The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho by Paterson Joseph review – a giant of the Georgian era | Fiction

ACtor Paterson Joseph’s debut novel, chronicling the life of the first black man to vote in Britain, began life as a solo play. It opens in 1775 with Charles Ignatius Sancho declaring his intention to review his journals and give his life to his son, Billy. Sancho was born and orphaned in 1729 aboard a slave ship. Back home, his master gives the little boy to three young aunts from Greenwich, who treat him like a pet.

When Sancho befriends the Duke of Montagu, he is secretly taught to read and write. Sancho enjoys the duke’s benevolence until the age of 20, but after the sisters discover his notebook, he is imprisoned in their cellar. A maid helps Sancho escape and afterwards he has to go to London alone. Life is tough, prejudice is rampant, and Sancho must live by his wits, desperate to avoid the clutches of notorious slave hunter Jonathan Sills. Eventually he is saved from penury by the Duke’s daughter, aided by Samuel Johnson.

Although Joseph created an affable storyteller, he occasionally informs rather than involves the reader. For example, when Sancho visits the slums of Oxford Road, we are told that “children’s childhood is so short, not only because of illness and early death, but because they will have to work from the about seven years old to earn a living”. money to feed their little stomachs.

Part of the novel is devoted to the correspondence between Sancho and Anne, his future wife. Her letters recount her harrowing stay on two Caribbean slave plantations while nursing an aunt, but the epistolary form keeps us at a distance. Joseph is at his best when on familiar ground, and the story heats up with his depiction of Sancho’s short-lived attempts to walk the boards as Othello. But while uneven, this fictionalized account of the life of a real man resonates with compassion and offers a welcome insight into the presence of black people in Georgian England.

The Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho by Paterson Joseph is published by Little, Brown (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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