Harvill Secker | 2018 (25 January) | 488p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1785 and merchant Jonah Hancock has to cope with the news that one of his captains has just sold his ship in exchange for what appears to be a little mermaid. It’s dead, hardly attractive, but when news of it flies around London society, Mr Hancock realises that here is the chance to recoup his losses. And when Mrs Chappell, the ‘abbess’ of a fashionable ‘nunnery’, gives him a great deal of money to display his mermaid at her infamous parties for a week, Mr Hancock not only has his eyes opened, he also gets a little more than he bargained for.
Angelica Neal is quite possibly London’s most beautiful courtesan and she is newly unleashed on London once more (now that her Duke has died, conveniently in time for the season). Mrs Neal must look to her future and that means she must marry. That’s easier said and done for one in her position. Mrs Chappell is keen for Angelica to return to her nunnery but Angelica has grander plans. She also wants a mermaid of her own, and not some dead ugly little thing on the mantelpiece. And Mr Hancock will do everything in his power to give Angelica her wish.
This remarkable debut brings Georgian London alive, or at least those parts of it that make their living, or take their pleasure, in its fashionable ‘nunneries’ or brothels. Its is gorgeously written, filled with all those little luxurious details about such things as clothing, furnishings, objects – from stockings and stays to chairs, wallpaper, gardens and grottoes. Everything is so vibrant and rich. And the wit with which the inhabitants of these spectacular dresses and parlours speak is delightful.
What is especially appealing is the distance between the assumed elegance and refinement of Mrs Chappell’s brothel and the reality of what actually goes on within its perfumed rooms. The girls are all taught manners, languages, needlework and music, as if they are all in training to be perfect ladies of society. And yet these are girls who are owned, who rarely meet other women apart from themselves. They exist in a beautiful bubble for the enjoyment of men. At times this is brought home, particularly in the character of Polly, who, as a black young woman, is an exotic object of curiosity and lust, little more than that. Little different are the black footmen with their powdered hair. There is a dark side to this world, fed upon by hypocritical, lecherous men, controlled by pandering painted grotesque women and permitted by corrupt officials. There is suffering.
Angelica Neal is such a fascinating character. At times she may seem shallow and grasping, but how could she be anything else? Her story demonstrates just how vulnerable women like this can be, while a friend demonstrates how far a few, but just a few, can rise. There is a goal but not many at all can achieve it. I felt such empathy for Angelica, such warmth. Her character evolves through the novel and it’s shown so beautifully by Imogen Hermes Gowar.
Polly is somebody I would have liked to have seen much more of. She is brilliantly drawn and her story has such potential. I could easily read a novel just about Polly, if written as well as this. As for Mr Hancock, he is rather overshadowed by the novel’s astonishing women, but there is something so poignant about his belief that somewhere, in a parallel universe maybe, still lives his son who was born dead. He imagines the boy growing to manhood near him, like a shadow, by his side. Mrs Chappell is a glorious scene stealer. I loved the descriptions of her. She is truly revolting, with her cauliflower flesh, feeding on her girls.
This is historical fiction but, as you might expect in a novel with mermaids, there is a fantasy element but it is delicately done. The final third of the book takes us further into strangeness than the rest and I must admit that I preferred the preceding two thirds, but there is a real beauty about what happens. We can be in no doubt, though, that the true mermaids are the human sirens who move through this novel, bewitching men and being betrayed by men. Angelica Neal is the subject of The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock and she is enchanting, as is this whole marvellous, witty and elegant novel. Do not miss it. The hardback is itself a thing of great beauty.