The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock
By Imogen Hermes Gowar
Out 25 January from Harvill Secker
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gowar, is Vintage’s lead debut novel for 2018. It’s received a lot of hype and features on nearly every Hotly Anticipated Books of 2018 list. For once, believe the hype. This is smart, absorbing, and suffused with so much everyday (ie: relatable) peril that you’ll race through at a breathless pace. It feels historically sound, its wealth of details as seamlessly integrated as a dovetail joint, and just as hard-working. Best of all, it contains strong feminist and political messages, making mincemeat of hackneyed assumptions about how men and women are “supposed” to behave. (Not for nothing am I calling this 2018’s Essex Serpent.)
It’s 1785. Merchant Jonah Hancock sits in a Deptford counting house awaiting news of his ship and its cargo. He is 45, a careworn widower, whose “great belly and skinny legs [give] him the look of a rat up a post.” The companion of his imagination is Henry, the son lost at birth 15 years earlier, passing “so swiftly from birth to death, exchanging one oblivion for another like a sleeper rolling over.” Throughout the tale Henry’s spectre visits Jonah’s imagination at a range of ages, projecting a lifetime of lost possibilities. Hancock is a family man deprived of the children — and domesticity — he’d anticipated and craved. His yearning is one of the most poignant aspects of the novel, and his grief often painful to witness. Recalling holding his dead newborn in his arms, and how he’ll never know what colour his eyes were, Jonah realises, “It will be the last thing I feel before I die.”
It’s clear why he’d wish for an anchor — his life is full of uncertainties: when you send a ship to sea, there’s no guarantee it’ll return at all, much less with the promised cargo. Fortunes and lives are never secure.
Over the river, in Soho’s Dean Street, courtesan Angelica Neal prepares to re-enter the world after years of countryside seclusion as the mistress of a peer. Alas, the nobleman died before settling a sum on her. With the help of her maid/companion Eliza Frost, she’s determined to keep up appearances and attract a new protector before she’s too old to trade on her looks. She’s 27. There’s no time to lose.
Angelica and Eliza’s is a fractious, intense bond, and Miss Frost lives up to her surname. She importunes Angelica to return to Mrs Chappell’s brothel where the curvaceous blonde launched her career back in her teens. Angelica refuses, but Chappell — enormous, wheezing: picture Miriam Margolyes’s Mrs Mingott in The Age of Innocence —pursues her, reminding Angelica of outstanding obligations she must fulfil as payback. Fortunes and lives are never secure.
When we meet Angelica she’s frothing up her hair, wrapping each tendril in paper made from triangles of the Wesleyan tracts “passed out daily to the whores of Dean Street.” This hints at the novel’s politics, and its wit, the latter of which mainly resides in its salty, glorious women.
Two other vivid, vitally important characters are Hancock’s 14-year-old niece, Sukie, who runs his household, and her annoying mother, Hester Lippard, Hancock’s sister. Hester’s entirely occupied with appearances, status, and the economic futures of her numerous offspring — which she insist her brother, having no children of his own, is duty-bound to secure. Sukie will win your heart. Treated as a daughter by Jonah, she’s mostly allowed to speak up, and is listened to. Her resolve is stronger than his, and she displays tremendous practicality and entrepreneurial flair. Gowar repeatedly demonstrates that Georgian household management was a job as complicated and crucial as anything conducted in the counting houses and market places. It’s not hard to imagine how far a Sukie could go in our century.
And there’s the mermaid. Or should I say mermaids? The first is delivered by Hancock’s captain, who sold the boss’s ship to pay for it. So far, so Jack-in-the-Beanstalk. The captain reckons you can build new ships, but mermaids are rare. Exhibit it, he says, and bank a fortune. Hancock is less convinced, but with Sukie’s encouragement and assistance, sets up viewings in a local pub. The money rolls in.
An unexpectedly tempting offer from Mrs Chappell sends Hancock’s world askew, and introduces him to Angelica. Amid scenes of debauchery in the brothel, Hancock’s revealed as an innocent and a prude. It’s another nice spin, seeing the male of the species embodying qualities more regularly attributed to women. On that same note, some of the most instructive sections describe Angelica’s contraception methods. She has no time for pregnancy, denouncing marriage as no better than servitude and identity theft.
