Review: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

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I decided to read The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock after listening to an interview with the novel’s author, Imogen Hermes Gowar on the Guardian books podcast (which is, by the way, always worth a listen). You can find the interview here:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/audio/2018/mar/13/man-booker-international-and-the-womens-prize-for-fiction-where-to-start-reading-books-podcast

What attracted me to the story was the way Hermes Gowar has isolated an aspect of late eighteenth century London society – its fascination for exotica and curios – and taken that as a reference point for exploring the city at large, in terms of its changing physical and cultural landscapes.

The story hinges on the moment when merchant Jonah Hancock discovers that his ship has been sold in exchange for what is claimed to be a mermaid. Devastated over the loss of his vessel, Hancock nevertheless endeavours to recoup his losses by putting the mermaid’s mummified remains on display.

In fact, public fascination with the mermaid gains Hancock access to social spheres which, as a ‘middling’ kind of merchant he has never previously enjoyed: from the luxury and sensuality of an upmarket King Street brothel to the newly moneyed circles of Mary-le-Bone and Blackheath. In the process, he meets renowned courtesan Angelica Neal who proves as alluring as the mermaid itself.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock emerges as a work of textual archaeology, revealing the hidden histories of those people who frequently serve as little more than ‘local colour’ in received versions of national history. In contemplating her future as Hancock’s wife, for example, Angelica realises the extent to which her own identity will ultimately be lost; concealed beneath a series of socially-prescribed roles:

These claims upon her will only multiply – she will be mother-in-law, grandmother, widow, dependant – and accordingly her own person will be divided and divided and divided, until there is nothing left. (p.372)

The novel also references characters who slip through the net of white-washed historical narrative such as Polly – a mixed race prostitute, displayed like the mermaid as a curiosity.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock throws the reader headfirst into the murky waters of a city on the brink of change: into its new role as a capitalist powerhouse. In this respect, London itself emerges as a protagonist in the novel, transformed by a burgeoning economic reality which sees social climbers like Mr Hancock encroaching on the terrain of the upper classes.

This is a multi-layered jewel of a book, injecting London’s past with an immediacy which makes you question how far removed we are from such a reality. The fetishising of women’s bodies and the hunger for what we perceive to be exotic or grotesque are after all as characteristic of our contemporary media as they ever were for 18th century London society.

A beautifully written, startling and disturbing piece of fiction.

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