A per­ilous catch

NICK RENNISON is im­pressed by a de­but novel that tells a cu­ri­ous tale of life in Ge­or­gian-era Lon­don

BBC History Magazine - - Books / Fiction - Nick Rennison is the au­thor of Carver’s Truth (Corvus, 2016)

The Mer­maid and Mrs Han­cock by Imo­gen Her­mes Gowar Harvill Secker £12.99

Jonah Han­cock is not your typ­i­cal pro­tag­o­nist. A portly mid­dleaged Dept­ford wid­ower, he lives alone with a niece who acts as his house­keeper. De­cent but a lit­tle dull, he is an ar­che­typal mem­ber of the 18th-cen­tury mer­can­tile class. Noth­ing of any great note has ever hap­pened to him and he has done noth­ing to dis­turb the smooth run­ning of his com­fort­able life. All that is about to change, as de­but novelist Imo­gen Her­mes Gowar leads him on an un­pre­dictable ad­ven­ture through the streets of Ge­or­gian Lon­don.

Han­cock’s old friend and busi­ness as­so­ciate, Cap­tain Tysoe Jones, re­turns from a trad­ing voy­age with star­tling news. He has sold Han­cock’s ship and in­vested the money in a rare cu­rio – the pre­served body of a mer­maid. Han­cock is hor­ri­fied but the cap­tain as­sures him that a for­tune is to be made from show­ing the mer­maid to Lon­don­ers ea­ger to see any nov­elty. As Han­cock’s mer­maid soon be­comes the talk of the town, he be­gins to move in very dif­fer­ent cir­cles.

A cor­pu­lent madam, owner of a brothel in St James’s, hires the mer­maid to be a talk­ing point at one of her sex par­ties. Han­cock at­tends and, although he is shocked by what he wit­nesses, he meets An­gel­ica Neal, a high-class cour­te­san. Self-cen­tred and friv­o­lous, yet ad­mirably de­ter­mined to main­tain her in­de­pen­dence, she em­barks on an af­fair with a hand­some but debt-rid­den young man which soon looks doomed to dis­as­ter. Mean­while the daz­zled Jonah Han­cock is lurk­ing in the wings, ready to of­fer An­gel­ica what com­fort he can. The lives of both mer­chant and cour­te­san will be rad­i­cally trans­formed by their meet­ing.

Rich in the de­tails of ev­ery­day life, The Mer­maid and Mrs Han­cock is a highly im­pres­sive de­but. The dra­matic al­ter­ations in its char­ac­ters’ for­tunes may not al­ways be en­tirely con­vinc­ing, but it is an ab­sorb­ing tale of sex, money, am­bi­tion and the lure of the new.

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