The end of the book ‘The Long Song’ will give you so much to think about
Tonight sees the premiere of a highly anticipated BBC drama: The long song, an adaptation of Andrea Levy’s 2010 novel that won the Walter Scott Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker. The adaptation stars Tamara Lawrance as July, with Hayley Atwell playing Caroline Mortimer and Sir Lenny Henry playing Godfrey. But what is The long song end of book, for those who want to know the plot before watching the series? Read on to find out.
After a preface (more on that later), the novel begins with Kitty, a female slave on a British sugarcane plantation in Jamaica. She is raped by the supervisor of the plantation, and finally gives birth to a daughter: July. It is July’s witty and resolute voice that animates the novel; in the preface, she explains that her son, Thomas, is an editor, who will print her memoirs. The book is punctuated by Thomas’ frequent attempts to mold his mother’s story within the traditional confines of a novel – attempts July resists.
As a child, July was taken from her mother by Caroline Mortimer, the sister of plantation owner John Howarth. Caroline renames July “Marguerite” and takes her to the plantation house to be her lady’s maid. At night, Kitty repeatedly sneaks into the house, hoping to see her daughter stolen through the windows.
July is growing up in the house and serving Caroline’s guests at her ostentatious Christmas dinner when news of an uprising among slaves across Jamaica – the Baptist War of 1831 – reaches home. The following days, Caroline and John leave the plantation and July begins a romantic relationship with Nimrod, a freed slave. They are found by John, who returns from the brutal suppression of the uprising and shoots himself in the head.
Caroline convinces herself that Nimrod killed her brother, and he is then pursued and shot by the overseer. Kitty, hearing that the overseer is chasing her stolen daughter, attacks her; she is then brutally executed, in front of July. A traumatized July gives birth to a son, the fruit of her relationship with Nimrod, and leaves him at the door of a neighboring pastor who brings him up.
After the emancipation of slaves in Jamaica in 1838, a new foreman, Goodwin, arrived at the plantation. He’s idealistic and seemingly kind – and quickly sets his sights on July. To achieve his desires without compromising his supposedly rigid Christian values, he marries Caroline to move into the plantation house, and keeps July as his mistress downstairs.
Goodwin’s treatment of former plantation slaves quickly deteriorates when they attempt to assert their rights, refusing to work more than four days a week. He raises the rent on their land to impossible heights, believing that they will be forced to work for him. Instead, plantation workers strike, and Goodwin forcefully suppresses them.
In the house, July gives birth to a daughter, Emily, whom she considers first to be proof of her victory over Caroline. But when Goodwin develops a fever, Caroline prevents July from seeing him, and Emily, who has fair skin, is brought in on several occasions to spend time with her father. Ultimately, Caroline and Goodwin take Emily with them to England, and July – like her mother before her – is stripped of her daughter.
July presents what happens next as a story of quick recovery: she gets rich selling canned goods and eventually opens a guesthouse, frequented by white people. Thomas, however, disputes his story, while telling his own: he goes from apprentice to owner of a printing press, though he similarly sidesteps his exclusion from white English society.
Thomas moves to Jamaica, where he is on a jury in the trial of his mother, caught stealing chickens. Her trial exposes the reality of her hard and ruthless life after losing her daughter. Thomas saves his mother from court and the couple continue to live together. He urges his mother to end his story with the stories of emancipated slaves in abandoned plantations; July, however, declines, communicating with his refusal the scarcity of their existences. The novel ends with Thomas asking Emily, or anyone who knows her, to write to her.
The BBC One adaptation airs at 9 p.m. tonight, on December 18, while the second and third episodes air on December 19 and 20, according to the Radio schedules. While he’s likely to be true to Levy’s novel, you’ll have to watch the series to find out.