In her essay “Modern Fiction,” Virginia Woolf compares past masters of literature with present practitioners: “With their simple tools and primitive materials, it might be said, [Henry] Fielding did well and Jane Austen even better, but compare their opportunities with ours!”

“Golden Hill,” Francis Spufford’s magnificent debut novel, is a dexterous blend of both old and new “opportunities.” Its 18th-century setting and protagonist’s picaresque exploits bring to mind the lavish yet elemental fiction of Fielding and Tobias Smollett. But like Hilary Mantel’s historical novels, Spufford’s period drama is also imbued with modern sensibilities — polished prose, well-paced storytelling, unabashed intimacy and ingenious twists and turns. The combination works wonders.

Spufford’s hero is a young man on a mysterious mission. After a six-week voyage from London, Richard Smith arrives in New York in November 1746. He carries with him an order for a thousand pounds, a colossal sum to be paid by a trader named Lovell. Smith tells Lovell his business is “the confidential kind” and tries to keep a low profile as “the mercurial, the unreckonable stranger” in a provincial outpost of only 7,000 people.

But it isn’t long before Smith becomes the talk of the town. He is robbed, beaten up and left without funds. He makes friends in high places, finding a particularly strong ally in Septimus Oakeshott, Secretary to the Governor, and a potential love interest in Tabitha, Lovell’s sharp-tongued and fiercely independent daughter. He is caught in flagrante in an act of “spectacular debauchery” and branded a rogue and a rake. After further wrong moves, he winds up in jail — or “gaol” — with his reputation in tatters.

Instead of a grand plot, Spufford serves up a series of well furnished, finely realized scenes in which Smith either makes his mark or burns his bridges: a Manhattan party attended by grandees of “the colony”; a staged play; a chase through streets, inside buildings and across rooftops; a boat trip on the Hudson; a duel that culminates in tragedy; a trial that could end with the gallows. Some episodes are loosely connected; all are brilliant set pieces, rich in authentic detail, energized by crackling dialogue, and flushed with lyrical grace.

“Golden Hill” is a stunning evocation of a town before it boomed into a metropolis. Everyone knows everyone: “When the winter takes hold,” Septimus explains, “we all huddle in each other’s pockets.” The novel is also a taut and elaborate guessing game. Just who is Smith? A genuine article or a “travelling mountebank”? Spufford makes us wait until the end before disclosing his character’s real identity and the true nature of his visit — and then hits us again with a last surprise in his final chapter.

Spufford, an English author of five acclaimed books of nonfiction, has described his first fiction writing experience as “intoxicating.” His results are also intoxicating — so much so that we should hope this venture is no one-off side project but the start of a new chapter.


Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Golden Hill
By: Francis Spufford.
Publisher: Scribner, 336 pages, $26.