She sits at her dressing table as cool and fragrant as a rosewater custard, picking at a bowl of hothouse fruit while her friend — Mrs Eliza Frost — tweaks the last scorched curl-paper from her hair. …. On the floor the crushed triangles of curl-paper are dense with Wesleyan homily, snipped as they are from pious tracts passed out daily to the whores of Dean Street. The Mermaid And Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock immerses you in Georgian England in all its elegance and squalor, enlightenment and inequality, as we follow the trajectories of merchant Jonah Hancock and courtesan Angelica Neal. Angelica is entertaining company, sometimes vapid but usually spirited.
Some aspects of the novel could have been stronger. We lose sight of another courtesan, Polly, and a subplot about how she is doubly imprisoned by gender and racism. The novel’s structure and title telegraphs one of the turning points early on. As for the book’s true mermaid, it remains incorporeal, halfway between flesh and a supernatural metaphor for the way men project fantasies onto women and try to own them. These seem like minor points, however, when this debut novel deftly juggles realism, bawdiness and touches of magic realism.
I was so immersed in the story that I began, uncharacteristically, to look forward to my train trip to and from work, as it meant I could resume reading. The Georgian setting felt authentic, while the story is still, sadly, relevant now.
Imogen Hermes Gowar is a historical novelist to watch.