The second, more complicated mermaid washes in on a wave of magic and mythology, foreshadowed early in the story. I predict some will object to the tonal shift in the book’s latter chapters, when the elusive, quicksilver mermaid throws everyone into a depressed, despairing state of mind. But it’s thematically sound, for Gowar consistently explores the idea that some things — and all people — should not be captured and contained. (Here she evokes Scottish folklore about selkie brides, seemingly domesticated, but always eyeing the whereabouts of their pelts — and the exit.)
Her theme continues when she addresses race, via two characters. One is taciturn, noble Simeon, Mrs Chappell’s footman. In his sky blue livery, “half a head taller than most men,” he carries himself as an important man, from an important house, his demeanour “cool as a china dog”.
The other is Polly, one of Chappell’s bawds, a mulatto who flares angrily when anyone tries discussing “the African problem” with her. She says, “‘My father was a Scotsman, and yet nobody once prevailed upon me to dance a reel. But you would have me play a houri one night and a hottentot the next.’” She refuses Simeon’s cautious overtures and offers to connect her with free blacks who could help her escape. She explodes. How dare he think they were anything alike! She is forthright with a customer stupid enough to tell her he’s excited to try it with a black girl, vehemently proclaiming her worth as an individual and the value she’s assigned to her selfhood. She is no sideshow attraction.
Polly’s anger and hauteur make her behave rashly, and the one argument I have with this novel is that her story ends abruptly. We glimpse her briefly later, but there’s no satisfactory resolution for those hungry for information.
As for the upper class caucasians depicted here, they feel England contains too many blacks, who will not — or cannot — work. Angelica’s lover, Rockingham, dismisses the majority as runaway slaves short on loyalty to their masters. One can’t help but compare these ideas with those surrounding Brexit’s immigration and race rows. It’s a sad reminder that attitudes haven’t moved on nearly as much as they should have.
The book’s second Mermaid, as well as linking us with folklore and mythology, also functions as a critique of avaricious desires, and the urge to exert control over people, places, and objects — and the habit of regarding animate beings as objects. Hancock insists, “I am a rich man. I have a right to rare things.” Perhaps he does, but some come at too high a cost. This mermaid is not without environmental overtones, then.
Before we get to Volume III, which finds Angelica and Hancock married (that’s not a spoiler, the title gives it away), Angelica takes a young, virile soldier for a lover, the Rockingham mentioned earlier. That he’ll turn out a bad-un, and a faithless hypocrite, will surprise no one, except poor Angelica. He spurns her for being a working girl, more appalled by the fact that she must support herself than the means by which she does so. (Something tells me Gower is not a Tory.)
Class issues prove problematic for Jonah Hancock, as well. Having attained wealth, and though he already owns properties locally, he’s keen to purchase tracts of land in Marylebone, thinking to build a row of houses as a monument to his prestige. Outraged neighbours argue that he should spend his money in Deptford. “If each man born here were to do as you are doing, there would be no town left at all. Make your fortune in London, sir, nobody grudges you that, but do not spend it there too!”
In the end, Hancock does leave Deptford for a massive house in Greenwich bought as a tribute to his new bride. There, in an underground grotto, he installs Mermaid Two, but her unhappiness casts a pall over what should be a joyous household. Once again, it takes a woman’s resourcefulness to resolve things.
This is the sketchiest of outlines of a novel densely packed with incident, romance, and historical tidbits, conveyed in language worth savouring. (Ex: “Mrs Chappell labours towards a tiny japanned chair, with Angelica and Miss Bewlay clutching at her arms like girls struggling with a marquee in a high wind.” “. . . her nipples tighten as if a stitch had been tugged in them.”)
If you loved The Essex Serpent or Golden Hill, if you value intelligence, wit, novels filled with characters to love, and with ideas, if you’re a fan of good stories, well told, I predict you’ll admire The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. It’s already one of my books of the year.