Sunday, 5 May 2019

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gowar.

           It is September, 1785 and canny Deptford merchant Jonah Hancock is horrified to learn that the trusted Captain of Hancock’s ship ‘Calliope’ has sold the vessel for – for A Mermaid????
            And a fearsome ugly one at that! But the Captain swears that Mr Hancock will make himself rich from displaying such a Curiosity;  there is no other like it and the merchant should set about reaping the returns on his ‘investment’ as soon as possible.  Jonah Hancock has had many tragedies in his life:  the loss of his wife and baby in childbirth fifteen years before;  the responsibilities of many relatives to support without any of the rewards of a close and loving family life, and the prospect of bleak and loveless old age – he may as well try his luck  with his horrid new acquisition:  what more can he lose?
            To his great shock, he finds that his friend the Captain is right:  there is no shortage of spectators wishing to pay good money to see his Curiosity – why, he even receives an offer he can’t refuse from the Madame of one of the most exclusive brothels in London to display the Mermaid for one week, she eagerly acquiescing to the most outrageous sum he can name – and there, finally, he meets his fate in the shape of Angelica Neal, high-priced courtesan who effortlessly steals his heart (and hopefully, his fortune later).  He is hopelessly smitten, but not entirely foolish:  he is dogged, determined and good at playing the waiting game, even enduring a tempestuous and doomed love affair she conducts with a handsome and penniless young man, and as a show of devotion he even dispatches his Captain on another search when Angelica gaily challenges him to ‘find me another mermaid!’
            And he does.
            But this one is real and has a dreadful gift of plunging all who see and hear her into a dreadful melancholy, including Mr Hancock:  it is time for Angelica, low-born and whore though she may be, to fight for all she holds dear – including Mr. Hancock.
            Ms Gowar thrills us with her gorgeous language and spectacular imagery, especially when evoking the tumultuous life of 18th century London and beyond, and the huge, unassailable ramparts of the Class system.  From those forced to sell themselves for food to the courtesans of princes, ‘commerce’ is involved every step of the way:  what do you have that I can buy at the cheapest possible price?  (Beauties and Curiosities excepted!)  SIX STARS.   

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