The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock

By Imogen Hermes Gowar

The Short Take:

While mermaids loom large in this historical fiction, it’s Gowar’s portrayal of the inequalities and restraints in 18th center London that forms the backbone of this fascinating novel. Her female characters use every means at their disposal to survive in a society which gives them few options.

Why?

Even though I heard this debut novel had a satisfying ending, I didn’t believe it until it happened. I truly worried about the main characters, despite the fact they only exist between the book’s covers. That’s a tribute to Gowan’s ability to make individuals totally outside your ken so keenly alive.

Her writing style delights, too. Conversations become games of conquest with multiple layers of meaning and partially hidden put downs, reminiscent of the verbal sparring in Austen’s books. The author also incorporates common terms for the era, which added to the realism: a madam became a bawd, a courtesan’s vagina became her commodity.

The book highlights the plight of urban women. If you can’t marry, there’s not much else open to you. Again and again the reader encounters women on the street, competing for men’s attention and a few pennies. While the prostitutes in the finer brothels are well mannered and elegant, they’re still whores with few prospects.

The central character, Angelica Neal, left one of those brothels to become a kept mistress. Unfortunately her protector died, which leaves her scrambling for financial security. Though a well-known beauty, her past narrows her future opportunities. However, as a friend observes, marriage for money still make you a whore.

That is the challenge Gowar’s women face.

Meanwhile, her main male character, Mr. Hancock, leads a life of boring respectability and soul-crushing blandness. He has financial well being but intense loneliness and a feeling that barely out of reach is the life he should be leading, where the son who died at childbirth still thrives.

These two should never meet, but a mermaid brings them together. Another starts to tear them apart.

A Little Plot:

Through no desire of his own, widower merchant Mr. Hancock comes into possession of a dead mermaid that appears to be genuine. He displays it with rewarding financial returns, which also attracts the attention of a notorious madam who wishes to rent it for a lavish spectacle. It’s here he becomes enamored with the beautiful, self-centered Angelica Neal.

For more about the author and her novel, click here.

 

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