The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock opens in 1785 with merchant Jonah Hancock sitting in his London counting house waiting for his ship to return. Imagine his horror when his captain arrives at the door and confesses that he has sold the ship in exchange for a mermaid. The captain assures him that people will come from all over the world to see the mermaid and that it will make him a fortune, but Mr Hancock is not at all convinced…

Angelica Neal has been living in comfort as the mistress of a rich duke. When the duke dies, leaving her with nothing, Angelica needs to find another way to support herself. The obvious solution is to return to her former employment in Mrs Chappell’s brothel, but Angelica is more ambitious these days and decides to make her own way in the world instead. Her path crosses with Mr Hancock’s when his mermaid is exhibited at a party she is attending and an unlikely friendship begins to form between these two very different people.

The first thing to say about The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is that although mermaids and the legends surrounding them are symbolically important to the story, the part they play in the novel is relatively small. This could be a good or a bad thing depending on how you feel about magical realism, but be aware that the mermaid element of the story might not be what you are expecting. Their role is similar, in some ways, to the role of the serpent in Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, one of several books to which this one has been compared.

As for the humans, I thought Angelica and Mr Hancock were both interesting, well drawn characters. Whenever the ambitious, strong-willed Angelica appeared on the page I was reminded of Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair and Sugar from The Crimson Petal and the White. It took me a while to warm to her and I still can’t say whether I actually liked her, but I did have some sympathy for her and, by the end, some admiration as well. Jonah Hancock is a very different type of character – a quiet, humble, middle-aged widower who is haunted by memories of his wife and son. Since their deaths, he has allowed his sister Hester and niece Sukie to take charge of his life, but his relationship with Angelica introduces another dynamic into the household.

There’s a colourful cast of secondary characters too, particularly the girls from the ‘nunnery’ as they ironically call it, and their grotesque ‘abbess’, Mrs Chappell, but I found that I was less interested in finding out what would happen to these characters than I was in reading about Mr Hancock and Angelica. One of them, Polly – a prostitute from a mixed race background who finds herself, like the mermaid, viewed as a sort of curiosity by the men who visit the brothel – had a lot of potential but her storyline was not really developed until late in the book.

The novel’s setting (Georgian England) is one I usually like and I was quite impressed by the author’s attention to detail and her attempts to recreate an 18th century world. The language and dialogue generally feels suited to the period, although I think Francis Spufford’s wonderful Golden Hill does this more effectively. Actually, it’s difficult to read this book without drawing comparisons with Golden Hill and if you enjoy one of them I think there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy the other!

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock will be published in the UK on Thursday and although I didn’t love it as unreservedly as I’d hoped, I predict it will be a big success for Imogen Hermes Gowar.

Thanks to Vintage for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore’s Exposure was one of my favourite books of 2016, so when I saw that she had a new one coming out last year, I knew I wanted to read it. The early reviews seemed to be very mixed, though, so I didn’t rush to get hold of a copy and it wasn’t until the days between Christmas and New Year that I finally got round to reading it.

I mustn’t have read those reviews very closely because I had the impression that this was a book about the French Revolution – but that’s not really true. The story is set in England and although events taking place across the Channel do have an effect on the lives of our characters, all of this is happening at a distance and is not the focus of the novel. The main theme of Birdcage Walk, according to Helen Dunmore herself and hinted at in the opening chapters, is the temporary nature of human life and the way so many of us leave behind very little evidence of our existence when we die. Dunmore states in her Afterword that she wanted to show that everyone has shaped the future in some way, by influencing those around them, even if they then disappear without trace. This is particularly poignant when you consider that while she was writing this novel she was already seriously ill with the cancer that would soon take her life.

But back to the plot of Birdcage Walk. The main part of the story is set in Bristol in 1792. Lizzie Fawkes’ husband, John Diner Tredevant (known simply as Diner) is a property developer who has started to build a terrace of houses with magnificent views of the Avon Gorge. With war against France on the horizon, however, this is a bad time to be trying to sell houses. Lizzie can see that her husband is troubled but is he just worried about the failure of his building project or is there something else on his mind?

