The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock was one of my most delicious reads of 2018. The review has been a long time coming because I just had so many thoughts. I read it once, read it again, gained more thoughts and then felt stumped all over again about how to begin. I really longed for someone in my offline life to have read it too but alas, despite several unsubtle attempts to foist it on friends as a gift, nobody I know has done so. It’s a headlong plunge through 1800s Britain, diving into ideas of desire, commerce, class, liberty and the meaning of womanhood itself. Flipping Regency London flat on its back, Gowar examines its seedy underbelly and the result is spectacular.
Merchant Jonah Hancock is respectable and responsible, a man well suited to his place in life, who has learned ‘not to express surprise or delight at the rare things that pass through his rough hands, but only to assess their worth’. As the novel opens, he is anxiously expecting the return of one of his ships. If it has foundered, he will face ruin. However, the ship’s captain returns not with cargo but with something rather more exotic – a ‘wizened freak’, a ‘malevolent beast’, or is it in fact a dead mermaid? Assured that this object is far more valuable than the expected delivery could ever have been, Mr Hancock sets out to make it earn its keep and puts it on display.
It is this action which brings Mr Hancock into the path of Angelica Neal, freelance courtesan and aspiring society lady. She finds herself in a delicate situation since her aristocratic patron has recently passed away and at the grand old age of twenty-seven, she rather fears that she might be past it. Reluctant to return to the control of her grotesque erstwhile madam Mrs Chappell, she declines the protection of her old ‘nunnery’, more accurately London’s most exclusive brothel. Indeed, it is Bet Chappell who has hired the services of Mr Hancock’s mermaid as a centrepiece for her latest party and in so doing, she draws Angelica and Mr Hancock together. A more ill-matched pairing could hardly be imagined. Or could it?
This book has a real fluid feel; the characters soar and twist and fly through the shallow waters and deep currents. Gowar has clearly steeped herself in the Georgian era, its culture and its language. As a long-term fan, it was fun to spot references to Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire et al. and also to notice that there were more than a few points of parallel between the lives of Angelica Neal and real-life celebrity courtesan Emma Hamilton. Yet Mermaid‘s most obvious forebear is Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus with a similar feel of high society magical realism. Mr Hancock seeks out a mermaid to win Angelica’s affections. The one his ship finds – sending an ominous note ‘It is alive!’ – brings with it doom and disquiet.
Indeed, the novel is peopled with a comparable cast of colourful characters from Mrs Chappell who is ‘built like an armchair’, pissing in a chamber-pot in the carriage after too many cups of tea. Surrounding her are her ‘nuns’ who are so clearly still children; red-headed Elinor, Kitty the dockside child who is forbidden to speak until she has completed her elocution lessons, then there is Polly, the bi-racial prostitute who realises that she cannot and will not bear her situation. A regular visitor is Bel Fortescue, who started out with Angelica in Mrs Chappell’s establishment but now feminist who just may be about to become a duchess. Like the mermaid in the tank, the characters are all trapped in their various ways, whether by gender, race or class. Mrs Chappell declares that the best nuns to be had are those she finds off the street, since the daughters of tradesmen give themselves too many airs and graces.
By contrast, Mr Hancock is a tradesman and untrained in the ways of finer society. He is all too often governed by his fabulous dragon of a sister Hester Lippard. Her daughter longs for better and is bright enough that she just might rise above her situation. Yet when Mr Hancock finally encounters the upper classes at Mrs Chappell’s nunnery, he is alarmed to discover that these men speak in baby talk. There is a real lurching ‘through the looking glass’ feel as Mr Hancock steps from his own respectable drawing room and into the seedy boudoir of Chappell and company. Gowar’s thoughts on social mobility seemed particularly pertinent, ‘For class is a type of bubble, a membrane around one, and although one might grow within this membrane, and strain against it, it is impossible to break free from it.‘
One thing that surprised me was that more was not made of the link between mermaids and prostitution. In Elizabethan England, the word ‘mermaid’ was a synonym for whore. Mary Queen of Scots was infamously drawn as one (see left) during the uprising against her after she married Bothwell, the man widely believed to have been involved in the murder of her second husband. The contrast between Mary the whore mermaid and her cousin Elizabeth the Virgin Queen could hardly have been made more stark. To be a mermaid is to be a siren, luring virtuous men to their doom. The link is obvious in Gowar’s novel but remains unexplored and I was surprised that other reviews failed to mention it. Angelica shifts between life as a ‘mermaid’ or courtesan and her new existence as Mrs Hancock, all while the living mermaid beneath her home seethes in its tank.
