As “The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock” opens, it is September 1785. Long widowed, melancholic merchant Jonah Hancock is awaiting news of his ship, gone 18 months. Is it lost? Is he ruined? As his anxiety grows, “a wave humps its back and turns over with a sigh, and sends its salted whispering to Mr. Hancock’s ear.”

“This voyage is special,” the wave whispers to his heart. “It will change everything.”

And indeed it does when the ship’s captain returns to reveal he has sold not only the cargo but the ship itself to purchase Mr. Hancock a “genuine mermaid” — a desiccated, horrid creature with monkey head and fish tail — with which to make his fortune. “Only a fool could lose money on a mermaid,” Capt. Jones confidently asserts.

While Mr. Hancock comes to terms with owning a mermaid, the beautiful Angelica Neal, a “haughty whore of the first water,” prepares to launch herself into society independent of Mrs. Elizabeth Chappell’s “celebrated Temple of Venus,” where she had previously been a favorite. For the past three years, Angelica was the mistress of a duke — “kept, in a dull little parlour” — but when the duke died, he left her nothing except freedom. Now, she vows, everything will change. “What fun I shall have, indebted to nobody.”

But of course nobody is indebted to nobody, particularly in the mercantile milieu of Georgian London. When he first meets Angelica (assigned to keep him happy while the mermaid is displayed at a lavish party in Mrs. Chappell’s “nunnery”), Hancock flees in revulsion brought on by class consciousness and middle-class morality. After his mermaid makes his fortune, he feels empowered to make a bid for Angelica’s affections, or at least buy her company: “I’m a rich man. I have a right to rare things.”

Author Imogen Hermes Gowar displays an unflinching eye for the economic calculations permeating a culture in which everything from human flesh to mermaids is monetized.

It’s hard to believe that this brilliant and sure-footed work is a debut novel. Gowar’s feel for the spirit of the period is spot on — unsurprising, given her background in archaeology, anthropology, art history and museum work. (Hancock’s mermaid was inspired by the “mermaid” displayed in the British Museum.) Gowar swims like a mermaid through the docks, slums and brothels of Georgian London with an unsentimental acknowledgment of the harsh entrapments occasioned by gender, class and race; her prose sparkles with sly wit, inviting inevitable comparisons to Jane Austen.

“The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock” is a superb historical novel, but there’s more. Interspersed with the realism is a series of lyrical passages in the Mermaid’s voice — yes, there’s a second mermaid, and, yes, she’s alive and real — that deepen the novel’s examinations of power and captivity, sexuality, freedom and independence. This is a long novel, clocking in near 500 pages, so it builds leisurely, in the best 18th-century tradition. But it richly rewards any reader willing to enter its world. Frankly, I was sorry to see it end.

 

Patricia Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock
By: Imogen Hermes Gowar.
Publisher: Harper, 487 pages, $28.99.