Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill mixes Shakespearean plot twists with an adventurous tale of Manhattan in the eighteenth century, thirty years before the American Revolution. Richard Smith, an Englishman who mysteriously arrives on a ship from London, immediately goes to the New York City colony counting-house on Golden Hill Street, and demands cash for a thousand pound note – the equivalent of a cashier’s check for almost two hundred thousand dollars today. Smith offers no explanation about the purpose of his visit or his identity, and seems determined to keep the local merchants wondering if they should trust him. Smith’s mishaps and attempts at love at first seem to follow the plot of a Shakespearean comedy, but Spufford has more at stake in using disguises and insidious politics than Shakespeare’s comedic rivalry.
As Richard Smith nonchalantly continues to refuse how he will distribute the funds once he has them in hand, his cool demeanor arouses suspicions – is he a spy from the King? a wealthy man’s son sent to prepare for a royal visit? a confabulator? prestidigitator? actor? The counting house master responsible for distributing the funds to him would prefer him proven unworthy and a scam artist, so he could refuse giving him the money.
In the sixty days before Christmas, when the note is due, Smith manages to be robbed, fall in love, go to debtor’s prison, and be tried in court for murder. Nevertheless, his secret remains until the last pages. The narrator pauses the action intermittently to address the reader, using short soliloquies to provide an insider’s view – one who already knows the outcome and the characters’ motivations. The identity of the narrator is also surprisingly revealed at the end of the story.
Because Spufford uses the formal language and sentence structure of colonial America for his characters and for the narration, the rhythm of the book seems strange at first. I had to slow down, even rereading from the beginning when I found myself lost; however, once I had identified Richard Smith as a sympathetic scoundrel, I was anxious to discover what would happen to him next. Nothing seems to deter him as he cleverly manages to dine on credit after his money purse is stolen, or escape a bloodthirsty mob at the Guy Fawkes bonfire. At times, the action is fast and hilarious, then slowing into the lull before the next storm of catastrophes.
With a reference to Shakespeare’s dueling lovers in Much Ado About Nothing, the narrator compares their combative relationship to that of Richard Smith and the counting house master’s daughter, Tabitha, who resembles Shakespeare’s shrew Katherine more than the witty Beatrice. Spufford takes the relationship back and forth, having the characters verbally sparring with well-matched minds and creating sexual tension with the hope of an alliance.
When Smith’s true identity is revealed, with a flourish in the final scene that includes an episode worthy of a Hollywood extravaganza, the story has new purpose. All of Smith’s witty banter and swashbuckling behavior comes together in a sobering and worthwhile delivery. With a clever plot and an endearing hero, Spufford delivers an historical tale worth reading, forcing the reader to transport to that earlier time, immersed in the old world and its rich language – with a final tribute to those determined to change the status quo.