Wednesday, 30 May 2018

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gower

Review by JJ Marsh

What We Thought:

Two earthly lives intertwine, drawn to each other by creatures of the sea.

In the 18th century, women must be either lucky or clever. Angelica Neal is a courtesan, experienced in the arts of love, protected by her madam until one client takes her under his protection.
Jonah Hancock is a Deptford merchant, risking all he has on sea voyages to Macau and Java to procure fine china and profitable cargo.

His captain returns, without his ship. He sold the Calypso for the most unusual curiosity. A dessicated, furious sea-sprite, the furthest removed from one's idea of a mermaid imaginable. Yet the dreadful husk strikes fear into the populace of London, drawing folk of all ages and social class to witness its death mask. Mr Hancock profits handsomely and finds himself drawn into a wholly different world. Mrs Chappell's 'nunnery' or well-regarded whorehouse wishes to host the mermaid for a week of revelries. Mr Hancock is guest of honour. Things do not go according to plan.

Historical fiction doesn't get much better than this. The author's sympathies with the lot of women and comprehension of class permeate every chapter. Limited opportunities, social judgement and the currency of beauty is a delicate balance for a woman with no means other than looks and intellect. The ladies refer to their genitals as 'the commodity'.

This book fascinates and wears its research lightly. Stays, pins, phaetons, milk-soaked sheaths and powder capes are as incidental as the weather. Yet the things-we-do-not-understand loom large over the novel.

Taking something from its rightful place will curse you and yours. Shifting from one status to another is fraught with difficulty. In the final analysis, one must feel content in one's confinement or be released.

Gower builds a London as it was, and a cast of characters so real, spiteful, snobbish, kindly, humble, capricious and arrogant, one cannot help but want more.

You'll like this if you enjoyed: Sarah Waters, Rosie Garland, Angela Carter

Avoid if you dislike: The grim injustice of the female situation in the 18th century.

Ideal Accompaniments: Millefeuilles and sweet wine, or freshly shucked oysters and brine.

Genre: Literary fiction, historical fiction

Available on Amazon

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