Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

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Reviewed by Annabel

Francis Spufford is known for his five non-fiction books, the subjects of which are varied in the extreme, notably his delightful memoir of childhood reading The Child that Books Built (2002), Backroom Boys (2003) celebrating British Boffins and more recently Red Plenty (2010) about the USSR in the 1950s.

Now, he has applied his obvious skills in research to writing a novel, and what a joy it was to read! Golden Hill is set during the closing months of 1746 in New York City. As I can’t put it better, I’ll quote from the blurb:

This is Fielding’s Tom Jones recast on Broadway – when Broadway was a tree-lined avenue two hundred yards long, with a fort at one end flying the Union Jack and a common at the other, grazed by cows.

The novel is prefaced by an epigraph from Smollett’s 1748 novel The Adventures of Roderick Random. These novels plus Fielding’s earlier Joseph Andrews, certainly set the tone for Golden Hill, being of exactly the right time-frame, both satirical comedies written in the ‘picaresque’ style of the period, deriving from Spain in the mid-1500s originally.  These novels usually involve a lower class rogueish hero who has to live on his wits to survive in the corrupt society in which he finds himself. There is often an element of moral redemption in their resolution.

Mr Smith, a handsome young man fresh off the Henrietta, just docked in New York Harbour, hot-foots it to the counting-house of Lovell and Company on Golden Hill Street, knocking on the door at one minute to five. He presents the banker, who was just about to close, with portfolio sealed by a London bank.

‘Lord love us,’ he said. ‘This is a bill for a thousand pound.’

‘Yes, sir,’ said Mr Smith. ‘A thousand pounds sterling; or as it says there, one thousand seven hundred and thirty-eight pounds, fifteen shillings and fourpence, New-York money. May I sit down?’

Mr Smith declines to tell Mr Lovell his business and until verification that the paper is true arrives on another ship, Mr Lovell will not pay it before the sixty days noted on Smith’s bill are up. Meanwhile Smith asks if Mr Lovell could break a couple of guineas into smaller change…

‘Now I’m afraid you can have only a little of it in coin’ the reason being, as I said when first we began, that little coin is current at the present.’ Lovell opened a box with a key from his fob chain and dredged up silver – worn silver, silver knocked and clatter’d in the battles of circulation – which he built into a little stack in front of Smith. ‘A Mexican dollar; which we pass at eight-and-fourpence. A piece of four, half that. A couple of Portugeuse cruzeiros, three shillings New-York. … Leaving a hundred and twenty-nine, tenpence-halfpenny to find in paper.’

Smith finds himself with an assortment of dubious slips of paper alongside the coins. But he is assured that he will find it legal currency in his new home. Smith thus leaves the counting house with a full purse and heads off to find a room. The next morning he finds a coffee-shop and strikes up conversation with one Septimus Oakeshott.

‘Richard- ‘ he began.

‘Oh, we know,’ said Septimus Oakeshott. ‘I’m afraid that everyone knows, Mr Smith. You are celebrated before you open your mouth. You are the very rich boy who won’t answer questions.’

Smith and Oakeshott appear to get on well and Oakeshott gives more advice…

‘You have walked into a mesh of favours owing, where everybody knows everybody – even if none of then, as yet, know you.’

Smith is invited to dinner at Mr Lovell’s house, and it is here that he meets Tabitha, his older daughter, who appears to be crippled, but has a lively tongue which intrigues Smith. She will become Smith’s love interest – but this intelligent but sparky girl is not what she appears.

Neither, of course, is Smith. We won’t find out until close to the end of the novel what his true purpose is when the sixty days are up. In between, he will be robbed, spurned, make friends, be involved in a chase, a duel, be imprisoned and much, much more. Everybody wants him for something, or wants him out of the way, the whole of New York is on his case.

This novel was so much fun and so cleverly written, the language is rich and Spufford’s meticulous research ensures that the detail is perfect. In emulating the style of Fielding and his contemporaries, there are no hints of the modern mores that often creep into and mar many a period novel. The New York is 1746 is still full of Dutch influence, gradually ceding to the British and it is truly a place where anything could happen.

And what a storyteller Francis Spufford is! I’d wager that there are more plot twists and turns than the Hampton Court maze. There is adventure, peril, comedy – both in manners and more slapstick scenes. Smith is a loveable hero, naïve yet worldly, but totally flummoxed by the contrary Tabitha. The key supporting characters all have their own story to tell. Oakeshott in particular has his own fascinating narrative. However, finally revealed is a serious heart which puts everything into perspective without detracting from all the shenanigans that went before.

Golden Hill was totally believable from page one and is the best novel I’ve read this year. I loved it.

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Francis Spufford, Golden Hill (Faber, 2016) hardback, 320 pages.

BUY at Blackwell’s in paperback via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)

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