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Review: Golden Hill, by Francis Spufford
Scribner, 2016. 302 pp. $26

“There is something maddeningly predictable about the way you procure disaster, Richard,” a friend tells the protagonist of this bold, extraordinary novel. “It is like someone winding a clock, as methodical as that. . . .”

That, at least, is the sympathetic view of Richard from within the insular community (population: seven thousand) of New-York in 1746, which is to say, lower Manhattan. The less sympathetic, more common, view of Richard Smith is that he’s a bounder, a fraud, a swindler. But the fault lies largely with New-York and less with Smith, despite the man’s willingness to admit mistakes; society’s indictments reflect more on the accusers than the accused. That’s the brilliance of Golden Hill, in which the central character is more reliable than the rest, and the disasters that accrue have more to do with society’s wrong-headed suppositions and cruel, inequitable laws.

Thomas Davies’s drawing of New York City, ca. 1770, perhaps from the perspective of Long Island. The steeple of Trinity Church is visible in the background (courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

The premise is elegantly simple, the sort I admire. Richard Smith, twenty-three, lands in New-York fresh from England and immediately proceeds to Lovell & Company, on Golden Hill Street, where he presents a draft for a thousand pounds. Lovell doesn’t have such an enormous sum in hard money, though Mr. Lovell could procure it in goods, over time. But Smith wants cash. He won’t say why, what business he has, or why he came to the colonies to pursue it. Both self-interest and a merchant’s natural skepticism for the abstract prompt Lovell to imagine that Smith is playing an elaborate and potentially expensive hoax. Yet the newcomer presents a document that appears genuine, from a London concern with which Lovell has done business for years. Moreover, Smith argues a credible case, and his charm, good looks, and quick wit make a strong impression. Even so, Smith will have to wait until London confirms the draft. This is only fair.

All New-York waits with him and watches his every move. To possess such a large fortune, even theoretically, makes Smith an object of intense curiosity, no less the means by which he claims it and his polite, repeated refusals to explain his intentions. Opinions and motives are freely imputed to him, and every misstep becomes a reason for laughter, condemnation, or, conversely, temporary alliance with a political faction hoping to use him for its own advantage. But, on the chance that he’s who he says he is, no one can afford to reject him categorically. Rather, Smith is swept up into the highest circles right away, starting with Lovell’s household, which includes two marriageable daughters.

The elder, Tabitha, intrigues Smith. To onlookers, that in itself causes laughter and amazement, for Tabitha Lovell has a misanthropically sharp tongue and seems to enjoy making herself unpleasant. But Golden Hill is about freedom, real and imaginary. Smith has astutely deduced that Tabitha is a prisoner of her fears as much as she indulges the freedom to taunt everyone else, and he attempts to draw her out and show her he empathizes.

However, empathy is a commodity in short supply, even scarcer than self-knowledge. The friend who tells Smith that he “procures disaster” lays out the situation this way:

This is a place where things can get out of hand very quick: and often do. You would think, talking to the habitants, that all the vices and crimes of humanity had been left behind on the other shore. Take ’em as they take themselves, and they are the innocentest shopkeepers, placid and earnest, plucked by a lucky fortune out from corruption. But the truth is that they are wild, suspicious, combustible–and the devil to govern. . . . In all their relations they are prompt to peer and gaze for the hidden motive, the worm in the apple, the serpent in the garden they insist their New World to be.

Spufford is tweaking the American pretense of virtue–someone should, especially these days–but there’s much more to this passage than that. Smith’s friend is warning him that nothing will happen in a straight line, and indeed, it doesn’t. Twists and turns abound; if ever there was proof that “no–and furthermore” belongs in literary novels, not just suspense, Golden Hill is Exhibit A. But Spufford is also framing his themes: the hypocrisy concerning sexual standards, social class, wealth, race, and rule of law that emerge between the lines of this mesmerizing narrative and force the reader to ask what freedom means.

Finally, the passage suggests the tone of Golden Hill, whose vocabulary, cadences, and attitudes lovingly reflect and re-create an eighteenth-century picaresque. Spufford has wisely refrained from slavishly imitating Tobias Smollett (whom he quotes in an epigraph) or Henry Fielding, but he’s written in a form recognizably similar, and he adopts their style and form in pitch-perfect fashion.

Golden Hill is a masterpiece. That’s all there is to it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.