This book had been sitting on a book shelf in our house for quite a while. Anne had read it, of course, many moons ago. She is a much more prolific reader than me. However she couldn’t remember much about it other than she had enjoyed it, and so I had to go through it myself.
The title certainly grabbed me as I was intrigued by the juxtaposition of the fantastical and the prosaic. It sounded like there could be a little magic realism which I often like if it’s done well.
It is set in late eighteenth century London, just after the United States has been born and just before the French revolution. The timing feels important because there is so much about identities in this book: ancient and newly created, and this is a time when the upward mobility of the mercantile class is really starting to happen. With British ships sailing the world over, and trade and slavery bringing new wealth into the pockets of businessmen as well as the nobility.
Mr Hancock is one of these such men but he begins, in the book, as a bit sad and lonely, haunted by the death of his wife in childbirth and his still born son several years back. Fretfully waiting for his ship to literally come in, and living in Deptford, an honest working town in the unfashionable south of the river.
The Mrs Hancock in question is anything but prosaic and for two thirds of the book she is also not Mrs Hancock but a high class, if somewhat frivolous, prostitute called Angelica Neal. She has just returned to society after her previous benefactor died and left her with nothing. Her old pimp Bet Chappell wants her to return to the ‘nunnery’.
How these two unlikely companions come together is the core of this book but there is so much more. Mermaids for a start, and possibly more than one, or possibly none, such is the slippery nature of the beast. In an age when these ships are bringing so many new things from abroad for the delight of the chattering classes and the coffee drinking men of means, mermaids remain a very high possibility.
It is written in the present tense and takes on the viewpoint of various characters allowing the reader to see an interesting cross-section of life. The language is delightfully vivacious and earthy. I have a bad habit of skipping past descriptive sections but I found myself enjoying the writer’s turn of phrase so much that I lapped these parts up as much as the action.
Jane Austen, writing in the same period that this is set may have kept away from some of the more ribald aspects. But she would have recognised the proscriptive place of women. From Mr Hancock’s older sister who inherits nothing of their father’s business to Polly, a child of a slave, picked up and polished to be a sexual curio for wealthy men. From Sukie, Mr Hancock’s niece, pulled out of school for being too clever, to Angelica, supposedly free of society’s repressive constraints but completely at the mercy of a man’s credit.
The book dips into the fantastic, occasionally a little clumsily, but where it stays with reality it paints a very engaging picture of eighteenth century life. I thoroughly enjoyed it and was very pleased to have found it on our bookshelves.