Tag Archives: Eighteenth century

The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick Shortlist: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

Cover imageRegular visitors to this blog will know that I tend not to review historical novels. There are exceptions, of course – Jake Arnott’s The Fatal Tree and Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall be Entirely Free spring to mind – but generally my feet are planted firmly in the twenty-first century. You might be surprised then to hear that Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock was already sitting on my shelves waiting to be read before its shortlisting boosted it to the front of the queue. Gowar’s novel begins in 1785 with a Deptford merchant taking delivery of a wizened figure said to be a mermaid. Across town, a courtesan sits pondering what to do now her patron has died.

Jonah Hancock is haunted by the stillbirth of his son and the death of his wife, burying himself in business, proud of his astute merchant’s eye and glowing reputation. When Captain Jones arrives, bearing the mermaid acquired by the sale of his ship, Hancock is at first horrified then persuaded that this shrivelled figure will make his fortune. He finds himself courted by Mrs Chappell, the sharp-eyed madam of a bordello who spots a business opportunity, persuading him to rent her the mermaid. Mrs Chappell enlists the help of Angelica Neal, much reduced following the death of her patron, instructing her to devote herself to Hancock at the lavish opening party for the creature’s display. Hancock isn’t as green as he may seem – he’s visited a prostitute or two – but he’s appalled by the lascivious goings-on, shrugging off the attentions of Angelica but not before falling heavily for her carefully cultivated charms. Out he walks, leaving Angelica to conceive her own passion which leads her into desperate trouble. When he next sees her, Angelica sets him a seemingly impossible task: she wants him to find her another mermaid.

Gowar’s novel has more than a touch of the morality tale about it along the lines of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair or Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, exploring the position of women in eighteenth-century society all wrapped up in a good old-fashioned bit of storytelling replete with period detail. Women are dependent on men to make their way in this world – Mrs Chappell earns her money from their debauchery, Bel finds her way to respectability and security through marriage – Mrs Flowerday is perhaps the most independent, shrewdly using her dowry as a counterweight when her husband oversteps the mark. As in the best morality tales, there’s a great deal of sly wit running through the narrative:

Mr Trevithick steps aside to draw her attention to the flagellation machine which sits in the corner awaiting its weekly polish.

Gowar engages our sympathy for her characters, deftly rounding them out: Hancock is a decent man, hoping to step up the social ladder but ill at ease with it, and Angelica’s flightiness is tempered with memories of an impoverished childhood. Just one criticism: I found the mermaid’s voice a little jarring but her passages are both short and few. Altogether a thoroughly enjoyable piece of fiction, both absorbing and entertaining with a hefty helping of redemption.

If you’d like to see what my fellow shadow judge Amanda at Bookish Chat thinks of Gowar’s novel, her review is here. You can find out more about the award by visiting www.youngwriteraward, following @youngwriteryear or keep up with us shadow judges at #youngwriterawardshadow,

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore: The rights of women

Cover imageHere’s one I’ve been looking forward to ever since I spotted it in the publisher’s catalogue. Helen Dunmore’s new novel, Birdcage Walk, is set in her home town of Bristol against the backdrop of the French Revolution raging across the Channel while Britain looks nervously on. It’s the story of a young woman caught up in her passion for a man, many years her senior, who is intent on fulfilling his ambition of building a grand terrace overlooking the Avon Gorge.

Lizzie’s mother has brought her up to be an independent woman, reflecting her own radical, egalitarian beliefs. Julia is often to be found scratching out pamphlets, sometimes dictated to her by Lizzie’s hopelessly impractical stepfather. Neither of them is fond of Diner whose speculative building plans run counter to their principles but Lizzie conceived a passion for him and was determined to have him. His first wife died in her native France: apart from those barest of bones, he refuses to talk of her but Lucie haunts this marriage.  When Julia dies in childbirth, Lizzie resists Diner’s annoyance, taking her half-brother into the show house that has become their home. Passion is cooling and Lizzie is unsettled by Diner’s jealous need to know her whereabouts. As the news from France finds its way across the Channel, Diner’s plans are undermined – no one wants to sink their capital in a house, no matter how splendid, with the possibility of war on the horizon. Mired in debt, he decides they must make their escape and a revelation is made.

Politics, both national and domestic, runs through Dunmore’s novel, all wrapped up in an expert bit of storytelling with a thread of suspense. Brought up to believe ‘that a woman must not be weak, but instead learn to fend for herself’, Lizzie has been made dependent on her husband by the law which prevents married women from owning property. It can be no coincidence that much of the action takes place in 1792, the year in which Mary Wollstonecraft published her seminal work, A Vindication of the Right of Women. As ever Dunmore’s writing is striking – ‘Do you really think that the storm in France will not blow my hat off?’ asks Diner; ‘Memory. What was that to set against the worms?’ reflects Lizzie in her grief – and her characters beautifully observed. She expertly pulls taut the tension that runs through this marriage between a woman used to freedom and a man who assumes it’s his right to control her. Not Dunmore at her absolute best – the sensuous prose of Talking to the Dead and the sharpness of Exposure remain my favourites – but an engrossing novel, made all the more vivid for me by its setting, a mere ten-minute train ride from where I live. I’ve often walked along the Royal York Crescent on which Diner’s vision is based. It’ll be hard to do that now without thinking of Lizzie, her half-brother wrapped tightly in her shawl, as she makes her way up onto the Downs.

It’s such a sadness to know that this will be Dunmore’s last novel. She has quietly delivered some of the finest writing produced by her generation. Even when writing of facing her own death she is gracefully, elegantly restrained. An enormous talent – how I will miss that frisson of delight that greets the announcement of a new book from her.

