This review contains spoilers.
Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock opens, appropriately enough, on a dark stormy night in Gravesend, 1785, with a well-off merchant by the name of Jonah Hancock opening his door to the news that his agent has sold his prized ship in exchange for what is allegedly a taxidermied mermaid. Hoping to make the best of a bad situation, Hancock takes the mermaid to London, where it becomes a sensation – catapulting him into the upper echelons of society and steering him into the path of one Angelica Neal, glamorous, high-class courtesan. Their worldviews couldn’t be more different, but they’re thrown together when an ill-advised love affair sees Angelica facing bankruptcy and ruin; to save her, Hancock offers to marry her and take her to his staid household in Kent. And then a second mermaid comes into the Hancocks’ lives, one whose influence is much more sinister.
At its heart I think The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is a novel about the exploitation of women in the Georgian period, and the sheer precariousness of their position in society. Angelica sees marriage as a domestic cage, preferring the sexual, financial and emotional freedom she enjoys as a courtesan; but her near-ruin and the example of one of her friends, another former courtesan who becomes the wife of her client, shows that marriage is still the only long-term guarantee of security available to her. (She could also become a madam – but this option is strongly aligned in the text with becoming complicit in her own exploitation.) Then there’s Polly, a mixed-race courtesan-in-training who runs away from her madam to escape a lifetime of relentless objectification as an “exotic” experience for upper-class men only to find herself offering the same services to genuinely dangerous men for shillings on the street. Finally, there’s Hancock’s niece, Sukie, a girl of respectable family who nevertheless has absolutely no say in her own employment situation, forever at risk of being shunted by her mother between the households of various relatives to play maid-of-all-work. These are women in very different circumstances, united by the fact that they really have no good choices because of a system that treats them in various ways as objects for the delight and convenience of white men.
This dynamic of exploitation actually gets slightly extended along a different axis: Polly’s story is part of an underdeveloped subplot involving her and the Black servant of her madam, who, like Polly, must exploit his own objectification and exoticisation if he’s to survive in Georgian London. Both he and Polly are hyper-aware of issues of performance, decorum and respect in a way the white characters aren’t – because their existence at a relatively comfortable level of society is much more heavily dependent on how other people see them.
This is all summed up by the image of the novel’s second mermaid, captured somewhere in the North Sea by a heavily bribed captain after Hancock’s marriage to Angelica. Kept underground in a dark grotto, far from her native waters, the mermaid emanates a creeping depression that infects the entire household: a metaphor for the damage inflicted on women, people of colour and the natural world by the rampant forces of mercantile exploitation. (Content note for miscarriage.) It’s only when Angelica finally takes back control of her life, literally and metaphorically setting the exploited free, that she can take her rightful position in society – as a fabulous style-setter and thrower of parties. Significantly, the Twelfth Night-style revel that ends the novel sees upper classes mixing with sailors, a symbolic breakdown of social boundaries hinting at the possibility of a more equal future.
It’s interesting to consider the historical background to all this: though of course The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is a modern text, novelists choose their settings for reasons which are generally better developed than “because the Georgian period is cool”. The Georgian period saw the rise of imperial mercantilism on a grand scale: this was a time when much of the world was quite literally for sale. That’s a key dynamic underlying Gowar’s discussion of objectification and exploitation – and of course it’s highlighted by Hancock’s own business (more on that in a moment). This is also a period of mass urbanisation, which brings out certain anxieties in the literature of the time: the city’s lower classes are either conspicuously absent, as in Jane Austen’s novels, or portrayed as venal moneygrabbers, as in Alexander Pope’s satirical Dunciad. With The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, I think Gowar is attempting something similar to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: rewriting our understanding of a historical period to address and bring to light the invisible inequalities that inform our present-day situation. In other words, she’s highlighting that the Georgian period is a key historical point in the development of modern capitalism, and the oppression and exploitation that comes with it.
It does have some capital-P Problems which undermine this work. Chief among these is the fact that Hancock’s wealth must have come from slavery, somewhere along the line, just because of how the economics of the time worked. It’s this wealth that enables Angelica’s freedom and flowering at the end of the novel; which means that the novel is essentially about white middle-class women fulfilling their potential at the expense of everyone else. I also find Hancock’s Nice Guy tendencies a little…uncomfortable; he hangs around Angelica pre-bankruptcy despite knowing he has no chance with her, and then is conveniently in exactly the right position to take advantage of her desperation. This does not seem a great foundation for a lasting relationship – and the fact remains that she is forced into domesticity and marriage despite her resistance to the institution; it’s not really a free choice for her, given her situation at the time.
These are Problems, and I don’t want to downplay them. But I also found Angelica and Hancock so winningly sympathetic as characters that I couldn’t help but root for them, and hope they found happiness together. It’s an imperfect but cosy book, a novel for long rainy Sundays with a blanket and a cup of tea, thoughtful and melancholy and full of the sights and smells of Georgian London.