What picture comes into your mind when you think of a mermaid? Is it a silvery, scaly being with the top half of a beautiful naked woman and the bottom half of a fish with a forked tail? Or is it a dried-up shrunken thing with pointed claw-like fingers and sharp fangs? Is it the Little Mermaid sculpture that sits on a rock by the waterside in Copenhagen or the wizened up, mummified grotesque in the British Museum in London?
My guess in both cases is that it will be the former, so you would be as surprised as Mr Hancock when his ship’s captain returns from a trading voyage with no ship and only a small wrapped parcel.
“It is the size of an infant, and like an infant in its ribcage is delicate and pathetic beneath its parchment skin, and its head is large, and its fists are drawn up to its face. But this is as far as the comparison may be extended. For no infant has such fearful claws, and no infant such a snarl, with such sharp fangs in it. And no infant’s torso ends in the tail of a fish.”
Hancock is incredulous that his entire ship has been traded for such an object and sceptical of his captain’s claims that by exhibiting it he will recoup the value of his ship and any profits that might have accrued from the voyage. But as he has little option, exhibit it he does.
And Georgian London goes mad for it. This is a novelty the like of which has never been seen before. It is 1785 and the Age of Reason is obsessed by anything unusual. It is the talk of the town, even in the high class brothel run by Mrs Chappell.
As entrepreneurial as ever, Mrs Chappell offers Hancock a huge sum of money to rent his mermaid with the intention of exhibiting it herself as the centrepiece of an elaborate masque featuring her “girls”. London society, or at least the male members of it, attends, the masque becomes an orgy and Hancock, appalled, leaves in disgust. But not before he has fallen for the most sophisticated of the courtesans, Angelica Neal.
Author Imogen Hermes Gowar invests a lot in the character of Angelica. Vain, beautiful, ambitious and resolute, Angelica is looking for a husband to support her and feed her appetite for ornaments, fine foods and novelty. Her determination to rise in society, however, is set back by her propensity to fall in love with high-born but penniless cads. Who might rescue her, adore her, provide for her, care for her and elevate her beyond the status of whore? And who might obtain for her another mermaid, this time one that lives? Why, Mr Hancock, of course.
In our censorious age, it would be easy to dismiss Angelica Neal who, initially at least, is shallow, frivolous and vainglorious. But, as Gowar points out, few other options existed for a woman aiming to better herself or even survive in adverse circumstances. In an interview with London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, she comments: “It’s important to acknowledge that a lot of sex workers in eighteenth-century London got there via coercion, desperation and abuse. But it’s patronising to assume that every single woman involved in sex work suffered terrible misery; many had struck a calculated compromise in tough circumstances, and achieved a comfort and security that was not possible as a single woman doing ‘honest’ jobs, which were ill-paid and precarious.”
In Mrs Chappell’s establishment, there is a huge emphasis on training, education and improvement, as well as the practicalities of the job in hand.
The Mermaid And Mrs Hancock is Gowar’s debut novel and it is a mighty impressive piece of work. It was subject to the usual bidding war and I have every confidence that it will reward its backers, just as The Essex Serpent (2016) and The Miniaturist (2014) have rewarded theirs. Historical fiction with a feminist twist is currently very in vogue and Mrs Hancock is comfortably the equal of those two predecessors. Particularly impressive is Gower’s knowledge of Georgian society, customs, tastes, morals and manners. She also finds a writing style to match, presenting the book in three volumes as a long 18th century novel would have been. Nowhere, I think, does she put a foot wrong.
A beguiling mixture of historical fact with more than a touch of magic realism, at nearly 500 pages this is a long book, but Gowar maintains the pace and our interest throughout despite the odd minor plot hiccup. This is a compelling storyline that touches on deeper and darker themes – the role of women, the value of artifice, the lure of the new, fakery – and makes full use of mermaid legends, including the misery they are alleged to cause if captured.
Like our own world, Georgian England was a society obsessed with celebrity and material gain. Hancock can walk into any room in London and know the value and source of the precious items on display. It is a society in which it is difficult to find a heart or sincerity. Full credit then to Gowar, who not only manages to depict a society in all its crass finery, but finds a story that, by the end, touches us as much as it initially dazzles. Superb.
The Mermaid And Mrs Hancock
Author: Imogen Hermes Gowar
Publisher: Harvill Secker, historical fiction