Charles Ignatius Sancho was an 18th-century composer and campaigner, and one of Britain’s first recorded Black voters. Actor and playwright Paterson Joseph’s debut novel charts the life of this fascinating man through fictionalised diary entries, letters and commentary. It’s a high-stakes approach, but the voice of the diary sounds just like Sancho in his real letters – pitch-perfect not only for the period, but also for the man.
The story takes us right from Sancho’s birth to his middle age. He begins his life on a slave ship but is soon moved to London, where he’s given to “the Sisters” who lumber him with his odd name. He finds favour with a duke, learns to read and perform Shakespeare, runs away, suffers, loves, thrives and finally manages to accrue enough property to vote. The action is compelling, but it’s the way Joseph tells it that makes this book so enjoyable.
Joseph’s Sancho is full of fantastic good humour, from his intense feelings about cake – “Francis Williams was sitting in the library one Thursday morning, eating my scones” – to his labelling of his three mistresses as “the Coven”. Like Tristram Shandy, he has an unfailingly philosophical approach to bad luck. Even at his lowest point, out in a cold street having gambled away most of his clothes, he has a keen sense of the ridiculous, and because that comic slant is never far away, Joseph can include terrible things without making the story too punishing. There’s no shying away from real history: Sancho’s life isn’t all cake in the library of a duke. But in his witty, factual, endlessly benign voice, it’s rarely difficult to read.
Only once does the novel become really harrowing, when a little girl is raped on a plantation. It’s very much at odds with the rest of the book, to the point that it reads as if someone else wrote it. There are some things even Sancho can’t make light.
Sancho may be a great comedian but he is haunted, too. He has an acute guilt over being relatively safe. The Sisters are bad people, but he is painfully aware that he has never laboured in a field or at making molasses. As a little boy, he has the patronage of the duke who provides those all-important scones; he meets historical figures such as Dr Johnson, Thomas Gainsborough, Laurence Sterne, even the king. His awareness that this is not the life that people who look like him can expect clings to him through the whole novel, as does his fear that his children won’t always be able to hold on to their safety.
Like most stories that follow a real biography, the novel moves in fits and starts. Initially it runs very quickly and surely, when Sancho is a child; there are lulls, and then disjointed bursts of activity again. Some of the moments for which Sancho is famous – meeting the king, composing music, sitting for a portrait by Gainsborough – are dealt with very briefly. This is a lovely trick, though. For him, they aren’t important; he’s distracted by his growing family and his increasingly annoying gout.
In his foreword to the novel, Joseph says, perhaps with a little of the theatrical grandiosity he injects so well into Sancho’s character, that his aim is to depict the presence of Black people in British history “in the form in which I met Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and Jane Eyre”. It’s a tough task for a writer to set themselves, but the care and research shine through in every chapter. This is a tragicomedy of the first order, and not to be missed.
• The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho by Paterson Joseph is published by Dialogue (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.