What a struggle it will be to summarise this book. There are so many aspects that I loved, so many layers I want to discuss, that it’s hard to know where to begin. I may have to create a separate post just for my favourite quotes from the novel.
Recent years have seen another rise in the publication and popularity of historical fiction. Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders, winning the Booker Prize and Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent achieving phenomenal success as Waterstones’ Book of the Year in 2016 are the most obvious examples of this popularity. As a reader fascinated by the blend of fact and fiction, truth and reality, that often characterises this genre, I am very much pleased to see so much being written and published.
So The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock was high on my TBR since I first read a promotional social media post about it in September, and it exceeded every single expectation I had. This debut offers a fantastic plot and cast of characters, mixing fantasy and illusion with an exploration of Georgian London.
Jonah Hancock has done his best throughout his life to be honest, hardworking, and respectable. Now approaching middle age, he still makes his in the mercantile shipping trade as his father and grandfather did before him. Yet he is continually haunted by the tragedy that befell his family fifteen years previously – the sound of the front door, a creak on the stair, can often bring to mind the life he could have lived.
The captain of one of his ships returns from a long voyage – without the vessel. He has sold it for a most unique and priceless treasure.
Jonah’s initial despair (at the loss of his ship and the unusual appearance of this ‘mermaid’) subsides quickly when he begins to display his new curiosity at a London coffee-house frequented by his fellows in the shipping trade. Crowds are drawn in from all over London, bringing Jonah a fortune he could not have dreamed of.
Enter Mrs. Chappell, a bawd with an excellent reputation for entertaining high society spanning decades. She offers to hire the mermaid to display it at her home parties, where some of the most influential figures in the country would see it. Jonah agrees, and it is at the first of these parties that he is introduced to Angelica Neal, one of Mrs. Chappell’s protégées who has recently been bereaved of the man who ‘kept’ her.
As the novel continues to follow these characters, the figure of the mermaid is ever present in the shadows.
The primary players in this novel – Jonah and Angelica – are charming, engaging, and empathetic, each in their unique ways. Through Jonah, Gowar expertly shows how constant a feeling of grief can be, no matter how many years pass, and personally, this was a big factor in my ability to connect with and root for him. His deep-felt generosity barely waivers, even as he becomes carried away with the dreams that his new-found wealth open up to him.
Angelica, meanwhile, is simply captivating. She is always ready with a well-crafted quip, yet there’s a sadness that permeates her search for security and independence in an age that afforded women neither.
“What decent woman finds she has to keep herself together at all?…The very fact that you must support yourself is a judgment on you.”
By drawing these two characters together through their connection with the mermaid, Gowar produces an exciting and thrilling plot that also probes various aspects of the culture they exist in.
This is the era of transactions – everything from mythical creatures to a woman’s company (in or out of marriage) has a price. Consequently, it is also a time of decadence, and Gowar perceptively explores the line between illusion and truth, showmanship and pimping. Case in point: Mrs. Chappell’s latest protégées are displayed alongside Hancock’s mermaid at her parties in performances and costumes designed to thrill and excite. He, like her, is making his living from trading a woman’s body for money, yet his practice is viewed as simple (if unusual) entertainment. Yes, his mermaid is ‘dead’, but I felt that Gowar was pointing to the role that gender played in the perception of such displays. It was a socially accepted fact that men had their own businesses and that they traded women for money. As women were excluded from the first privilege (excepting businesses they inherited or small trading in needlework or laundry), women who partook in the second were often viewed as poisonous to society, skewing the notion of maternity entirely (Do you see what I mean about having a lot to say about this novel? I will definitely talk about this further in another post).
The humour laced throughout is full of double-entendre, irony, and often served as powerful reminders of the darkness lying just below the surface of this society and the characters within it. When someone implores her to think of the glory and splendour of heaven, Angelica replies: “I am told by those with authority in the matter that they do not await me.”
Gowar’s prose has a magical, enrapturing quality to it that produced complete immersion in the world she depicted. It was almost filmic – there are passages where we move across the city, along roads and rivers, through buildings and rooms, and it felt like I was actually there. I could see, hear, even smell, those places, and the use of colloquial dialogue and behaviour made every character come alive. The interludes that feature the ‘mermaid’s’ perspective were suitably eerie and haunting, simultaneously depicting a sadness and a power to overwhelm. As such, this novel is the perfect blend of historical believability and imaginative flair.
“Our breath is the heave and pull of the sea on a black night, which rocks the spark of moonlight in its ripples.”
There was a narrative strand involving one of Mrs. Chappell’s girls that I felt could have been expanded on but as it’s already a hefty tome and full to the brim of rich, complex stories, I can understand if certain aspects were sacrificed. Maybe it could become a novel in its own right?
So, what did I think of The Mermaid of Mrs. Hancock?
It was a beautiful, intelligent, captivating novel, entertaining and thought-provoking in equal measure. Historical and magical realism are blended magnificently to transport the reader into this other world of eighteenth century London.
It’s a stunning debut – a fabulous addition to the historical fiction genre, and to the reading landscape as a whole.
*The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gowar, was published by Harvill Secker (Penguin Random House) in 2018