Reviewed by Max Dunbar
Command the Mermaid Speak
Last year a monster emerged from London’s sewers. The ‘fatberg’ – as the city’s waste disposal experts called it – was a giant composite of body waste, disposable nappies, antiseptic wipes, pet gravel, shopping trolleys and God knows what else that ends up in the tunnels underneath the city. Eight hundred feet long, the ‘Whitechapel Monster’ was cut apart and transported to the surfaces by Thames Water crews. The fatberg caused something of a stir in the media when it was unearthed, and indeed if you so wish you can now see a ‘representative chunk’ of the Whitechapel Monster on display at the Museum of London – as a symbol of our common humanity it takes some beating, and should certainly boost our flagging tourist trade in these troubled times.
This subterranean grotesque seems a long way away from the luminous prose of Imogen Hermes Gowar. As an object alone The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is everything the fatberg is not: a gorgeous turquoise hardback with a kaleidoscopic jacket that ‘incorporates eighteenth-century textile and pattern details’, its pages written in a font called ‘Caslon’ – ‘Its characteristics are remarkable regularity and symmetry, and beauty in the shape and proportion of the letters; its general effect is clear and open but not weak or delicate’ reads the type note’s proud boast. The actual story is set in Georgian London and, wow, don’t you know it. Susanna Clarke, in her tale of Regency magic Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, added deft little archaic touches to the narrative that quickly established setting and period sparkle. Sophas, breeches, to-morrows: Clarke incorporated these details with a precise and delicate brush. Gowar piles them on with a building-site frontloader.
Here is an example of what I mean. Early in the novel the courtesan Angelica Neal journeys into town with an old friend, and they visit a confectionery shop:
Inside, it is a veritable temple to sugar which betrays nothing of the heat and toil – the boiling and skimming and coaxing and measuring – that must go into its making: here everything is cool and sparkling, with knots of gentle women and men chattering cordially at the marble tables. The back wall is lined with bottled liqueurs and syrups of all colours and all flavours – bergamot, muscadine, cinnabar, rose – and frothy-headed syllabubs are lined up on slabs of chilly marble, and from the back room comes an endless processions of fine things. Striped jellies are borne forth to the chattering diners beyond; sparkling sherbets, little frozen bombes and mice and lions and turrets. On the counter, glass salvers are piled with cakes and fancies: tiny amber caramels and tarts of translucent custard, and leathery fruit-paste jumbals contrived in true-love knots. Angelica’s favourites are the millefruits, crisp clouds fragrant with orange-water, their surfaces rugged with cochineal and gold leaf and almonds and angelico.
Whew! And that’s just one para of a whole book that is absolutely soaked, cured and basted in the tenors and glamour of its time. You admire Gowar’s ingenuity, but part of you is laughing at the sheer and earnest full-on nature of her verisimilitude. The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is beautifully written, and no doubt exhaustively researched. But it does also feel like a trolley dash in Angelica’s sweet shop.
Still, Gowar is not one of the historical writers who sacrifices readability for research. Her plot fair barrels along. Jonah Hancock is a depressive middle-aged trader, his wife and son long dead. He makes his money investing in ships, whose captains return from their voyages with goods that Hancock can sell at a profit. At the start of the novel, Hancock is awaiting the return of the Calliope, long past its due, and ‘a man who awaits a ship, as Mr Hancock now does, is distracted by day and wakeful by night, prone to fidgeting, with a bitter taste rising in the back of his throat.’ Late at night, a knock comes at the door – hurrah, it is the ship’s captain! But Hancock’s joy is short lived: the captain declares that he has sold the Calliope, and returned with no goods to trade except… a mermaid.
Except this mermaid isn’t Disney’s Princess Ariel. It’s already dead, a weird-looking skeletal thing with claws and fangs as well as the fishy tail. What, Mr Hancock demands, am I supposed to do with this? And the captain says: exhibit it! You’ll make a bomb! Although Mr Hancock is sceptical, he agrees to display the thing in a nearby coffee shop and charge people to look at it. True to the captain’s words, people fall over themselves to see the creepy mermaid, it becomes the talk of the town, and the money rolls in. (There is an entertaining argument with a naturalist, who is mocked for his scepticism towards the creature: ‘Look, sir,’ the coffee shop owner tells him, ‘it strikes me as contrary that you will accept the existence of a kongouro, which you never saw or heard of before… and yet how many tales have you heard of mermaids, and how many sailors report seeing them?’) Hancock has hit upon that lure of the grotesque which made the Whitechapel fatberg so compelling. And it unlocks in him desires he never knew he had.
The other half of this book is dominated by Angelica Neal, a high-class escort who dreams of being something more. Like Hancock, Angelica has fought her way up from a modest background to attain a precarious kind of respectability. But her rich aristocrat husband has recently died, leaving Angelica living in a Soho flat with no means of sustaining the lifestyle she’s become accustomed to: hovering in the background is the monstrous brothel-keeper Mrs Chappell, whose presence is a subtle threat of the life Angelica has barely escaped. Chappell has bought Mr Hancock’s mermaid for display at a gala night in her townhouse. Angelica is roped in to put Mr Hancock at his ease at the great evening, where he feels somewhat out of his depth among the parliamentarians and senior military officers in attendance.
Mr Hancock has not quite realised that the Chappell home is in fact a notorious whorehouse, and that realisation is brought home to him when, at the climax of the evening’s entertainments, a group of women and girls, dressed as mermaids, commence a frenetic orgy with the lords and politicians. Freaked out on every level, Hancock disappears from the party with some haste, but over the coming weeks, Angelica’s flirtations begin to haunt him and he seeks her out, apologises for running out on her during the party. What can I do to make it up to you? he asks. There’s only one thing I want, Angelica says sweetly: another mermaid. And so Mr Hancock seeks out again his ship’s captain, now planning to retire after his spectacular mermaid coup. No, no, Hancock says, you must set sail again. I need another mermaid! More mermaids!
Even a writer of Gowar’s talents can sustain this carnival only so long and towards the end of the novel there are disappointments and tailings-off. (Why don’t we get more of Simeon, the brothel servant worthy of a book in his own right?) Still, Gowar is so good on money and expectation and class, and how these things intersect with our deepest wants and hopes: what Hancock and Angelica Neal have in common is they understand Nancy Sinatra’s truth that you live two lives, one for yourself, and one for your dreams. The song of this novel is set to dash many readers against its rocks.
Max blogs at maxdunbar.wordpress.com
Imogen Hermes Gowar, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock (Harvill Secker: London, 2018), 978-1911215721, 496 pp., hardback.
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