Now, a book about a mermaid might sound a bit ridiculous, but suspend belief and dive into the sumptuous, sexy and exuberant historical novel The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar and enjoy! Despite its 486 pages and tome-like appearance, I raced through this light, entertaining read and loved every second of it.
The late 16th century must have been a fun time to live (for the wealthy, needless to say…). A time of new worlds being discovered and exotic things brought back; a time of curiosities. Please bring me back ‘…an elephant to ride about on. A manticore, a centicore, a gryphon’ begs Angelica, the protagonist of this story. Angelica, one of the most stunning courtesans in all of London, has just lost her paymaster, a duke, and is back on the market. But should she go back to the stables of the ‘procuress’ Mrs Chappell or should she branch out on her own?
Enter Mr Hancock, a dull widowed merchant from unglamorous Deptford but with a very special treasure, a real mermaid. The very symbol of unrestrained female sexuality and seduction. All of London is enthralled and no one more so than Mrs Chappell who spots a unique entertainment opportunity for her discerning clientele of upper-class gentlemen. What follows is an electrifyingly sensual description of performance-cum-orgy which I’ve never quite read the likes of.
As you might have guessed, Angelica and Mr Hancock’s paths cross and life changes for both of them. It is after all, ‘the age of unlikely ascents.’
It’s obvious that Gowar has relished in writing this book with its sumptuous, imaginative depiction of people and places. Who can resist this description of Mrs Chappell, for example?
She is fastidiously turned out in green silk, which flashes with cold fire, and she wheezes with every breath so that the fabric strains over her tight-packed bosom. She has a great powdered thatch of a wig and no neck at all to speak of, although a large jewelled cross gleams in the crease of flesh where one might once have been. She extends a hand, encased in green knitted mittens, from which her fingers emerge strangely delicate, as the paws of a little rodent; pink and plumply tapered. It is possible that she might once have been beautiful.
Gowar has said she found inspiration for the book working as a guard at the British Museum, staring at cabinets of unusual treasures. An incredible amount of research must have gone in too; the food, the clothes, the interiors as well as the perfectly pitched tone of her writing will bring you straight back to Georgian London.
And while it’s first and foremost an entertaining, frolicking read, there are serious themes lurking underneath its frivolous surface. The position of women at the time, for example. For prostitution and marriage, Angelica wonders, ‘ain’t it all to the same end?’
The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar is published by Vintage, 496 pages.