A Respectable Trade is one of the many historical fictions written by Philippa Gregory. This novel takes place in Bristol, England in 1787, during the tumultuous years leading up to the ending of the slave trade in that country.
Frances Scott is a society lady in her 30s who, in order to escape a life of charity and servitude, marries beneath her station to Josiah Cole, a small shipper and trader. There is no love in this marriage. It is merely a mutually convenient situation. Frances is saved from a life of spinsterhood, and Josiah gets the opportunity to move up in society.
But Frances does eventually find love. One of her new responsibilities is the education of a group of newly arrived slaves. She must teach them English and then teach them to become fashionable and relatively cheap servants. One of the slaves is Mehuru, a former Yoruban priest. Mehuru and Frances are drawn to each other.
As the story unfolds, Josiah makes poorer and poorer business decisions that leave the reader cringing, awaiting the other shoe to drop. There is actually a bit of suspense that builds up because of it. You know what’s going to happen, you just don’t know when or where the chaos will strike. It makes what would be a mediocre historical romance and changes it into social commentary on not only slavery, but of the society which allowed slavery and encouraged seedy business practices.