Dunmore’s portrayal of Diner is excellent; he is a jealous, possessive and controlling husband who resents Lizzie having relationships with any other friends or family members apart from himself – but it is clear that something terrible has happened in his past, leaving him unhappy and disturbed. We find out very early in the novel what that something probably is, which takes away part of the suspense, but I think there is still plenty of tension in waiting to see when and how Lizzie will learn the truth.

The characterisation in general is very good; I found Lizzie’s mother, the writer Julia Fawkes and her husband Augustus particularly interesting to read about. Julia’s role in the story is brief, but she is one of the characters Dunmore uses to illustrate her point about a person’s influence living on after their words have faded away. Augustus, with his strong political views but lack of insight when it comes to the everyday things going on around him, also feels believable and real.

As I’ve said, the French Revolution is played out in the background with news reaching our characters mainly in the form of letters and newspaper reports. This means we don’t have the excitement of being thrown directly into the events of the Revolution, but it is still interesting to see things from the perspective of people who were less directly involved. Most of the novel, though, is concerned with more domestic issues: Lizzie’s personal relationship with Diner and her efforts to care for her baby brother Thomas despite Diner’s opposition.

I didn’t like Birdcage Walk quite as much as Exposure, but I still found it atmospheric and beautifully written. It’s so sad that there won’t be any more books from Helen Dunmore, but as I have only read three of them so far (The Lie is the other) I can still look forward to reading her others.

A Desperate Fortune by Susanna Kearsley

It’s been a few years since I last read a Susanna Kearsley book and as I still have two or three left to read I decided to include her most recent, A Desperate Fortune, on my 20 Books of Summer list. There are some connections between this book and her previous one, The Firebird, but they both stand alone and it’s not necessary to read them in order.

Like many of Kearsley’s novels, A Desperate Fortune is set in two different time periods. First, in the modern day, we meet Sara Thomas, a young woman with a special talent for solving mathematical puzzles and breaking codes. Sara also has Asperger’s and relies on the friendship and support of her cousin Jacqui. Jacqui works in the publishing business and when one of her authors, the historian Alistair Scott, asks for help in deciphering a journal written in code, it is Sara who gets the job.

The other thread of the novel takes place in 1732 and follows the story of the diary-writer, twenty-one-year-old Mary Dundas, who is half French and half Scottish. Mary’s family are Jacobites – supporters of the exiled James Stuart, who they believe is the rightful King James VIII of Scotland and III of England. Setting off on a journey across France with her brother Nicolas one day, Mary has no idea what he has planned for her, and is shocked to find herself caught up in a plot to protect a fellow Jacobite who is on the run from the law. Her diary tells of the lengths she goes to, the disguises she adopts and the dangers she faces in trying to conceal her companion’s true identity.

These two storylines alternate throughout the book, so that we read several entries from Mary’s journal, followed by Sara’s experiences in decoding it. Both women are interesting characters – and there are a few parallels between the two – but I found Mary’s story much more gripping and couldn’t help thinking that it would have worked just as well on its own without Sara’s framing it. There’s a romance for each woman too, but again, it was Mary’s that I found most convincing; although I did like Sara’s love interest, it all seemed to happen too quickly and too conveniently.

It was interesting to revisit the subject of the Jacobites, who also feature in The Firebird – although the two books explore the topic from very different perspectives, with this one being set in France and the other in Russia. The author’s note at the end of the book is long and comprehensive, discussing some of the choices made in writing this novel and explaining which parts of the story are based on fact and which are fictional. I was surprised to see how many of the characters I’d assumed were purely imaginary were actually inspired by real people!

I did enjoy A Desperate Fortune, though not as much as most of the other Susanna Kearsley novels I’ve read. My favourites seem to be the ones with supernatural elements, such as The Firebird, The Rose Garden and Mariana. I always like Kearsley’s writing style, though – there’s something so comforting about it, so easy and effortless to read. It’s the same feeling that I get when I pick up a book by Mary Stewart. I’m looking forward now to reading my remaining two Kearsley novels, The Shadowy Horses and Sophia’s Secret (the UK title for The Winter Sea).

This is book 12/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge. (I’m aiming for 15 now, I think – anything over that will be a bonus!)

