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Review: The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gowar
HarperCollins, 2018. 484 pp. $29

It’s 1785, and Jonah Hancock, a Deptford shipping merchant of some means, receives unwelcome news: The captain of one of three ships he owns has sold it and its cargo to bring back a dead, preserved mermaid. Hancock doesn’t know what to do with his new treasure, and the likely financial loss terrifies him, even though he’s solvent. Playing to his fears, his controlling, self-absorbed sister accuses him of squandering the fortune their extended family (read: her children) depends on and will make their name a laughingstock. As a childless widower, you see, he’s got no one else to support, but, more to the point, Jonah has always tried to appease his sister, a thankless, impossible task. He’s sorely in want of backbone or spirit of adventure, but he doesn’t know where to find them—or even whether it’s advisable to look.

This illustration of P.T. Barnum’s alleged “Feejee Mermaid” first appeared in the New York Herald in 1842 (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Nevertheless, to recoup his expenses, he puts the mermaid on display and creates a sensation. The money he receives from gawkers willing to pay for the privilege helps soothe his worries. More importantly, the exposure widens his social world, for the bawdy house that he’s licensed to show his mermaid is frequented by the rich and famous — and those who sell themselves to them. Crucial to the proceedings, the good Mr. Hancock, though scandalized at what he sees, meets the beautiful, accomplished courtesan Angelica Neal. Since the title tells you that Jonah will marry, she’s the likeliest candidate, if only because he meets nobody else.

What a risky authorial gambit, yielding up a crucial plot point, daring the reader to put the book down. But Gowar is more than equal to the challenge she sets herself, for how the two characters overcome first impressions makes for quite a story, with much “no — and furthermore” to block their way. Angelica, accustomed to baubles, flash, and excitement, shouldn’t be interested in Jonah for anything other than his money, and yet there’s more at work than that. Likewise, though Jonah has never met an obstacle he can’t run away from, he has nevertheless mourned his late wife and infant son for fifteen years, and you sense courage and will gathering under his scraggly powdered wig.

Reading The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock reminds me of a modern-day Henry Fielding, complete with intricate plot, ribaldry, and social commentary. So it is that Hancock observes titled members of Parliament at the bawdy house, who speak in “baby-talk and garbled vowels as the signallers of good breeding”:

Since he has spent two score years outside the society of genteel Whigs, he must be forgiven for hearing their speech as a cacophony of pantomime sneezes; they pronounce the first syllable with great energy, and trail off into a drawl as if between a word’s first letter and its last they have lost all conviction in what they are saying. He is aware — and ashamed of — his dislike for them; he is a Tory through and through, as his father was before him. It is the logical, the patriotic, the honest choice. He has never until this moment felt in any means awkward about it.

But the comic moments aside, there’s much serious matter here. Gowar talks about the way men imprison women for their own use — literally or figuratively — so she brings you inside the brothel, showing the courtesan’s (and madam’s) training and mindset, commercial cruelty, and their hirelings’ poignant sacrifice. In this novel, it seems that every woman in London is for sale, in one way or another, and the mermaid symbolizes this painful fact. The unlikely romance between the straight-laced Jonah and the calculating, brittle Angelica works beautifully, I think; the two characters complement one another in ways they could never have imagined. I also note the choice of names: Jonah, the unwilling prophet who has more to teach than he knows, and Angelica, who discovers, to her surprise, that she possesses goodness and simplicity.

The jacket flap mentions the theme of race, but Gowar spends little time on it, and her attempt to extend the imprisonment metaphor in that direction, though literally apt—enslavement, after all—feels like a letdown because she doesn’t develop it enough. Did a previous, doubtless longer, version of the manuscript dwell on it more deeply? As it is, the theme seems more a point of philosophy than essential to the story, rather like a room to a large house that has been closed off. But that’s a minor complaint about a very fine book — a debut novel, in fact.

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