I have always tended to avoid novels featuring representations of prostitution. It’s not that I’m a prude (oh no wait, I am), but it’s more that a lot of the popular books that centre around that (e.g. The Crimson Petal and the White) never really seemed that interesting. By contrast, I was mesmerised here by how Gowar contrasted the glamour and the savage ruthlessness of what these women are doing. Mrs Chappell’s girls do their embroidery and sit in white gowns and are sent out for their walks and they learn their lessons. And then in the evening, they have their pubic hair dyed green and they dance around naked for the visiting gentlemen while Mrs Chappell hands out condoms soaked in milk. There was something so sickening in the brutal contrast as Elinor and Polly are posted off to a New Year’s party full of anticipation and high spirits, then Polly stands stunned as one of the gentlemen cheerfully lists all they plan to do to them. In that moment, she is Cinderella and midnight has struck – all the magic vanished.
For all its period feel, many of Gowar’s observations on desire and commerce feel alarmingly close to the present day. Given the recent Jeffrey Epstein scandals, it would be wrong to suppose that the world we live in is so very different. There is something powerful in the way that Angelica rages to Mr Hancock’s niece that she had better hold tight to her virtue since if she loses it, it will be someone else who profits. I was also caught by the way that each of the characters long for something out of reach. Floating in the water, the mermaid brings with her an agonising sense of discontent.
These women all long for freedom and nobody fights harder for it than Angelica. She wants to soar in society and be everywhere admired and desired, declaring ‘I am as free as I want to be, and freer than any wife‘. Yet, even while she insists that she is ‘never happier’ than in a man’s embrace, the narrator confesses the truth of it, that she has in fact ‘endured many encounters that were not to her liking: some too brief, some too extended; some brutal, some tentative; some bizarre, some tedious‘. She has had to work hard to survive and there is no clear way to do so without a male protector. Even at her lowest, Angelica clings tightly to ‘the knowledge that it is better always to be fierce than to be sad‘.
It was fascinating to notice how Angelica and her fellow courtesans made so little distinction between the lives they led and those of married women. To their cynical eyes, to be a wife is merely a more closely governed form of the same work. Angelica expresses her horror that Bel has agreed to marry her long-time protector, ‘You will be kept‘. What else then has she been all these years? But yet we see that there is a darker servitude to being a wife, who cannot leave. A wife doomed to childbearing, a labour that only ceases when your body gives out. A wife tied to keeping the house, no longer courted, her beauty faded. There is respectability but no way out.
Yet even while there are hints of true darkness, Mermaid has a real warmth. There is genuine tenderness between the new Mr and Mrs Hancock. There is real kindness among Angelica’s new neighbours, particularly the grand matron who stoutly refuses to condemn Angelica’s previous wicked life since to do so would not be Christian. While other reviews complained about the loose threads, I often appreciate an author who has the courage to leave spaces for the reader to fill in. The courage it took for the black servant Simeon reach out to Polly. The hope that she did manage to make a good escape to fairer horizons.
The fact that it has taken me two years to truly sum up my thoughts about this book is a pretty firm sign that it inspired some pretty strong feelings. Another sure sign is that I have bought my own copy despite being supplied with a galley, and the fact that I have passed on copies as presents to several friends and family members. Mermaid makes some incredibly thought-provoking links between commodity and desire and the level of period detail was mesmerising. Gowar also has a truly Austen-esque gift for Regency prose, with corkers such as this line to describe Mr Hancock; ‘A man without the immediate demands of wife and children finds himself called upon for a multitude of little wants elsewhere‘. Another favourite was the description of his sister Mrs Lippard, ‘straight and cool as a steel pin, with ten fine children to exert her will upon the world‘. One short line and the character immediately springs to life on the page.
Mermaid is a sumptuous and immersive treat of a novel, taking the reader through London from the docks to the slums through refined houses of ill repute. The book sparkles and soars, and although it is an escapist fantasy with heavy helpings of magical realism, I felt that Gowar still struck at some poignant truths about desire, about the way the world is always in search of novelty but also about the fact that we can reach out to each other in kindness no matter what has gone on before. I loved, loved, loved this book and I can’t wait to see what Gowar will do next.
I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
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Published by Random House on January 25th 2018
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Historical, General, Sea Stories, Magical Realism
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