Rating: 4 stars
This is the kind of book that is right up my alley. I’m thrilled that it’s on the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist. Set in Georgian London, among the members of the city’s merchant class, the blurb promises something akin to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell mixed with The Giant, O’Brien and Slammerkin. The design of the book is in sync with its setting. The cover draws together design elements from the V&A’s textile pattern archive. The frontispiece echoes those of the time. The pages, while not the linen papers used in the 18th century, are thick and smooth, a delight to turn. The typeface is Caslon, named for William Caslon, the English typefounder whose typefaces were celebrated for their clarity. Caslon produced his type from 1720 until his death in 1766.
Imogen Hermes Gowar used to work at the British Museum, which must be fertile ground for literary inspiration. Especially when, like so many people working in museums, you’re over qualified and under utilised in your front of house role. I’m not saying front of house (gallery invigilation in the main) is boring, but standing around waiting for a member of the public to ask you something other than ‘Where are the toilets?’ leaves lots of thinking time. I’m surprised more gallery attendants don’t publish novels.
After When I Hit You, I was in need of something less intense, more escapist, and Gowar’s debut definitely hit the spot.
The book recounts the fortunes of two people at opposite ends of the social spectrum who have ambitions to better their standing, but go about it in different ways.
Jonah Hancock is a ship-owner and merchant. He is 45 years old, a widower, living alone save for his niece Sukie and his scullery maid Bridget. His tall ship, the Calliope, is due back from Macao with a cargo that will bring profit for him and his investors. But nothing has been heard from its captain and the ship is long overdue on its return.
Angelica Neal is a former dancer at The Temple of Venus turned member of the Cyprian corps and lately the mistress of a Duke who failed to provide for her in his will. She is at risk of returning to work for Mrs Chappell, owner of The Temple of Venus and Madame of a nunnery.
I liked Jonah. He’s a lonely man who has built himself a parallel world in which his wife and the son who didn’t survive the birth that killed her are still with him. He buries himself in work. He is grateful for the company of his niece, a curious and mischievous sixteen-year-old sent by his sister to keep house for him, but also wary of the tales she might be telling her mother about his business. He goes through a patch of having his head turned by a vast fortune, but he comes good again.
I liked Sukie, too. She is a feisty young woman, not afraid to take off her slippers in order to eavesdrop. Her uncle resorts to buying her a silk day dress so that she rustles as she moves around the house. These are the sort of details that delight me.
Angelica took some time to grow on me. She reminded me of the wanton Lydia Bennett, who wholeheartedly wants to experience the world in a way her class won’t permit her, and the resentful Mary Saunders, who believes herself worthy of finery and will do anything to get it. Like Lydia Bennett, Angelica finds herself a version of louche George Wickham in the irresolute George Rockingham. When Rockingham does what everyone knew he would do, Jonah steps in to save Angelica.
It probably says something about me that I can’t easily connect with women in historical fiction who choose to sell the only asset they have in order to gain materially. I can see where the theory comes from that it’s empowering in the sense that a woman’s body is her own to choose to use and share as she will. And yet that’s not the way it works for all women who take this route in life. To me, it seems like a desperate transaction, practical on the surface but also dehumanising. That women have to harden themselves to the risks because they think it’s the only way to survive makes me sad. The prostitutes in this book for the most part believe themselves to be empowered, and yet each one has a secret sorrow. Angelica’s route into the profession is hinted at in the memories of her childhood that she tries to suppress. One of her colleagues, Polly, is the only black woman at Mrs Chappell’s establishment. She thinks that this makes her special, certainly better than the black manservants that Mrs Chappell employs. It isn’t until a man at a party where she is the hired entertainment reveals that his interest is in the exoticism of her skin, and that all the men at the party want to try her, that she realises that society doesn’t see her as a person but as a novelty.
I found Polly a very likeable character. She doesn’t see herself as any different to the other women she works among and the more white people treat her as though she is different, the more her anger grows. Hers is the story of a woman born into one form of slavery, the daughter of a plantation owner and his favourite slave, who arrives in England we don’t know how and ends up in another form of slavery. Simeon, one of the black manservants, sees who she really is, which brings out a defensive anger in Polly. But he offers to help her to find other black people in London, should she ever want to leave Mrs Chappell’s employ. Sadly, she all but disappears from the book, with a fleeting, unconfirmed glimpse of her towards the end. I found that frustrating. I’d like to know what happened next for Polly.
The relationship between Jonah and Angelica is wonderfully written. He has the equivalent of a crush on her, having seen her picture hanging in various coffee shops, and is quite smitten on the night they meet. The first mermaid brings them together, a desiccated specimen that Jonah’s captain sells his ship for, borrowed by Mrs Chappell for a week’s entertainment. They don’t get off to the best of starts, with Jonah shocked by the debauchery on show at Mrs Chappell’s house. Over the following weeks, though, they find solace in each other’s company, developing a gentle friendship of shared vulnerability.
Jonah sells the mermaid for a huge profit. The money permits him to invest in property and he rises up the social ranks. Everything is working out nicely, until a second mermaid arrives. This one isn’t desiccated, and it exerts a strange power over everyone who comes close to it. I didn’t like the menace and the melancholy of this part of the book. I loved Jonah and Angelica by this point and wanted nothing to spoil their happiness. When Angelica’s former companion turns up, trying to tempt Angelica back to her old way of life, it was awful enough, but the depression that sinks over everything when the second mermaid puts her influence on their world seeped into me, as well. I wanted it to end.
And it did end, in the most wonderful way, with Angelica regaining her strength of spirit and Jonah reminded of why he loved her. It was a very satisfying end to the book.
Other things I loved were the way Gowar captures London at a moment in history before it explodes into the urban sprawl it is today, when Blackheath, Deptford and Greenwich were still villages. When Marylebone was Mary-le-Bone and full of fields rather than houses. And the way the women are strong and yearn for autonomy. I also loved the sense of a changing world that Gowar got into her story, of credulity being replaced by scientific investigation.
It certainly hit the spot for me.