My rating: 4 stars
A mermaid can be both alluring and destructive. In The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, Imogen Hermes Gowar presents the reader with a noteworthy and convincing cast of characters who inhabit London in the late eighteenth century and who, in the end, have to decide what is more important for them in order to achieve happiness. The various characters in this historical novel are brought together because of what is believed to be an authentic mermaid. They are from different walks of life, from the most respectable trades to the most expensive forms of prostitution.
Jonah Hancock is a 45-year-old merchant who has three ships travelling the world while he stays at his office. He has known sorrow. His wife Mary died when she was 33, and his son Henry didn’t survive birth. Many years have passed, but Mr Hancock is still haunted by his absence. He is struggling to come to terms with not having a son with whom to share his joy and fortune. His life is about to change, though.
On a September evening in 1785, he is at home with his niece Sukie waiting for word from one of his captains. Unusually, captain Jones himself knocks on his door. He has the most unexpected news. He has sold his ship to buy what appears to be a mermaid. Mr Hancock is appalled. Captain Jones tries to convince him that it was a great and marvellous investment, though, seeing that everyone will want to pay to see the mermaid with their own eyes.
The dead mermaid is at the same time fascinating and terrifying. Its mouth is open as if it’s screaming. It has claws and a large head. It’s nothing like we imagine and picture a mermaid to be.
“It lies on the table, desiccated and furious, its mouth open in an eternal apish scream.”
Mr Hancock manages to find a coffee-house where to exhibit the mermaid. The first woman and children to see it leave the room in fear of it. He starts to believe that the exhibition will be a failure. But he needn’t have worried. More people go see the mermaid and are impressed. Through word-of-mouth publicity, everyone now seems to want to take a look at it. Mrs Chappell, who owns an establishment devoted to high-class prostitution, rents the mermaid for a week to show it at her exclusive soirées.
During the first night that the mermaid is exhibited at Mrs Chappell’s nunnery (a rather ironic term), Mr Hancock meets Angelica and becomes enchanted by her. However, what he sees at the nunnery disturbs him deeply, and he leaves abruptly and sooner than expected.
“She puts her face up to his, very serious, so pretty that he wishes to press his lips to the little crease between her brows.”
Angelica is a 27-year-old courtesan who until recently was in the keeping of a duke, but he died leaving her nothing in his will. She was trained by Mrs Chappell, who sees great talent in her and is interested in helping her succeed, while obviously keeping a share of her earnings. She is proud of her appearance, particularly her blonde hair and blue eyes. Her friend and attendant, Mrs Eliza Frost, is extremely worried about their financial situation. Angelica relishes being desired. Thus, she feels dubious about being left by Mr Hancock. Her night has only just begun, though.
Readers get to know Angelica some time before Mr Hancock. The book is narrated in the third person from the point of view of various characters, starting with Mr Hancock. I really liked the way in which the story moved from Mr Hancock to Angelica the first time – depicting an imaginary crow flying over London, from one neighbourhood to another.
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock doesn’t rely on a gripping plot. It’s most of all a character-based novel. The plot takes too long to unfold, but thanks to an interesting cast of characters, the book almost never gets tedious. With each page we learn a little more about the characters and how the mermaid influences their lives. Sukie’s ambition is to marry an unhealthy businessman. He would soon die, and she could take over his business and thrive. She showcases her managing skills by helping with the exhibition of the mermaid. The success of its showing awakes in Mr Hancock an ambition unknown to him until then. He now wants more from his life than being a merchant. Despite leaving the party at Mrs Chappell’s establishment prematurely, he still desires Angelica’s company, sparing no efforts to achieve it.
Angelica has an interesting character development. Although, at first, she seems to be pretty shallow, there’s something funny about her playfulness. When a new person enters her life, she becomes too melodramatic. However, the more we know about her past, the more relatable she becomes. Her last decisions only increase her genuineness as a character and my sympathy for her.
Not only does the book delve into prostitution in its various forms, it also touches on racism through Polly, one of Mrs Chappell’s girls. Unfortunately, she plays only a brief part in the novel. She should have been introduced sooner, and her fate should have been further explored, because her character is connected with interesting topics. She doesn’t want to be pigeonholed. She wants to be perceived as an individual and not as another black person, whose problems she doesn’t believe to share. Simeon, the footman at the nunnery, warns her that she will be no more than a curiosity among white people, somewhat like the mermaid.
Throughout the book, various correlations are established between the courtesans and mermaids. Mr Hancock easily becomes fascinated by Angelica, as in stories sailors usually become entranced by mermaids. He also expects Mrs Chappell to make his mermaid famous like she did with so many girls.
“She has launched numberless girls onto their glittering careers: she can be assumed to manage the same for his wizened freak.”
The writing style stands out because of its detailed nature. Every action is narrated with the utmost detail, being easy to picture every movement of the characters. All settings are painstakingly depicted. Scents, clothes, houses and people wandering on the streets are comprehensively portrayed.
Although I was expecting The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock to have a more enthralling plot, I was not disappointed by the characters created by Imogen Hermes Gowar. Together with a writing style full of details, they brought eighteenth-century London to life in a historical novel complemented with magical realism elements.