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Local Customs: A take on 19th century woman’s mysterious death not so much a work of historical fiction as an act of channelling

Local Customs
Audrey Thomas

A new novel from Audrey Thomas is something to be grateful for. The publication of Local Customs marks nine years since we were introduced to Tattycoram (in which a foundling is rescued from Dickens's Little Dorrit and given a tale of her own) and a further five for Isobel Gunn (in which an Orcadian woman takes on the guise of a man and joins the Hudson's Bay Company). All three novels deftly and brilliantly interrogate the roles for women in our own near history.

Local Customs is Thomas's eighteenth book and is not so much a work of historical fiction as an act of channeling. It displays a writer at the peak of her abilities revivifying another earlier writer: Letitia Elizabeth (Letty) Landon Maclean, a major literary figure of her age, eulogized in verse by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti.

According to the book's Afterword, it was 50 years ago that Audrey Thomas visited Ghana and first heard the story of the death of Letitia Landon Maclean, the Governor's Lady buried inside the walls of Cape Coast Castle. Governor George Maclean's wife is memorialized for the marriage she made in life and remembered for the mystery surrounding her leaving of that life. She is also intriguing for the occupation she chose to pursue. From an early age, Letty (who published as L.E.L.) made a career of supporting herself by her pen.

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The bare historical facts of the story: Letty Landon met George Maclean in London and set her cap at him. Theirs was not a love match and despite the doubts of both parties they married in 1838 and sailed for West Africa. Within a matter of months she was dead.

"I can speak freely now that I am dead, " says Letty says on our first introduction to her, and we are given to understand that we are in the hands of a narrator who is capable (as most of us are not) of seeing the shape of her own story. Born in 1802, Letty is 36 when she dies. She is possessed of self-knowledge:

"I was good at being a guest. I liked talking; I looked charming when I talked. I liked strangers; every stranger presents a new idea. And I knew how to listen, how to make the person speaking to me feel as though he were the most important person in the room. That is a great talent and will take you a long way – even as far as the Gold Coast."

She can play the coquette with the best of them but does it for very unconventional reasons: "every person presents a new idea." The story posits that it is Letty's intelligence that has gotten her where she is – but where is she? In a strange country filled with inexplicable "local customs" as the companion of a man she does not love – a man who already possesses a country wife, who has to be hurriedly removed from the Castle upon their arrival.

Letty clearly understands the manner of her own death, but just as clearly seems in no hurry to share her knowledge with us. She is a woman who falls for the idea of a man before the man himself, and it is the prospect of adventure that carries her out to Africa. Letty pictures herself as a female Robinson Crusoe, and before embarking remarks: "It is worthwhile having an adventure, if only for the sake of talking about it afterward."

There are two mysteries at the heart of this story: how did Letitia Landon Maclean die? Was it suicide or was it murder? If the latter, then who was responsible? The second (and frankly more intriguing) question is, How does a woman with a thriving literary career and a fully-formed sense of her individual identity become, at the age of 36, the wife of a man with expectations of a subservient helpmeet and someone to oversee the business of running of a house (or, in this case, a castle)? The focus on this "mystery" makes this as much a modern novel as a beautifully rendered portrait of a lost time and place along with all its local customs.

Local Customs is a story with a mystery at its core, but also an examination of the systemic subjugation of individuals for reasons of gender or race. In one sense, this is the story of a colonial governor and his lady – a woman who was believed to have been either murdered or died by her own hand. In Thomas's hands it gains resonance and becomes the story of a not uncomplicated life and a woman capable of leaving it without regrets.

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Sara O'Leary is working on a novel titled The Ghost in the House.

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