Sunday, March 11, 2018

Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

"Golden Hill", the acclaimed novel by Francis Spufford (his debut fiction, but his fifth book) is a picaresque tale set in the small but established town that is the pre-revolutionary New York. Direct off the boat is Mr. Smith, who may be genuine or may be a conman, but comes with a thousand dollar bill - a fortune - that he wants to redeem. The first part of the novel concerns this stranger as he is introduced into American society. A puritan town, with the first wranglings of republican spirit, it also remains a town aware of its provincialism, and therefore able to be fooled or charmed by a newcomer from the old country. These tensions are brilliantly described at the same time as we have to take on faith that Mr. Smith is or isn't what he won't tell us that he is. There is a narrator - who is not our omniscient author, but a third party who interjects on occasion to despair a little at how well or not they are telling the tale - yet we are constantly shadowing Mr. Smith, so the withhelding of information about his true mission - even whether he is a fraud or not - is a frustrating trope at times.

Yet the New York he has landed in - still little more than a village - is as fascinating to us as it is to him. A mix of English and Dutch families, with also, far more noticeably than London, indentured black slaves, who are given a voice by Smith even when they would be mostly voiceless to their owners, the town is beginning its role as a centre of commerce. Sugar beet ships from the West Indies, and in return New York sends back corn and other food stuffs to feed the workforce there. It is still a very early form of economy. Mr. Smith soon finds that local merchants, inns and coffee houses are willing to extend credit (especially to one who is soon to be wealthy), and accept any kind of note or coinage. Though his bill appears a genuine one, the Lovells - who are to cash it - need corroboration for such a large amount, and a letter is sent back to London. In the mean time Mr. Smith dines out on his future wealth. The arcane complexities of 18th century commerce are touched on as lightly as possible, but so important are they to the plot, that it does feel a little too complex for its own good at times. Lovell lends Mr. Smith a sovereign which is almost immediately stolen from him - one of a number of somewhat clumsy deus ex machina that Spufford employs to move the tale on from one act to another. More of that in a bit. Lovell has two daughters, Flora and Tabitha. In the cloistered world of the American colonies, the lives of women, particularly those who are young and connected is a particularly circumscribed one. Tabitha, whom Mr. Smith falls for, is an enigma from the start. A highly intelligent young woman, she takes her pleasure where she can find it...first torturing her sister, and then Smtih, with her penchant for games, for playacting. This playfulness, which totters into cruelty at times, makes her an enigmatic heroine. With Mr. Smith such an unknown quantity, despite his charisma and good looks, her future is also kept on tenterhooks.

For Smith's secret is in two parts - the first part, about who he actually is, is shared half way through the novel, through a letter he writes back to London - but the second part, about what he is doing in America, has to wait until the very end. So its the reader as well as the other characters in the novel that are equally kept on tenterhooks as to who Mr. Smith is. Septimus Oakeshott, a flamboyant functionary working for the governor, takes a liking to Smith, believing himself a good judge of character - it turns out that he both is, and isn't - he is right to trust Smith, but Smith's own reticence means that the trust is betrayed in severe fashion. As the novel proceeds Spufford's method becomes clearer. This is not just an historical novel about the 18th century, it is - in some ways - a version of the 18th century novel. Not just the picaresque nature, or the series of grotesques he flings our way, but in the language he uses, the delight in arcane forms (e.g. the letter that Smith writes is written as it would have been, with painful syntax and florid descriptions and with many words capitalised.) The 18th century novel at its most baroque delighted in both teasing its reader, and performing a moral function. Few contemporary readers of Fielding's Tom Jones for instance, would avoid skipping the moralising, to go straight to the romp. Though Fielding and Richardson are richly evoked, its that naughtiest of 18th century writers, Sterne, who most comes to mind. Though Spufford is telling a story that has an end - the endless evasions and tricksiness of Tristam Shandy are models for much of Spufford's own tale.

I am not always and admirer of historical fiction. "Golden Hill" seems to fall in a tradition that I do admire - the sense of actually being there. We see it in Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall", but also I first encountered this kind of pastiche-playfulness in Rose Tremain's masterful "Restoration" - more recently novels like "Pure" or "The Sisters Brothers" have created a similar sense of time and place - with similar 18th century anti-heroes at their heart. Yet though I enjoyed the novel, and its been very well reviewed, I found it frustrating in parts. The withholding of information is something that tires after a while, and in some ways it strays too close to its 18th century forbears. Pages of description are interrupted by a particular flare up - a chase throughout the streets of New York on bonfire night; an unexpected boat trip with Tabitha. The bits that revel in pastiche become a little tiresome - in jail at some point, Smith keeps digressing in his letter home, to describe the annoyance of his foul smelling cellmate. Whether cribbing from Sterne or Fielding these different turns of pace are a bit disconcerting at times, and feel somewhat inert in parts. Like Adam Roberts' laboured 18th century steampunk novel "Swiftly", the action scenes feel like attempts to move things along, rather than being critical to the story. Here, the double complexity - of a narrator that is neither Smith or omniscient (leading to so much being of the telling being conjecture) - and of a character whose secrets (and therefore credibility) are constantly withheld - makes it one of those books that you feel determined to finish, to find out what's going on, but also a little tired at the effort involved in doing so.

That might just be a matter of taste, however, as one can't deny the overall colour and texture of this book - which though something of a bestseller - is not afraid to be as complex as is necessary in order to tell its tale. Saying any more would involve letting several cats out of the bag, and the novel depends on that sense of stories withheld. The ending, I'm pleased to say, does make it worth the wait, though there's quite a lot of freight along the way - the novel is more serious than it sometimes pretends to be - but like its 18th century precedents, is not afraid to be as fun as it needs to be on the way to its unravelling.

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