The Fatal Tree by Jake Arnott: A rollicking tale of thieves and whores

Jake Arnott’s first novel, The Long Firm, was published way back in 1999. I was a huge fan: he summoned up London’s underworld in prose as sharp as a ‘60s mobster’s suit, expertly blending fact with fiction. A hard act to follow, then, and sorry to say Arnott’s never quite matched it for me but I’ve stuck with him, ever hopeful, and The Fatal Tree proves that fidelity can win out. It’s a triumph – a rip-roaring tale of thieves and whores, love and folly, corruption and redemption, much of it told in flash, gloriously vivid eighteenth-century thieves’ slang.

In 1726 Edgeworth Bess is in Newgate Gaol, awaiting trial for possession of stolen goods which may well lead her to Tyburn’s gallows. Billy Archer has petitioned Mr Applebee, a publisher of confessions popular at public hangings, to commission him to tell Bess’ story. Bess began life in the home of a noble family – the daughter of a servant, thrown out when she’s caught in bed with their son. With only the guinea he’s given her, she finds her way to London, easy meat for the city’s madams eager for fresh faces. Punk Alice saves her from the worst of them, installing her in Mother Breedlove’s bawdy academy where she learns how to please both the punters and herself. Smart and sassy, she’s soon at home amongst the denizens of Romeville, a buttock-and-file who whores and picks pockets, attracting the attention of both Jonathan Wild, self-proclaimed Thief-taker General, and Jack Sheppard, a carpenter’s apprentice who puts his skills to use as an expert burglar. Bess and Jack fall for each other hard. Jack’s strutting arrogance will trip him up badly but his jail-breaking skills will make him a legend while Bess will need her sharp-as-a-tack wits to get him and herself out of trouble, all under the gaze of Wild who holds Romeville in his grubby sway. Alongside Bess’ story, Billy – petty thief, scribbler and molly – tells his own, intertwining his narrative with hers as each moves towards a decisive conclusion.

Arnott alternates Bess’ confession, told in her own words with Billy’s letters to Applebee. Written in flash, Bess’ sections will have you frequently diving into the glossary at first but, rather like The Wire, once you have your ear in, so to speak, her narrative is easy to follow. Arnott keeps the tension nicely taut with cliff-hangers and foreshadowing throughout, liberally lacing his story with both the salaciousness promised in Billy’s first letter and a fair dose of humour. The period detail is vivid, descriptions of the thieves’ dens nicely lurid, but Arnott takes care not to get too caught up in what has clearly been meticulous research, rounding out his characters so that they leap off the page. John Gay wanders through Billy’s narrative, a frequent acquaintance, keeping his ear to the ground. There are echoes of our own times both in the language – I think we’d all like to see ‘impeach’ in common use soon – and in the tidal wave of greed preceding the bursting of the South Sea Bubble. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable novel, a wonderful piece of historical storytelling as atmospheric as Michel Faber’s The Crimson and the White. I have a feeling that Arnott had a great deal of fun writing this book, delving into the lives of spruce-prigs, twangs and buttock-brokers.

I can’t finish this without quoting a few more of my favourite flash expressions: gospel-shop  a church; glaziers eyes; pot-valiant drunk; dandyprat a puny little fellow; caper-merchant a dancing master and prattle-broth tea. I long for a way to work these into the conversation.

The Story of Land and Sea: Loss, regret and the possibility of redemption

Cover imageRegular readers of this blog will know that I tend to bang on a bit about jackets. It’s the old bookseller in me – I hate to see good novels done a disservice by their packaging. In this particular case, the jacket is far from off-putting but it does feel a little misleading and left to my own devices I probably wouldn’t have picked the novel up. Its starry sky and young girl looking out to sea speak of romance and adventure to me, suggesting that the book might be a little fluffy which it most certainly isn’t. Set in late  eighteenth-century North Carolina against the backdrop of the American War of Independence and its aftermath, Katy Simpson Smith’s debut deals with hard issues of morality, themes of loss, regret and the possibility of redemption, all wrapped up in the story of one family, beautifully told.

It opens ten years after the end of the war with John telling stories to his nine-year-old daughter Tabitha, an evening ritual for them both. She wants to hear of his piratical seafaring days, he always tells stories of her mother. Helen and John eloped, determined to marry in the face of her father’s disapproval. John smuggled her aboard ship where they spent the first year of their marriage. After Helen’s death in childbirth, John returned to the garrison town of Beaufort where Asa determinedly takes his reluctant grand-daughter to church every Sunday. The two men barely get along: one an atheist, the other a fervent believer; one a lowly shopkeeper with a dubious history; the other still clinging to his grandiose ambitions of legacy despite the loss of his only child. Woven through the story of these two disparate men is that of Moll, the slave who became Helen’s friend and confidante, who pays the price for her sassiness.

Smith’s story loops back and forth, first telling Tabitha’s story, then her mother’s, before returning to John and Asa’s. Her writing is wonderfully assured – the occasional lyrical passage sings out from her otherwise elegantly restrained prose. It’s a novel peopled with complex, rounded and believable characters: given to Helen on her tenth birthday, Moll is determined to defend what little territory she has, maturing into a strong and resolute woman; the pious young Helen teaches the slaves to read and write, assembling them on Sundays only later realising that for them ‘God is merely the lack of a whip’. Smith examines the profound moral complexities of slavery within the context of the time in which her story is set with dramatic effect – somehow the simple word ‘buy’ when applied to another human being triggers a shock and horror more visceral than any graphic physical description. In its portrayal of a tumultuous time seen through the eyes of two people, it reminded me at times of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. Altogether, a thoroughly impressive debut: I’ll be interested to see what Smith does next.