Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Reading group: Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

There's never a long discussion to report when we unanimously love a book - there's no disagreement and no criticism of the book itself - and this choice of Doug's was a prime example. Spufford is known to have wanted to write an 'eighteenth-century novel' set in New York, and we felt that in Golden Hill he has succeeded magnificently.

It opens in 1746 as Smith, a likeable and hapless young Englishman cast in the mould of the male protagonists of eighteenth-century picaresque novels, disembarks in New York, then a small town on the tip of Manhattan Island, and makes without delay for the house of a merchant, with an order for a thousand pounds that he wishes to cash. Needless to say, this causes a huge stir. Can he be trusted? And what does he intend to do with such a great sum (which in fact isn't that readily available as cash, causing the banker problems)? - a question that for most of the book both the inhabitants of the town and the reader are kept asking. In true eighteenth-century picaresque fashion, we follow his adventures as he is variously wooed by the inhabitants and punished for his lack of verification - at one point ending up, in a highly vivid episode, in jail - and becoming romantically entangled with the headstrong spinster daughter of the merchant.

The whole novel is entirely vivid, packed with the physical and social details of the town, colonised at the time by the Dutch and English. Spufford is a historian, and it is therefore no surprise that he should be armed with such knowledge, but what we found remarkable was the way that there is absolutely no sense of research - the novel simply lives and breathes the time and place in which it is set. We are never explicitly told, for instance, that smallpox took a while to be brought from Europe to the New World; instead we are shown the fact briefly but vividly through Smith's amazement, on first seeing the Lovell daughters, that their faces are completely unpocked. We felt delighted by such things. The novel is full of energy and extremely humane, touching and funny in its depiction of Smith and his antagonists, and we all agreed that we had found it great fun.

Someone, I think Clare, did say that she tired a little of the eighteenth-century locutions, but Doug and I thought that Spufford had created a remarkably successful hybrid register for his narrator, which is both drenched in eighteenth-century flavour yet reads with complete ease to modern eyes and ears.

But why, one might ask - and I did ask before I started reading - write a pastiche of an eighteenth-century novel? Spufford's agenda is in fact modern, and indeed political. It would give the game away to say in precisely what way, but suffice it to say that the injection of the issues of homosexuality and race into the template of the eighteenth-century novel makes for searing historical and literary comment. Following indeed in the mode of eighteenth-century novels, there is in fact explicit - and funny - comment on the novel form, other novelists of the eighteenth century and novelistic modes. At the commencement of a card game of piquet, the narrator says - tongue firmly in cheek and clearly mocking those contemporary writers who wear their research on their sleeves: 'Now, it will be most necessary for the reader, in comprehending what followed, to possess a thorough and secure understanding of the rules of piquet,' but in trying to provide it bursts out: 'Wait - wait - alas the explanation is bungled, but it cannot be recalled and started over again, for the game has begun.' Similarly, while relating the progress of a sword fight: 'But really, this is useless, and no more enables the reader to see the battle than if I shouted numbers at you; which, indeed, I appear to be doing. The truth is, I am obliged to copy these names for sword-fighting out of a book, having no direct experience to call upon. I throw myself upon the reader's mercy, or rather their sense of resignation.'

There is a final twist at the end of this book worthy of any contemporary postmodern novel (I won't give it away) which tickled us all. We could see holes in it, but we didn't mind; like the impossible way that Smith, writing to his father in prison, manages somehow - presumably with an inkwell and quill! - to take down a verbatim record of the raving speech of a fellow inmate even as it's happening - it felt like part of the joke that this whole book is - a joke, however, with a serious and deeply humane message.


Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here