Merchants, madams and a macabre mermaid
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock
Imogen Hermes Gowar
Harvill Secker, hardback, 496 pages, €15.49
This flamboyant historical debut's atmospheric version of 18th-century London is highly seductive, however at times the reader feels trapped in a lavish but ultimately one-note burlesque show, writes Hilary A White
This flamboyant debut was reportedly at the centre of a 10-way bidding war in 2016 as publishing houses scrummaged for the rights to offer it out to the world. Running one's hand over the plush jacket and embossed cover imagery, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock certainly looks and feels like a literary event. Perhaps this is part of the reason that by the time you've got to the other end of this doorstop, there's a slight sense of wonder, not about the slippery Georgian phantasmagoria within, but the hype that has preceded it.
What is certainly clear throughout this three-volume saga is that Imogen Hermes Gowar has done her research. As a former student of archaeology and anthropology, she has a keen interest and understanding of the stories that objects can tell. While working in the British Museum in London after graduation, she fixed upon an exhibit there known as the "mermaid", a shrivelled, rabid-looking thing a universe away from Copenhagen sirens combing their hair with a cockle shell. A possible McGuffin had announced itself. In her imagination, a whole novel began to envelope the macabre object.
We are ushered into the year 1785 and a London of merchants and mesdames. Captain Tysoe Jones arrives at the door of his paymaster, Jonah Hancock. He clutches what he claims is a dead mermaid, one that so bedazzled him when he encountered it in the South Seas, he traded a whole ship for it. Hancock, a slightly taciturn Deptford widower, decides he will exhibit the item for London society to come and gawp at, and in the process make a pretty penny for himself and his beloved niece Sukie.
The object catches the ears of Bet Chappell, the "abbess" of a particularly upscale "nunnery" (both words are delicious euphemisms, in case you hadn't guessed). She decides the mermaid would make a perfect novelty to put on show and stage a lavish, underwater-themed orgy around (a memorably overheated and pungent centrepiece of the novel's first act.)
An arrangement is made with Mr Hancock that brings him into the orbit of Angelica Neal. She is, variously, one of the most famous courtesans of her generation, a celebrated beauty, a direct descendant of Venus and a purveyor of unearthly pleasures. Gowar paints her in language that is as ornate and frilled as the fashion of the era. We get chunks of description, equal parts bawdy voyeurism and minute sartorial detail, that effectively preen the character into life. She comes to appear a more treacherous temptation than any real or symbolic mermaid, and although the 28-year-old has just happened upon a young man who may finally take her away from her boudoir profession, Hancock, initially appalled by Chappell's theatre of smut, becomes quite consumed by Angelica's charms.
What becomes apparent very quickly is that Angelica is a rather shallow and self-serving flower, and when Hancock vows to her that he will find her a real live mermaid in return for her affections, there is a sense that it is he who will ultimately flounder on the rocks. Bizarrely, one such creature is happened upon and, true to her word, Ms Neal becomes Mrs Hancock. The monster feels comprised of an ethereal energy, some of it malignant, as the couple set forth on a new life.
The world that Gowar immerses us so wholly within is a tangible time and place, full of textured linen, antique odours and delicate flavours that recall Patrick Süskind's Perfume. She has said it was her intention to explore what the world was like for women pre-feminism, and there is food for thought in that respect. Angelica happens upon Hancock in a moment of crisis and what ensues is something almost business-like in its mutual back-scratching. Women could ruin one another with catty society chit-chat in the right ears.
But the minutiae of the sleaze industry in that era is over-laboured in parts of The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock where you feel narrative momentum should have been the priority. Even near the novel's denouement, when there are only a few pages left to fit a capstone on to the saga's undulating intrigue, there is a chapter-long episode about venereal disease.
There are also long passages of theatrical, almost Wildean conversation here and there that seem to conclude without much in the way of resolution or something being fixed upon, as if you're trapped in a lavish but ultimately one-note burlesque show. Their main purpose appears to be to display the social norms and vernacular of the day, both of which Gowar has a granite-strength handle on. Why just under 500 pages were needed to lead us up a mermaid-shaped garden path becomes a valid question.
There is great atmospheric seduction by Gowar's hand, not to mention some stunning turns of phrase and agility with a dust-covered lingo.
But finely detailed embroidery does not necessarily add up to a fetching tapestry. We await her next moves with great anticipation.