “‘a certain man had put ‘medicine’ in the plaintiff’s soup, medicine meaning poison.” Despite this, he does not question his own role in a similar equation when Letty receives juju threats, presumably from Ekosua.
A further consideration in the novel is the human cost of African exploration and trade, not only for the colonized but also for the colonizers. Prior to Letty’s arrival, a contingent of English missionaries died of what was almost certainly yellow fever.
The novel progresses through brief expository paragraphs headed by the individual speaker’s name. The triumph of the novel is that each point of view is brought down to its simplest utterance. George, for example, values the work done by Freeman and the Wesleyans while the capricious Letty dislikes him. Their dialogue, because brief, gives the impression of dramatic speech:
George: You don’t like Mr. Freeman, do you?
Me: Not much, he thinks he’s an Englishman.
George: He is an Englishman, born and bred in England. The fact that he’s mulatto doesn’t make him any less an Englishman.
Me: Haven’t you noticed how he says “we,” all the time … He told me that he is “heartbroken” at [the locals’] ignorance of civilized customs…
George: Are you defending the local customs? Have you become an expert in four weeks?
For Letty the Gold Coast is a “dream” filled with picturesque characters and scenery. This idyllic state is left behind as she becomes aware of an undefined menace, strange dolls left at her bedroom door, a dead bat under the bed. Attempting to educate her about the slave trade, Freeman brings her to the cellars where the slaves were held before being sent to England. As Letty recalls, “these cells are still paved with layer upon layer of human excrement … It was shortly after that I began to feel unwell.” She is tormented in the last weeks of her life by terrible dreams, an unseen presence and a mocking laugh outside her door.
George and Letty, initially ill matched, are—ironically—moving toward mutual love as her end nears. Was there an unwanted pregnancy, as their housekeeper suspects? Or was it a fever, which Letty refused to acknowledge? Brodie is suffering from fever when he comes to call, but Letty installs him on her daybed and cools his forehead with a handkerchief sprinkled with eau de cologne. Was it poison, and, if so, who administered it? Several of the characters discuss the juju poisons freely available at the market. Or was it simply an overdose of Letty’s usual potion of prussic acid, which she had been taking for female complaints? In Thomas’s version, the essential glass of water to dilute this potion is not near the bed where Letty dies, nor can the poison be found.
The reader tends to suspect Ekosua. But even that interpretation is not free of doubt. Letty might well be suffering from yellow fever in its third phase of derangement, thus her final vision might not be trustworthy. We cannot easily settle on any one interpretation. In this fascinating book, Thomas’s best, we find a complex portrait of a highly interesting woman whose better—and worse—qualities destroy her.