In which your Blogger sets forth his Views on a most admirable Book
Francis Spufford, Faber, June 2016
World history can count a number of archetypal cities, each inheriting the mantle from the former: Babylon, Rome, Constantinople, Paris, London. Since the early 20th century the title has gone to New York, with a skyline so symbolic that it was targeted in the attacks of September 11th 2001. It is difficult to imagine New York City any other way, as if its skyscrapers have stood like monuments since the dawn of time.
New York in the 1740s, when Francis Spufford’s marvellous novel Golden Hill is set, was a very different place: venture up the “Broad Way” only a few hundred yards, and the traveller is in the countryside, more likely to see sheep than showmen. Its population of 7,000 was a hundred times smaller than London’s. But although the 18th century saw the birth of a distinctive, American identity, it was also a time of growing global interconnectedness. The mayor of New York, sitting in his office 3,000 miles away from London, could quite reasonably describe himself as British.
It is easy to forget sometimes that the 1700s ever happened. Not so for the French or Americans, I’m sure, whose defining national moments took place towards the end of that century. But the English have a collective memory—chronicled in the many historical novels they devour—which ends after the Great Fire of London and restarts around the battle of Trafalgar. If we really, really concentrate we remember something about the American Revolution, ridiculous wigs and Dick Turpin. It is not a period that seems to occupy an important role in our national consciousness.
And yet the 18th century witnessed the birth of the industrial revolution, the absurd anthem Rule, Britannia! and, of course, the flourishing of that dangerous art form – the novel. I must admit that my knowledge of the period is founded principally on Blackadder the Third. The comedy adopts a somewhat liberal approach to historical fidelity: supposedly set in the regency of Prince George (later George IV), its earliest historical events take place in 1755, some seven years before the prince was born, with the publication of Johnson’s Dictionary. By dispensing with the usual constraints of chronology, Messrs Curtis and Elton take the viewer on a tour of some of the most important cultural landmarks of the period: the politics, the duelling and the rumblings* of class unrest that would lead to revolution in France but fizzle out in Britain. Blackadder the Third is essentially a picaresque (a very 18th-century genre), pitting its antihero against the peculiar trials of his day.
Golden Hill too takes the picaresque as its starting point, but it travels so much further and in such an enjoyable way. The story begins in 1746 when Mr Smith, a Man of Mysterious Origins arrives in New York bearing a bill for a thousand pounds, which he draws on the bank of Mr Lovell. It is immediately clear that such a sum is unthinkably large in the New York of the time: Lovell even struggles to change Smith’s four gold guineas – he must dig around for smaller coins and notes issued by various States. But after some distrustful remarks, Lovell agrees to honour the bill after 60 days, and thus our game is set.
Having resisted the trend for doorstopper historical novels, Spufford has been able to craft a tightly-controlled plot: the picaresque nature of the novel could have meant that we simply rambled round colonial-era New York until a poorly-contrived Deus Ex Machina arrived to resolve things. The novel does in fact include a number of distinct “episodes”, including a night-time chase, a scene in prison and a duel. Spufford never lets the plot fall into self-indulgence, however: the 60-day deadline, set up in the novel’s first pages, keeps the plot moving towards a definite, albeit unforeseen, conclusion.
And boy, does Spufford get us there in style. This is how he describes the first snow of the winter of 1746: first, “[o]utside the fine flakes fell in patient multitudes”; later, the “weight of tinkling, lumpish obstruction”; and then, “[t]he snow – this time falling in fat, tumbling clots, as if the stuffing of furniture were being tossed over the balconies of heaven – only laid a soft, thick dressing atop the ice, smothering the prospect in indistinguishable white on white”. Spufford takes an old-fashioned delight in the English language and communicates it with Nabokovian flair.
It is always possible for a historical novel to be too clever for its own good. Cheeky little lines like, “You’d better watch yourself, young Master Hitler, or you’ll get wind up in trouble one day,” might cause a titter, but they test the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. And no one wants to read ten pages of detailed exposition** just to confirm that the author has done his or her research. Fortunately, Golden Hill is exactly clever enough for its own good – it quite clearly nods towards the works of Richardson, Sterne and their contemporaries, but it does this without feeling purely imitative. It is a very difficult thing to make a novel feel true to the period whilst leaving the door open for the reader to enter into the characters’ minds. Hilary Mantel achieves this in her Cromwell novels, and Spufford too succeeds: Mr Smith may be constructed from the raw materials of his day—language, mannerisms, attitudes—but he could otherwise be talking with us, over a pot of coffee and a hot bun, in 2016.
The gossiping, politicking high society has trouble taking Mr Smith at his word; this is perhaps not helped by our protagonist’s skill with language – skill which must, his detractors reason, be concealing something. Like many the novelistic hero, Smith relies on his wits, at least until his money arrives: they are his protection against this strange new world. It must be remembered that Britain and its colonies had only recently emerged from a time when differences of opinion could result in burnings, beheadings and rebellions.
While violence does play its part in the plot, battles are fought for the most part with words. Lovell’s daughter Tabitha proves Smith’s ablest opponent. Although she teeters at the borders of “Manic Dream Pixie Girl” territory, her sparrings with Smith give the novel a believable and tragicomic love story. It is hard to reconcile the nimble-tongued Smith, cloaked in a faint aura of deception, with the image of the supplicant lover. As in all good stories, this note of discord lends their romance a depth which is essential in a short novel.
Francis Spufford has written a carefully plotted, exquisitely styled, hilarious, beautiful novel. Golden Hill is grounded in the 18th century without feeling like a pastiche; it is a mystery which does not let suspense dominate – it allows its subplots to breathe and as a result they feel natural, not tacked on. It is nothing short of perfect. For any writer, this would be a tremendous achievement; for a debut novelist it is frankly astonishing. One can only hope that Francis Spufford’s first novel is not his last.
*Although these might have something to do with the sausages.
**We get it, Mr Melville – you like whales.