Soot by Andrew Martin

You know when you can tell as soon as you start reading that you’re going to enjoy a book? That’s how I felt about Soot, Andrew Martin’s new historical mystery set in 18th century York. The plot, the characters, the atmosphere, the writing style…I loved them all!

Let’s start with the plot, then. In August 1798, Matthew Harvey, a painter of silhouettes, is found dead – stabbed with his own scissors – in his house in Coney Street, York. Assuming that suicide can be ruled out, the only suspects are the six sitters who visited him during the previous week. The problem is, the page on which Harvey recorded their names has been torn out of his ledger, so that the only remaining clues are Harvey’s private duplicates of the silhouettes – or ‘shades’, as they are known.

Fletcher Rigge, a young gentleman who has found himself in financial difficulties, has spent three months in debtors’ prison in York Castle when he is approached by Captain Harvey, the silhouette-maker’s son. The Captain makes him an offer he can’t refuse: he will arrange Rigge’s release from prison, on the condition that Rigge can identify the people in the shades and help to track down the murderer. Rigge has previously used his detection skills to locate a missing book while working at Skelton’s Bookshop – this is what brought him to the Captain’s attention – but finding a killer could prove to be somewhat more difficult than finding a book…

As Rigge attempts to trace the people in the silhouettes, his search brings him into contact with a variety of colourful characters, including the clever and resourceful Maria Sampson, the temperamental young actor Jeremiah Smith – and my favourite, the London-based author Samuel Gowers, a proud, pompous man with an unfortunately large nose which lends itself to some comic scenes à la Cyrano de Bergerac. Rigge himself is another intriguing character, described at the beginning as having ‘a lowness of spirits, offset by a mordant wit and a prideful obstinacy’. Due to the structure of the book (more on that shortly) I was never quite sure exactly how reliable his narration was, but I did end up liking him and enjoyed accompanying him on his travels around York and beyond.

Georgian York provides a wonderfully atmospheric setting for the novel, particularly when covered in a blanket of snow (Rigge’s investigations take place in winter). From the slums of First Water Lane, home to Captain Harvey, to the Theatre Royal, the Black Swan coaching inn and the elegant townhouse belonging to one of the suspects, everything is vividly described. The language used in the book is appropriate for the 18th century too; I could tell the author had taken a lot of care to try to choose the right words and turns of phrase. This is particularly important because the book is presented as a collection of authentic documents gathered together by attorney-at-law Mr Erskine and sent to the Chief Magistrate of York.

Most of the novel is in the form of extracts taken from Fletcher Rigge’s own diary, but there are also diary entries written by Captain Harvey’s mistress Esther, newpaper reports, interviews with witnesses conducted by Erskine’s clerk, Mr Bright, and commentary from Erskine himself. Andrew Martin uses this structure very effectively to keep the reader guessing and wondering which accounts are reliable and which are not. The solution to the mystery is certainly not as black and white as Matthew Harvey’s shades!

Soot is a great book. At first Fletcher Rigge’s story reminded me of Thomas Hawkins’ in The Devil in the Marshalsea, but it quickly developed into something different and I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of it. Now I’m hoping for a sequel!

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

Song of the Sea Maid by Rebecca Mascull

Having had such a good experience with my first Rebecca Mascull book, The Wild Air, I knew I would have to read her previous two novels as well – and I was delighted to see Song of the Sea Maid on the shelf on a recent visit to the library. I hoped I would love it as much as The Wild Air…and I did. In fact, I thought this one was even better.

Song of the Sea Maid begins with a little girl living on the streets of London with only one aim in life: to do whatever it takes to survive from one day to the next. When her sole friend and companion, an older boy who may or may not be her brother, is taken by a press gang, she finds herself all alone. Caught attempting to commit a desperate act – stealing from a gentleman – she expects to be punished, but instead she is taken to an orphanage where she is given food, shelter and the name Dawnay Price.

Dawnay is an intelligent child with a natural curiosity for the world around her. As she grows older and teaches herself to read and write, her thirst for knowledge becomes apparent and she is chosen by a generous benefactor to receive a full education. It is not at all common at this time for a girl to be educated beyond the absolute basics, so Dawnay is determined to make the most of the opportunities she has been given. Eager for new experiences and the chance to use her skills, she travels to Portugal and the Berlengas islands where her studies of the flora and fauna lead her to come up with some very controversial theories. It seems the 18th century world is not quite ready for Dawnay and her ideas!

