What a tale! Most definitely a grown up story and all the better for it.
While reading it, I was reminded of Georgette Heyer’s Regency London, but one which shows more of the shaved, itching head under the powdered wig.
Set in London and its environs from 1785, it’s a tale of mermaids and courtesans, fortune and poverty, love and lust.
Jonah Hancock is a shipping merchant; staid, widowed, slightly shabby but just about managing; a middling, average, unremarkable man. He’s plodding his way through life following the death of his wife and infant son, living in the same house he was born in with his young niece, Sukie. Everything is transformed when his ship’s captain brings back a mermaid. Wizened and hideous, it’s not the beauty everyone expects, but it’s still a mysterious bewitching creature. Oh, and it’s dead.
As well as a mermaid, Jonah meets Angelica Neal – one of the most notorious courtesans of the Ton. She posed for Reynolds, entertained the most eligible men, and knew exactly how to please her admirers. But she has been abandoned by her latest lover, left only with her companion, Eliza Frost.
Their paths cross and become entwined to the surprise of Angelica’s erstwhile madam, the ironically named Mrs Chappell. (As an aside, I noticed that all the women in Mrs Chappell’s ‘nunnery’ are referred to as ‘Mrs’; perhaps an honorary title, similar to that of a housekeeper in later decades, but with added services – less housework more ‘whore-work’?! Just a thought…)
Another mermaid is found, and the story becomes a little fantastical. I didn’t mind this element of mystical whimsy as I’d become as invested in the story of Jonah and Angelica as they had with each other; as entangled as a woman’s ribbons might become in her stays if removed too hastily in the heat of passion.
This is an immersive read. At times, it reminded me of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall in the amount of detail provided for the minutiae of daily life in a long-ago age. The reader can see, taste, hear, smell and feel all the fabrics, interiors, cobbled streets, docklands, whore houses, coffee houses of the London of 1780s. The authors experience working in museums evidently put to good use as she vividly evokes daily life via the things needed to live in a Regency city.
It should be pointed out that there is an eye-raising scene in ‘the nunnery’ as a lavish, sensual show is performed by ‘sailors and mermaids’ for the obvious delight and titillation of society’s gentlemen. It’s not for the faint-hearted but it’s pivotal to the plot and perfectly encapsulates the excess and licentiousness of the age in that part of society.
It struck me while I was reading, that all the characters are questing to improve their lot in life, perhaps by fortune, discovery, a suitable match, or gainful employment. Everyone wants to be elsewhere. The presence of the second mermaid – a much more ethereal creature – unsettles the balance. Rather than looking upwards and outwards, those who encounter her start to look inwards and downwards, sinking into miasma. Perhaps the mermaid’s former freedom in the ocean and fluidity of her movements reminds us of our restrictive, gravitised lives in human society.
It also explores women in captivity, in its loosest sense. This novel is full of women but they’re all constrained: in their position in society, in their clothes, in what they can say. The uncaught mermaid is free; perhaps that’s an element of her attraction.
I loved the frequent and delightful use of contemporary expressions and terminology. I neglected to make a note as I went along, but those that stick in my memory are the insistence by one of the madams on the use of ‘cundums’ and a most memorable scene involving the use and emptying of a ‘bordalone’ (to all intents and purposes a Regency ‘she-wee’!).
This is truly sumptuous writing; a sensual delight created by mere words on a page. It’s a truly immersive read and comes highly recommended. Dive in!
ISBN 9781911215721 (hardback, February 2018)