With bawdy courtesans and ephemeral mermaids, Imogene Hermes Gowar’s debut novel – The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock – draws the reader into life in late eighteenth century London. Although the story begins so slowly, taking its time to create the setting with a lonely widower merchant whose life begs for relief from his mundane existence, the pace picks up eventually, with rewarding insights and a rollicking plot.
When Mr. Hancock’s ship is traded for a mermaid, the narrative slogs along as he becomes prosperous exhibiting his fossilized find at a local bar, but when Bet Chappell, one of London’s well connected madams, hires his wizened little mermaid to draw customers to her upscale brothel, the honest merchant connects with one of her prize courtesans, Angelica Neal, and his life is never the same.
The chapters initially alternate between Angelica’s riotous life in prostitution and Jonah Hancock’s more subdued merchant arrangements. Angelica has failed at her freelance attempts of selling herself and her debt threatens to force her to return to Bet’s “nunnery,” when the kind hearted Hancock pays off her debts and marries her. Their marriage is the chance for him to find happiness and for her to be secure. Angelica jokingly asks Hancock to produce another mermaid just for her when the first is destroyed, and he takes her request seriously, requisitioning another ship to the Hebrides to find a new specimen.
As Hancock continues to invest, his fortune grows. He speculates in successful real estate and buys an estate for Angelica in Greenwich. Suddenly, the captain returns with his cargo – a live mermaid, a phosphorescent sea creature who periodically chimes in with italicized murmers between chapters. Both Anglelica and the mermaid are fish out of water; both having difficulty acclimating to their new environment – Angelica in her respectable mansion and the mermaid hidden in the grotto at the edge of the estate. The captive mermaid seems to have a a mysterious effect on anyone who wanders close to her, producing a threatening and heavy sadness.
Gowars uses a cast of women to make her case for their surviving in the man’s world of the 1750s: crafty Mrs Chappell; persistent Angelica; former prostitute Bel Fortescue; mean-spirited Mrs Frost, and Mr Hancock’s teenage niece Sukie, who is sent to live with her uncle. Together, they keep the story moving to a satisfying ending. And the mermaid? Perhaps she didn’t really exist but she has powerful impact.