The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar is a mix of well-researched historical fiction and magical realism, taking place in colorful 18th century London. I had an idea of what this book would be before I read it, but it turned out to be something else–pleasantly so. Take Hulu’s Harlots and Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin and throw in a mermaid and comments on class, and you get this novel. I was obsessed with mermaids when I was little, and so that fact mixed with this book taking place in 1785 London made it all the more intriguing to me. I think it’s hard to pull off magical realism elements in historical fiction, which I don’t come across all to often in general, but Gowar executes it effortlessly by her research and world building in that we can believe this might have taken place. A world where mermaids exist could be real. Many of the characters don’t believe such a thing exists, but their minds are slowly changed.
Humble merchant Mr Hancock is presented one day with a small corpse of a mermaid. The captain of one of his ships has traded everything–including the ship, for this other worldly bauble. Mr Hancock has no choice but to gamble his fortune and hope for the best when he puts the mermaid on display for a viewing fee–and the mermaid takes London by storm.
The parts I did not expect from this book were those of the “nunneries”, or the bawd houses. I was already familiar with this world through research of Georgian London, Slammerkin, and Harlots, so I was quickly immersed when we first meet former high class escort Angelica and the nunnery “mother” who raised her. I found this world and those characters much more interesting than Mr Hancock himself, although I suppose that is the point.
Much of this novel deals with the themes of class and class mobility in the late 18th century. New money vs. old money. Can a person truly rise above one’s station in wealth and society given their backgrounds? For Angelica, it is her history as an escort and later becoming a lady of high society. For Mr Hancock, it is his humble merchant lineage evolving into cultured, wealthy gentleman always grasping for more (i suppose in that way Angelica and Mr Hancock almost switch places in their world views.) The old money will always be apprehensive of those who rise on their own merits (or by other means.) As the mermaid’s beauty and the mermaid itself as unattainable, so is this social construct of moving up in class–and furthermore, of the presumed happiness that comes with wealth and rank. And in the end, Angelica and Mr Hancock are faced with the price of such “happiness.”
As a debut, this novel shines. Gowar’s descriptions are beautiful and delectable; I could see everything playing out very clearly. Her research of the period was impeccable and immersive.
Two characters I wanted to know more about, however, were Sukie (Mr Hancock’s niece) and Polly (a mixed race escort.) While Sukie’s story intertwines with the climax of the story, Polly’s does not. Polly occupies the B plot for a time, and we see glimpses of her wrestling with her place in the world as a mixed raced “whore,” but I never felt like I got full closure on her story. She makes a split second decision that changes the course of her life, and then we don’t hear from her again save for a small glimpse toward the end of the story. The same can be said for Angelica’s friends before her change in social station. Although beautifully described, I found the climax to be a bit–well–anti-climactic, although the main characters themselves did achieve their full narrative arcs.
That said, it was an enjoyable and swift read!
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is already out in the UK, and is released in the US on Kindle on Sept 11, 2018.