Song of the Sea Maid is a wonderful exploration of what it was like to be a woman trying to forge a career in science in a period when it was not considered normal or socially acceptable to do so. Dawnay has a lot of good luck which enables her to indulge her passion for study and travel, but she also faces many obstacles in both carrying out her work and in making her findings known, and by the end of the novel it becomes clear that she really is, as Rebecca Mascull states in her author’s note, just the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time. It made me wonder about all the other people – women in particular, but men as well – throughout history who may have had innovative ideas or developed advanced theories but were dismissed and silenced so that their names and their views have been entirely forgotten today.

I also enjoyed reading about the various places Dawnay visits on her travels; her time spent alone on the Berlengas Islands is particularly interesting – I think I would have felt too isolated and lonely, but Dawnay finds peace and harmony there, coming to think of the rocks and caves as her own. Still, she is unable to completely escape from world events; she is in Lisbon for the Great Earthquake of 1755 (which I have previously read about in Linda Holeman’s The Devil on Her Tongue) and in Minorca a year later when the island is captured by the French. The Seven Years’ War forms an important backdrop to the novel and from time to time Dawnay is brought into contact with the crew of a Royal Navy ship, initially during her voyage to Portugal. I found all the ship-based scenes surprisingly enjoyable – I think my recent forays into Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series have really helped me in this respect!

I haven’t mentioned yet that Dawnay also falls in love; I found it quite predictable – as soon as one particular character appeared in Dawnay’s life I knew that they were going to be the love interest – but it was still a beautifully written romance which developed slowly throughout the novel. There’s really nothing negative I can say about Song of the Sea Maid; even the use of first person present tense, which I often dislike, didn’t bother me – in fact, I barely noticed it because I found Dawnay’s voice so strong and real.

This is a lovely novel and now I really must read Rebecca Mascull’s first book, The Visitors!

The Empress of Hearts by E. Barrington

The Empress of Hearts was originally published in 1928 and was one of several historical novels written by E. Barrington (a pseudonym of Elizabeth Louisa Moresby, who also wrote under the name Lily Adams Beck).  It is described on the cover as “a romance of Marie Antoinette”, but I think that description is slightly misleading.  Marie Antoinette does appear in the novel as a major character, but the focus is really on the scandal known as The Affair of the Diamond Necklace which was thought to be a factor leading to the French Revolution.    
  
The story centres around a diamond necklace created by the Parisian jewellers Boehmer and Bassenge, commissioned by Louis XV of France in 1772 as a gift for his mistress, Madame du Barry.  However, by the time the necklace is ready to be sold to the King, Louis has died and du Barry has been sent away from court.  Boehmer and Bassenge hope the new Queen, Marie Antoinette, will wear it instead, but when her husband, Louis XVI, offers to buy it for her, she refuses, unwilling to appear extravagant and frivolous when the money could be better spent on other things.  Enter Jeanne de la Motte, an ambitious young woman who sees an opportunity to make herself rich and acquire the necklace for herself in the Queen’s name.  The ensuing scandal will damage Marie Antoinette’s reputation and discredit the French monarchy in the eyes of the public:        

Marie Antoinette rose from her chair and moved toward the inner room, holding herself together with an effort so tense that for the moment grace was dead and she moved with stiff, short steps like an old woman. At the door she turned: “Did I not tell you that there would be no need for poison? They will kill me with calumny.”

As you would expect with a book from the 1920s, the writing style is rather different from most modern historical fiction novels; it is more formal and more detailed but, unfortunately, it is also quite dry.  Although I had heard of the Diamond Necklace Affair before, I hadn’t read about it in any depth, so I found The Empress of Hearts an interesting read from that perspective, but as a work of fiction it is less effective – like the other novel I’ve read by Barrington, Glorious Apollo, it would probably have worked better as non-fiction.  We are given large amounts of factual information and as a result the plot moves very slowly and lacks the drama, excitement and tension that should have been present given the subject of the story. 

