BARRY UNSWORTH, who won the Booker Prize for Sacred
, was a Booker finalist for Pascali''s Islan
and Morality Play
and was long-listed for the Booker Prize
for The Ruby in Her Navel
. His other works include The
Songs of the Kings
, After Hannibal
, and Land of Marvels
1. Barry Unsworth takes his title from Shakespeare's The
Merchant of Venice-the scene in which Portia tells the
vengeful moneylender Shylock: "The quality of mercy is not strained
/ It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven / Upon the place
beneath. / It is twice blessed: / It blesseth him that gives and
him that takes." Why would Unsworth reference
Shakespeare's play in his title? At what key moments in the novel
does mercy prevail over vengeance? Why, for example, does Kemp
decide not to apprehend Sullivan?
2. What is the effect of telling the story through multiple
points-of-view-of getting inside the minds of all the main
characters rather than having one perspective dominate?
3. The novel opens with Sullivan dragging a drunken man out of
harm's way, then robbing him of most of his money. He begins to
walk away, but decides that he should rob the man of all
his money, his boots and his coat, so that the lucky fellow will
not "go through life feelin' convicted of ingratitude" for
Sullivan's good deed. In what ways does this very humorous scene
set up some of the novel's major themes? What other characters
contrive to mask their own self-interest as generosity?
4. What makes Sullivan such an engaging character? How does he
interpret his sudden changes in fortune, both good and bad? Why is
he so trusting?
5. What role do vows play in the novel? What motivates both
Sullivan and Kemp to keep their vows? Is Jane right in saying that
Kemp fulfilled his vow to his father simply by sharing it with her?
How does sharing that vow affect him?
6. Sullivan says of James Bordon that he was the only one, of
all those who heard the story of Billy Blair, that "had the power
of sharin'. The sister was grateful an' the others took an
interest, but he was other only one could touch it in his mind....
And the reason for that, the reason for that sharin', lies in the
power of imagining' a thing that you have niver lived through. It
is the power of imaginin' that makes a man stand out, an' it is
rarer than you might think. It is similar to the power of music"
(p. 262). In what important ways is the novel about the power of
sharing and imaginative empathy? How is sharing similar to music?
Does Kemp acquire this power by the novel's end?
7. Why are the former slaves and the mutinous crew of the
laplander able to live more or less as equals after their shipwreck
8. In what ways does Kemp change over the course of the novel?
How does his character grow more complex as more of his motivations
and his family history is revealed? What do the surprising
decisions does he makes, regarding Sullivan and Michael Bordon, say
9. How are the wealthy-Lord Spenton and Erasmus Kemp
particularly-depicted in the novel? How do they regard those
beneath them in the social order? How do they view each other?
10. Both Jane and her brother Frederick Ashton want to effect
real change in the world, to abolish slavery and improve the lives
of the oppressed. How do they differ in terms of their motives and
11. In a series of cynical observations about how he manipulated
the jury through their fear of mob rule, the lawyer Pike thinks of
Kemp: "Propriety and property, those were his guiding lights" (p.
204). How are property and propriety related? What does Lord
Spenton do with the common lands once they become his property? In
what different ways do Kemp and Bordon view the property of the
Dene? What are the legal and moral ramifications of regarding
slaves as merely another form of property?
12. What arguments do Ashton's lawyers use to abolish the legal
grounds for slavery? Why are they ultimately successful?
13. When Jane tells Kemp that she hopes Michael Bordon will keep
the land Lord Spenton has given him and cultivate it as his father
would have done, Kemp responds with a "smile of indulgence for
sentiments that only ignorance of the world could account for"-a
smile which Jane had seen on other men's faces when she had
expressed her enthusiasm for what were considered eccentric causes
(p. 293). What does this subtle exchange reveal about how women
were regarded in 18th century England?
14. Even though she is powerfully attracted to Kemp, Jane
hesitates and considers his marriage proposal very carefully. What
are her concerns? What ultimately sways her?
15. The Quality of Mercy is very much about a specific
time and place, England in 1767. What is most surprising about the
portrait Unsworth paints of this particular historical moment? In
what ways does the novel hold a mirror up to our own times?