Where to begin when discussing The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock? A beautifully packaged, buzzy debut which you’re almost afraid to begin for fear it won’t live up to expectation. However, this is one of the most spellbinding and magical historical novels I’ve ever read, reminiscent of the gritty authenticity of The Crimson Petal and the White, which deserves all the acclaim it’s had to date.
Set at the end of the 18th century, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock opens with Jonah Hancock, a widowed merchant who lives a lonely life, cared for by only his young niece, dreaming of the family he could have had. One fateful evening, that will change his life, his most trusted agent returns with the news that he has sold his best ship, in exchange for what appears to be a dead mermaid. Initially horrified, Mr Hancock is persuaded to exhibit it, in the hope that he might recoup some of his money. Word quickly spreads, and in no time at all Mrs Chappell, one of the most renowned bawds in London determines to rent the mermaid as a diversion for her ‘nunnery.’ She charges Angelica Neal, one of her former protégées, and one of London’s most beautiful courtesans, to keep Mr Hancock sweet – and thus their lives will be intertwined, in the most unlikely way, weathering decisions both good and bad.
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is clearly impressively researched, but wears it lightly, striking a brilliant balance between comedy and social commentary. There are great lines, humorously reminding the reader of the wonders yet to be discovered by 18th century England, such as the coffee shop owner pointing out how ridiculous it is to believe in the ‘kongourou’, but not in mermaids, and the scientist who remains sceptical, but who doesn’t wish to repeat the embarrassment of his previous – disproven – assertion that lions are born as puffballs. Yet much is also made of the extent to which women’s fortunes rely on their mensfolk, be it Angelica, searching for a sponsor to keep her, to Jonah’s niece Sukie, who will rely on him for a dowry. And even Mrs Chappell relies on a network of powerful men to keep her safe. It’s also a fascinating exploration of sex and virtue in the 1700s – the mermaid orgy scene I think will stay with all of us for some time!
A compelling, memorable story of love, obsession and commodity, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is nothing short of a masterpiece in my opinion, and signals an exciting new talent.
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar is out now from Vintage Books.