What a joy it was reading this novel! And I'm so glad I purposely saved it as the last book to read from The Women's Prize longlist. I had a hunch it'd be a pleasurable and immersive story and it was. It's the kind of book I was eager to get back to every time I had to put it down which is something I can't say about some other literary novels no matter how clever or interesting they are. Given how much I enjoyed reading both Imogen Hermes Gowar's debut novel and “The Parentations” I'm beginning to think my favourite kind of historical fiction has a dash of the supernatural mixed in with it. Although, to be honest, “The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock” is almost entirely firmly grounded in reality. The mermaid element comes to stand for something more emotional and rooted in the real world later in the novel. It's primarily the story of a widower businessman whose livelihood is at stake when his merchant vessel is unwittingly traded away and a high society escort/prostitute named Angelica Neal who is reentering her trade after the death of a duke that kept her and left her nothing. Their stories collide in a richly imagined version of late-18th century London with its bawdy houses of ill repute and emerging middle class neighbourhoods.
Fans of Sarah Waters are likely to enjoy this novel for Gowar's incredibly engaging prose style and the rich way she reimagines this historical period without making her research too evident. Also in Waters' fashion, there's a playfully indulgent sexiness to the writing where a woman's breasts are described as “full and pale, seamed with one or two pearly lines, quivering just fractionally in time with her pulse” and, in response, a man is “hard as a yardstick.” It's also the kind of story about a historical time period that wouldn't have been written in the time its set because Gowar adds realistic details that wouldn't have normally been included. For instance, in one part a woman visits a household where she drinks a great deal of tea and in the carriage back has an urgent need to urinate. So Gowar doesn't shy from showing how cumbersome and messy a situation like this would have been in the time period. Also, it gives some presence to racial minorities in Georgian times. One of the sub-plots involves a prostitute named Polly who is bi-racial and a black servant named Simeon. They have very different attitudes towards race and feelings about how to navigate English society as members of a racial minority. While I'm glad Gowar took care in representing different kinds of people from this time period, their stories are perhaps too self-contained and slight within such a larger story so it feels close to tokenism. Nevertheless, she portrays their plight in a sensitive way.
Mostly I found myself drawn towards the character of Angelica and I was wholly wrapped up in her story. She's someone who seems quite superficial and selfish, but comes from a difficult background and has a dogged faith in intense romance. It's skilful the way Gowar made me care about her even when she was doing foolish or cruel things. And it's also compelling how the characters around her seem to caution and advise her against making obvious mistakes, but Angelica can't stop herself from getting into trouble and falling into disgrace. Mr Hancock is sensitive to the fact that “She is a woman out of place, this Angelica Neal, a piece fallen loose from a great machine.” This combined with the melancholy losses Mr Hancock has endured gives the novel real depths of feeling which might not be evident at first. Their journeys take them to a place which should seem like a happy conclusion, but a lasting sense of fulfilment and contentment remain elusive. Rather than stand as a thing of glorious wonder, the mermaid that the characters seek becomes merely “A thing that tells us what we really want is out of reach.” For a novel that appears on the surface to be an indulgent historical tale, “The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock” has a real emotional resonance.