The characters are not the most vibrant and life-like either, although they had the potential to be fascinating, particularly Jeanne, as the villain of the novel, and Cardinal de Rohan, another prominent figure implicated in the plot.  I was intrigued by the role the Italian occultist Alessandro Cagliostro plays in the story – in reality, it seems that although he was arrested and questioned, it’s uncertain how much involvement he actually had in the Affair – but again, I think there were missed opportunities here.

I’m aware that Alexandre Dumas also wrote a novel about the Affair of the Diamond Necklace – The Queen’s Necklace.  As a fan of Dumas, I’m looking forward to reading it and seeing how he approaches the same subject.

To Sleep No More by Deryn Lake

I had never come across Deryn Lake’s books until recently, but it seems that she has written a large number of historical fiction novels, detective stories and romances, published from the 1980s to the present day. I decided to try To Sleep No More, a book which first appeared in 1987 under the name Dinah Lampitt and has now been reissued by Endeavour Press as a Deryn Lake novel. It’s an unusual book as it feels almost like three separate novels in one, but with some very important links between the three and all set in the same small community – the village of Mayfield in Sussex.

We begin in the 14th century with the story of Oriel de Sharndene, whose father marries her off to the innocent and childlike Colin, brother of Archbishop John de Stratford. As she tries to settle into married life at Maghefeld Palace, Oriel finds that although she is fond of her husband and captivated by his extraordinary musical abilities, their marriage is never going to be a very satisfying one. The man she truly loves is Marcus de Flaviel, a squire from Gascony who has recently arrived in England and has been appointed companion to Colin by the Archbishop. Colin likes Marcus almost as much as Oriel does, and for a while the three are quite happy. Eventually, though, Oriel’s relationship with the Gascon squire leads to tragedy and at that point the first part of the novel ends.

Moving forward to the year 1609, we find ourselves in the village of Mayfield (formerly Maghefeld) again – and with a new set of characters to get to know. This time we follow the story of Jenna Casselowe who decides to resort to magic to win the heart of the man she loves, Benjamin Mist. Jenna needs to be careful – if anyone finds out what she has been doing she risks being accused of witchcraft. Finally, there’s a third story set early in the 18th century, when the roads and beaches of Sussex are alive with illegal activity. Lieutenant Nicholas Grey arrives in Mayfield on the trail of highwayman Jacob Challice and a gang of smugglers – could another chain of events be about to be set in motion which will again have tragic consequences?

Three stories which all seem very different at first, but as you continue to read some of the parallels and connections start to emerge, although others are not clear until the end of the book. I don’t think it’s spoiling anything (as it’s clearly stated in the blurb) to say that reincarnation is involved and that characters we meet in one time period correspond with characters from another. It’s not always clear who is who as they don’t necessarily keep the same appearance, sex or position in society from one life to the other, but if you’re patient there are eventually enough clues to be able to fit the pieces together.

I have to admit, when I first started to read To Sleep No More I didn’t expect to be very impressed by it (maybe it was the cover of the new edition that gave me that impression) but I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. Although it took me a while to adjust to each new story – as I’ve said, it’s almost like reading three different novels in the same book – and a lot of concentration is needed to keep track of the characters and who they may have been in a previous life, it’s not quite as confusing as it all sounds!

Each section of the book has its own sense of time and place reflecting the different era and the changes in language, culture and attitudes over the centuries. It was obvious that the author had done a lot of research into the local history of the area and into each period in general, although I was not convinced by the work of a doctor who, towards the end of the novel, is carrying out experiments involving hypnosis and regression – his methods were surely too scientific for 1721. On the other hand, without that particular plot development it’s difficult to see how else the various threads of the story could have been pulled together.

Reading Deryn Lake’s author’s note at the end of the book, I was surprised to see how many of the secondary characters and events in the three stories were based on historical fact. For example, Alice Casselowe, Jenna’s aunt in the novel, really was accused of witchcraft and there really was a gang of smugglers operating in Mayfield in the 1720s. The author also incorporates the legend of St Dunstan (allegedly Mayfield’s founder) into the story, with several characters seeing ghostly visions of a monk working at a forge. The supernatural elements of the story are usually quite subtle, though, and are used sparingly to add to the eerie atmosphere of the novel.

Have you read any of Deryn Lake/Dinah Lampitt’s novels? What did you think?